Understanding Drug Dependence
The Adrenal Glands, Part Two; Cortisol, Hypoglycemia, Fatigue, Insomnia, Obesity and Hydration
Last week we discussed the adrenal glands, their purpose and some of the effects of adrenal problems. In this week’s newsletter, we are going to discuss cortisol, hypoglycemia, fatigue, insomnia, obesity and hydration. Again, for anyone wanting to understand a more about how adrenals work, we recommend the book Adrenal Fatigue, by Dr. James L. Wilson.
It is important to understand that the primary purpose of the adrenal glands, and the entire endocrine system, is to keep the body in a balanced condition. This is called homeostasis. Properly working, homeostasis is what the body maintains despite the constant daily demands as we live, work and play. If we are going to exercise, then hormones signal the body to mobilize all of its resources to provide the energy and focus needed.
In order to provide the energy needed, certain functions of the body, like digestion, are suspended or slowed so that the body will become focused on providing what is needed. Once the exercise is over, then hormones are released that seek to again obtain homeostasis—a resumption of the actions of the body that were suspended.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone (gluco=stimulates levels of glucose(blood sugar) and corticoid=secreted by the adrenal cortex) that is involved in many critical body functions. For most of us, the peak levels of cortisol in our body are reached between 6:00 AM and 8:00 AM, and then it gradually declines until about midnight (so we can get to sleep) and then starts gradually increasing through the night until 8:00 AM (so we can get our day started).
In moments of stress, cortisol plays an important role by activating processes to increase the amount of fat and sugar in the bloodstream which is used by the brain as fuel to help the body deal with the stress. After the stress, the body once again seeks to obtain homeostasis.
However, there is increasing evidence that for many of us, the stress reaction that triggers the release of cortisol is not just in response to a physical threat to our existence, but it can be also caused by events that continually occur in our daily lives. Instead of homeostasis being obtained by the body returning to its condition before the stress, the body is always seeking to react to stress and this can lead to uncomfortable and serious problems.
We will first discuss the positive things that cortisol hormones do in our body, and then we will look at the negative things that cortisol hormones can create if they are too high or too low.
NORMAL CORTISOL LEVELS
Here are some of the more important functions of cortisol:
- Anti-inflammatory properties that aid most of the body's tissues to combat inflammation caused by things like insect bites, allergies and even simple scratches, and the lack of sufficient cortisol has been implicated in arthritis and fibromyalgia. Many of us have used hydrocortisone (cortisol) cream to treat rashes and other exterior skin irritations;
- Moderation of white cell activities that, without cortisol, will often lead to excessive tissue destruction, while too much cortisol may lead to a deficiency in needed white blood cells to control infections and disease;
- Blood pressure moderation because it affects the contraction of the artery walls;
- Moderation of blood sugar (glucose) levels.
ELEVATED CORTISOL LEVELS
In The Cortisol Connection, Dr. Shawn Talbott set forth conditions believed to be caused by elevated cortisol levels:
- Increased appetite and food cravings;
- Increased body fat;
- Decreased muscle mass;
- Decreased bone density;
- Increased anxiety;
- Increased depression;
- Mood swings (anger and irritability)
- Reduced libido (sex drive);
- Impaired immune response;
- Memory and learning impairment;
- Increased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome;
- Increased menopausal side-effects (hot flashes, night sweats).
Because of the problems created by elevated cortisol, it is another reason why people want to only use cortisone (synthetic cortisol) for short times when used to reduce swelling or inflammation.
TOO LOW CORTISOL LEVELS
The most frequent cause of low cortisol is what is referred to as “adrenal fatigue”. This is normally caused when your adrenal glands have been releasing cortisol in response to stress for an extended period of time, and the adrenals are no longer able to create cortisol even for normal bodily functions. Here are some of the symptoms:
- Weight gain;
- Reduced libido (sex drive);
- Mood swings;
- Impairment of ability to concentrate;
- Increased anxiety;
- Higher incidence of disease;
- Salt cravings;
- Irregular heart beat;
- Muscle weakness;
Hypoglycemia is the name given to a condition where blood sugar levels are lower than normal. When the body needs energy, it signals the adrenal glands, which in turn release cortisol. Cortisol stimulates the liver to convert glycogen (a starch molecule), fats, carbohydrates, proteins and amino acids into blood glucose (sugar). Then blood glucose is released into the bloodstream.
