Chronic Stress and Your Adrenals
Once upon a time, a saber-tooth tiger might have wanted you for lunch.
While that’s unlikely to happen today, other stressful episodes–like someone swerving into your lane on the freeway–can quickly put your body into fight-or-flight mode, gearing up for a possible attack.
Your body responds identically whether you experience or simply perceive that potential attack.
In other words, whether you think someone might swerve into your lane or they actually do, your stress response activates the exact same way: Your brain signals your adrenal glands to release hormones like cortisol to help you cope with that stressor.
“Stress can be physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, infectious, or a combination of these,” says James Wilson, ND, DC, Ph.D., in Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. “It is important to know that your adrenals respond to every kind of stress the same, whatever the source.”
At its source, any kind of stress threatens homeostasis or balance. When something becomes out of balance — in this case, the repercussions of stress on your mental or physical health — your stress response scrambles to alleviate that stressor and restore equanimity.
“When you are faced with a stressful situation, the adrenals produce hormones that allow the body to divert energy away from day-to-day maintenance and put it all toward getting you through the task at hand,” says Alan Christianson, ND, in The Adrenal Reset Diet.
That fight-or-flight response can protect you, help you stay focused and alert, and even keep you alive. Any system your body doesn’t need — say digestion — takes a backseat as your body gears up to help you survive a potential catastrophe.
In the short term, stress works wonderfully.
But that hormonal response cascade should do its job and then simmer down. When it doesn’t — when your adrenal glands stay fired up producing cortisol and other hormones when you no longer need them — chronic stress oftentimes results.
The Impacts of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind. This low-grade, simmering type of stress can manifest in many ways, including:
- Digestive issues (including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea)
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Sleep disturbances
- Getting sick more often
- Low or no libido
On a practical level, that low-grade chronic stress impacts your daily decisions that adversely affect overall health.
When you’re constantly stressed, you’re less likely to exercise. You might reach for chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, or a few glasses of red wine to dampen your feelings. You sleep less deeply, which subsequently makes you more stressed.
On a mental level, feeling nearly constantly stressed means you’re less likely to make solid decisions, you snap at coworkers easily, and your overall peace of mind takes a downward spiral.
But chronic stress also manifests in physical ways. Keeping your body’s stress response fired up on all cylinders when it should taper down contributes to many pathological processesincluding chronic pain disorders, immune disorders, cardiovascular disorders, metabolic disease, and behavior disorders.
In fact, pain and stress overlap significantly. Both disrupt your body’s homeostasis, adversely impact cognitive function, disrupt wellbeing, and so much more.
And that’s where chiropractic care can help: Visiting your chiropractor regularly can potentially have a positive impact on managing chronic stress and its wide-ranging repercussions.
Chronic Stress and Your Spine
Many mental and physical repercussions of chronic stress impact your spine. In fact, spinal abnormalities are an often-overlooked physical manifestation of chronic stress.
Consider someone’s posture when they become stressed out. They hold their body differently. Their muscles get tense. Their breathing patterns change. Those stress-related physical changes can shift your vertebral alignment, contributing to spinal abnormalities.
Animal studies show that repeated stress adversely impacts spinal volume and size. Further studies confirm chronic stress can impact the quality of your spine.
“Persistent tension can also cause muscles to contract and the spine to become locked in an abnormal position, interfering with the nervous system’s proper functioning,” notes the Palmer College of Chiropractic blog. “This can impair the body’s immune response and slow healing.”
A vicious cycle occurs. Poor spinal health impacts physical health and increases stress levels, while stress subsequently impacts spinal health. After all, nearly every bodily function interconnects with your spine.
Consider, then, the little stressors — the seemingly small but cumulative daily habits — that create havoc on your spine. You might wake up in a poorly supportive mattress or pillows. You might have tossed and turned or slept abnormally.
Then you might rush through breakfast, grab a massive cup of coffee on your way to work, sit improperly at your desk all day, get reprimanded by your boss, and feel the pressure of deadlines looming.
All of these things increase stress levels and take their toll on your spine. The type of stress differs, but they trigger the same stress response. Regular chiropractic care is how we keep these abnormalities at bay.
