How Chronic Stress Impacts Your Adrenals

Did you know that stress is classified as an epidemic?

Really! Stress has been classified by the World Health Organization as the health epidemic of the 21st century. It’s becoming more difficult to live a quality life and function well in our high-stress society, but we also can’t live without it.  At the end of the day, we need stress in order to stay alive because it helps us feel alert, be productive, and build resiliency.

Unfortunately, the chronic, unmanaged stress (whether actual or perceived) we all face is slowly weakening our metabolic health, wrecking our nervous systems, and impairing our ability to function optimally in our day-to-day lives.  We live in a world where we are always connected, in high demand, on-call 24/7, always on the go, constantly doing and never just being. 

Before we dive into the association between chronic stress and the adrenals, let’s first discuss Hans Selye’s three stages of stress, referred to as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

Stages of stress (GAS):

Phase 1 – ALARM stage: A stress (whether actual or perceived) happens. The adrenal glands release cortisol, giving you that adrenaline rush that’s so easy to become addicted to. Heart rate starts to increase and we kick into fight or flight. You stay alive because this stage helps you run away from the lion that is chasing you!

Phase 2 – RESISTANCE stage: After the stress has been eliminated (whether mentally, physically, or emotionally) the body desires to return to normal.  A body that is resilient to stress can return to normal function here. A body in metabolic distress cannot. 

If there is a lack of healthy lifestyle behaviors (stress management) or deficient nutrient status (lack of a strong mineral foundation), we can get stuck in this phase. As a result, the body will start to compromise and reserve energy by slowing down other organs and bodily functions. During this stage we start to physically feel or notice distress in the body such as extreme fatigue, weight gain or weight loss resistance, interrupted sleep, worsened PMS, brain fog, irritability, digestive problems, etc…) 

Phase 3 – EXTREME EXHAUSTION stage: After long-term stress, the adrenal glands (where stress hormones are produced) have nothing left to give. They typically have a hard time re-energizing, due to a lack of resiliency, as well as a poor diet deficient in nutrients. Everything in the body becomes sluggish and the body is begging for a break so it can repair. Think about the gas tank of your car running on E in the middle of a road trip with no gas station in sight. 

stressed-looking brunette woman staring at her laptop with her hands in her hair

Now that we better understand the stages of stress, let’s discuss a little bit about what exactly the adrenal glands are. 

What are your adrenal glands?

We have two adrenal glands. They are small but mighty and sit atop your kidneys. Your adrenal glands produce and release stress hormones such as cortisol and DHEA. They also produce epinephrine (adrenaline) which helps to protect and keep you alive during that fight or flight response. They also have many other metabolic functions such as balancing blood sugar and regulating blood pressure and the immune system, but for the essence of this post, let’s focus on how they help with the stress response. 

PSSST: Just as an FYI, as women inch closer to peri-menopause, your sex hormones shift from being primarily produced in the ovaries to the adrenal glands. If you are already living in a high-stress environment that isn’t well managed and you are moving into your next phase of life (menopause), you can see how this can be pretty taxing on the adrenal glands! 

So, how does stress impact your adrenals? 

The HPA axis is super complex, but, basically, it’s the adrenal glands working hand in hand with the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary glands). When the brain is triggered by stress, the hypothalamus releases ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone), which travels to the adrenal glands and promotes the release of cortisol. Unfortunately, the body can’t differentiate between an actual stress (losing your job), long-term chronic stress (buried trauma or fighting disease), or stress that is just perceived (feeling angry about something that hasn’t even happened), so the body treats every situation almost the same by secreting the same amount of cortisol as it would if a lion was actually chasing you in real life! 

Constant unmanaged stress leads to a constant release of cortisol which, over time, is like the girl who cried wolf. The adrenal glands get really burnt out on being asked for help when it’s not really needed. This is typically termed an overactive adrenal gland and high cortisol. The adrenal glands run out of sympathy (cortisol), where the adrenals go from overactive/high to underactive and low cortisol. The healthy pattern of cortisol production that is supposed to rise in the morning to wake you up and fall throughout the day to tell you when it’s time to start relaxing/go to sleep gets really thrown out of whack and the body starts to get confused, leading to a ton of signs/symptoms listed below. 

What are the signs and symptoms of overactive adrenal glands (high cortisol) and/or underactive adrenal glands (low cortisol)? 