Although needed by the cells, glucose cannot be readily absorbed into the cells without the assistance of the insulin hormone. Insulin is manufactured by the pancreas, an endocrine gland located below the stomach and released into the bloodstream when more glucose is needed by the cells. Insulin signals the cells to “open up a channel” into which the glucose flows.
A person suffering from hypoglycemia who encounters a situation where some stress is felt—like having to get a report done for school, will send a signal to the adrenals to release cortisol to stimulate the production of glucose and in turn the release of insulin to enable the absorption of glucose by the cells. However, if the adrenals are not functioning properly due to adrenal fatigue, they are not capable of releasing enough cortisol, and the result is not enough production of glucose.
This explains why someone will have some minor stress and feel so fatigued or unable to fully function that they have to eat a sweet or drink a cola or have a cup of coffee—to get through the stress. While this may help for an hour or even more, the fatigue comes back. To make matters worse, when someone experiences low blood sugar but feels the stress of not being able to satisfy this condition, more strain is placed on the already depleted adrenals and the cycle gets worse.
FATIGUE AND INSOMNIA
It is almost contradictory to believe that if you are really fatigued you could have insomnia (the inability to obtain the amount or quality of sleep you need). However, it is a fact for too many Americans, and more researchers are pointing to cortisol levels as being a chief cause. This makes sense, because if you have a normal cycle of cortisol production which peaks in the morning and gradually reduces until midnight and then starts building again until the next morning, you will normally be able to sleep.
For many with insomnia, they find themselves in a stressful situation most of the time. This is calling on the adrenals to release cortisol. One of the products of cortisol in stressful situations is to increase alertness. As we know, increased alertness makes it very difficult to fall asleep. Then the next day we are fatigued because we didn't get a restful sleep and this causes us to feel more stress. So we call on the release of cortisol again to release glucose. After a while we start to have other problems associated with too much cortisol, and then start finding that our adrenals cannot release enough cortisol.
This becomes a vicious cycle of insomnia and fatigue and often leads to serious health problems.
While there a large number of factors that cause obesity, more and more attention is being given to the role of cortisol. As we discussed above, for many of us if we are fatigued or “have trouble starting in the morning”, we ingest something sweet with caffeine. Few people have the ability to constantly eat sugary carbohydrates and not start to gain weight. Also, eating these sugary foods signals to the body that there is no need to use any of the stored fat for energy, and thus more and more fat is stored.
There are a number of studies discussing the links between the proper functioning of the adrenal glands and resistance to obesity.
Like cortisol, the hormone aldosterone is produced by the adrenal cortex. Aldosterone is one of the primary hormones responsible for the maintenance of water and concentration of sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium (electrolytes) in the blood, in the cell and in the area between the cells. When the body is working correctly, the fluid balance and salt concentration is very similar to sea water.
The production of aldosterone is linked to the production of cortisol. If the production of cortisol is down, then the production of aldosterone is down. Since most of the actions in the body are related to the proper concentration of electrolytes and their ability to carry electrical charges between the cells, keeping the proper balance is crucial.
If you have low cortisol production from the adrenals, then you have lowered production of aldosterone. Lowered production of aldosterone means that the sodium excreted through the kidneys is not replaced as it should be. As the amount of sodium falls, you find yourself craving salt. If the sodium is not replaced, then the cells start to lose their sodium and also the water in the cells. This leads to dehydration. When you try to hydrate yourself by just drinking water, it often dilutes the amount of sodium even more which just worsens the problem.
This is why at Novus Medical Detox Center we emphasize the necessity of ensuring that you are getting proper amounts of electrolytes to enable you to become hydrated.
Next week we will look at how you can test for adrenal problems and some recommended treatments for these problems.
At Novus Medical Detox Center we are very proud that we help people who have become dependent or addicted to substances like OxyContin, methadone, Vicodin, Percocet, heroin, and psychoactive drugs like Xanax and Zoloft and to people who have become addicted to alcohol.
Please call us if we can help someone that you know.
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