“Proper spinal alignment is the first step for reducing stress,” says Dr. Kevin Lynch, Kentucky Chiropractor, “When the spine is misaligned, the nervous system is unable to properly send messages through the body. Better spinal alignment means better communication and increased system efficiency.”
After all, your spine is the anchor of your body and the center of health. Whatever interferes with your spine — in this case, chronic stress — also interferes with your body’s natural function.
Stress and Interference in Your Spine
Abnormalities in the alignment of the spine are called subluxations: The slips, misalignments, restrictions, affected nerves, and either pain or asymptomatic quirks that adversely impact your spine and health.
We call these subluxations interferences because they cause interference in the natural function of the body. Because your nervous system controls all organs of the body, interferences will naturally cause dysfunction beyond the spine.
Interference can show up in countless ways, and chief among them are the festering, low-grade stressors we call chronic stress. In fact, most sources of interference can be grouped into one of three categories of stressors:
- Physical Stress
Perhaps the most dramatic impact of chronic stress is physical. Chronic stress increases chronic inflammation, a driver for numerous diseases. In fact, researchers connect 75 – 90 percent of human diseases with chronic stress.
That pro-inflammatory response can affect the discs, ligaments, and tendons around your spine. All of that contributes to pain and creates spinal abnormalities that wreak havoc far beyond your spine.
Consider stress’s impact on your immune system. One meta-analysis of more than 300 empirical articles over 30 years found psychological stress impacted the immune system.
Sleep loss and chronic stress likewise form a vicious cycle, sharing multiple pathways that affect the central nervous system and metabolism. Poor sleep can exacerbate stress, and vice versa, contributing to metabolic disorders including obesity and diabetes.
Injuries, physically demanding work, a sedentary lifestyle, unreasonably strenuous exercise, and poor breathing can also block oxygenation and nutrients. They all take their toll on your spine and overall health.
Any instance where your body becomes mistreated, misused, and maladjusted may become a physical stressor and interfere with innate processes that should lead to health.
- Chemical Stress
More subtle — but equally impacting chronic stress and its repercussions — are the countless environmental toxins we are exposed to daily.
Cleaning products, cosmetics, medications we take, and even the food and water we consume bombards your body with toxins that have an immediate, but also cumulative impact. This constant bombardment keeps your lungs, skin, and digestive tract on high alert, creating low-grade stress to the body.
Molly Miller at the University of California San Francisco discusses the “long, long list of chemicals we encounter every day in our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. And scientists have barely scratched the surface of understanding them. Of the thousands and thousands of chemicals registered with the [Environmental Protection Agency] for use by industry, the agency has regulated only a few.”
- Emotional Stress
Stress can also dramatically impact mental and emotional health, manifesting as mood disturbances including anxiety, depression, and irritability. That stress can also impact your memory, concentration, sex drive, and much more.
We move through life at such a rapid pace, thriving on staying busy and multitasking. Juggling multiple tasks or “burning the midnight oil” to complete a work project takes its emotional toll on your spine.
Work-related stress can likewise lead to physical illness, psychological distress, and mental illness. That cumulative stress can create spinal interferences while knocking hormones like cortisol out of balance.
Reduce Stress Through Chiropractic Care
Although stress falls into specific categories, they all impact the body similarly. Managing stress becomes crucial to maintaining health and happiness, and chiropractic care provides an effective method for helping to manage stress.
One study among 12 men found numerous improvements, including lower stress levels and better quality of life, for those who implemented chiropractic care.
In fact, visiting a chiropractor is often the simplest change you can make to remove the interferences — in this case, constant stressors — that impact your health and happiness in so many ways.
While external actions matter, your body’s ability to respond and adapt to the environment matters more. From this perspective, chiropractic care identifies those interferences, reduces or removes them, and better enables the body harness its innate powers to heal on its own.
Chiropractors also focus on personalized patient care and can you help manage stress levels uniquely and provide you an individualized protocol that best suits you.
Chiropractors can design a dietary and lifestyle protocol that includes the right foods, exercise, relaxation techniques, and other strategies to reduce stress and allow your body to heal.
You can’t eliminate stress, but you can find strategies to better manage it and reduce its impact on your spine and overall health. Chiropractic care provides an excellent complementary approach to working with your healthcare practitioner and incorporating the right stress-management strategies.