Note – this stage usually happens first for a period of months/years before transitioning into underactive adrenal glands/low cortisol.

Overactive adrenal glands/high cortisol can present:

  1. Tired but wired feeling
  2. Belly fat
  3. Sugar/carb and caffeine cravings 
  4. Sleep disruptions, especially between 2-4 am
  5. Weight loss
  6. Increased heart rate, sweating 

Underactive adrenal glands/low cortisol can present:

  1. Difficulty waking up and getting going in the morning
  2. Coffee/caffeine no longer doing it for you
  3. Low energy/extreme exhaustion and fatigue 
  4. Brain fog/memory loss
  5. Suppressed immune system 
  6. Cold hands/feed
  7. Constipation
  8. Low pulse, blood pressure, and body temperature 

So, maybe you feel like you associate with one of the stages above? 

Here are some ways you can support your adrenal glands and build resiliency when it comes to your stress response! 

Hint, hint: Sexy adaptogenic mushrooms like ashwagandha are cool and all, but it’s not really where you should start. A strong, therapeutic approach lies within lifestyle behaviors that reset your circadian rhythm and build resilience to stress and also use food as medicine to set a strong mineral foundation that nourishes your adrenal glands.

  1. Incorporating minerals for the adrenal glands

Whole food minerals to re-energize and replenish the adrenals: 

(not limited to, but where can you start sprinkling these into your diet?)

  • Sodium – mineral salt like Redmond Real Salt or Celtic Sea Salt, pickled anything, ham
  • Potassium – coconut water, cream of tartar, potatoes, bananas, inner leaf aloe vera juice 
  • Magnesium – coconut water, cacao, cacao nibs, cooked leafy greens OR Epsom salt baths/foot soaks, magnesium-enriched lotion
  • Vitamin C – Citrus fruits or camu camu
  • B vitamins – Organ meats/beef liver
  • Electrolytes – Jigsaw Health, LMNT, Rayvi, RE-lyte 
  • Adrenal Cocktail – Jigsaw! 
  1. Get sunlight exposure within 10 minutes of waking up for 10-30 minutes. If natural light isn’t an option, look into a Happy Light. And no, scrolling social media on your phone doesn’t count as getting light in your eyes! Sip some water or a mineral mocktail on your back porch and give yourself some ‘you’ time before running out into the crazy world for the day. 
  2. Eat a well-balanced breakfast within 30-60 minutes of waking up to tell your body (mostly your liver stores) you are safe! Don’t fear carbs. Include some slow-digesting carbs paired with your protein and high-quality fat in the morning to replenish your glucose stores! More than likely your body burned through them while detoxing overnight and it’s begging you for some fuel. 
  3. Food before caffeine, always! Get in the habit of this now. If your full breakfast isn’t an option, go for an early morning pre-coffee snack. Some examples include a protein waffle + grass-fed butter or a couple of pieces of dried fruit + some nut butter. 
  4. Eat every 3-4 hours during your daytime eating window. Don’t let blood sugar drop too low between meals or the body will be forced to pull for extra cortisol for energy. 
  5. Speak one positive mantra every single morning when you wake up. What’s one thing you want to accomplish or maybe it’s a way you want to feel? This will help to set the tone for an awesome, beautiful day!
  6. Always come back to your breath. It’s the one free gift built inside of us that we have been given to help us calm and condition the nervous system, which, in return, assists us in becoming more resilient to stressors that pop up. Think about this – if we breathe shallow and stop our breath at our chest, we tend to feel anxious and worried. If we breathe deeply down into our belly, we are more easily able to feel calm and find peace. 
  7. If you feel you are siding with high or low cortisol, put weight loss efforts on the backburner for a while. Take some time to support, nourish and repair the metabolism. Think less intense exercise, more walks, more sleep, more sunshine, more breathing, more smiles, and more laughter. Get really grounded and spend some time in nature. Set boundaries. Start saying no sometimes. Be really gentle with yourself. 

It’s 2022 and, unfortunately, our stress isn’t going away, but that doesn’t mean we are lost causes! We just need to take some time to pause and reflect on what we actually need. To slow down. To incorporate stress management techniques into our daily lives. Let’s set a goal that we won’t be a statistic in the 21st-century stress epidemic by picking a couple of the supportive tools above to heal and come back stronger than ever before.

Want more tips on healthy habits? Download my FREE guide “5 Healthy Habits to Break to Lose Weight” here!


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