When is “stressed” no longer a badge of honour and is now a sign of your body in severe trouble? Is it when a businessman in his mid-forties drops dead of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and two young kids? Is it when a new mom, overwhelmed with life changes, lack of sleep and trouble nursing her newborn succumbs to post-partum psychosis? Is it when the teenager becomes anorexic in a bid to meet peer pressure? Is it when the social worker has a mental breakdown after seeing too many horrendous situations and getting support?
These cases, while extreme, are by no means rare. They are too common and should not be. In Japan, death by overwork is so common that they have a term for it, “karoshi”. There are many early warning signs which, if attended to, can make a huge difference in more than just one person’s life.
Adrenal overdrive is when your adrenal glands have been so overworked that they are like a runaway freight train. In normal situations, the adrenal glands release adrenaline to help you function at a higher level to deal with stress. In adrenal overdrive, the adrenaline is out of control, and its functions are no longer protective… they are now harmful to your health, and unhelpful when it comes to coping with stress. Excess adrenaline will cause the heart to pump harder, faster, and out of sync. The body loses control over blood sugar levels. Sex hormones, like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are no longer in balance, and this affects menstruation, PMS, fertility, sex drive, erections, etc. The digestive system malfunctions and your appetite is no longer connected to caloric needs of the body, plus you have problems with digestion of foods and elimination of waste. The immune system can go haywire, both overreacting (allergies, excess inflammation, auto-immune diseases) and too strained to do adequate protection (frequent colds and flus, or old infections resurfacing, like shingles, cold sores, or hand, foot & mouth disease). Outwardly, you may be jittery, irrational, emotional, indecisive, anxious, restless and irritable.
In adrenal overload, the adrenal glands are so overwhelmed that systems shut down. The heart can give up (heart attack). Insulin no longer activates receptor sites (type II diabetes). Metabolism plummets, leaving people with no energy and no muscle strength. In this case, the person has no desire to get out of bed, and feels too weak to get up, anyway. The person could also lose consciousness and faint, or collapse into a coma. The immune system also gives up and cancers, autoimmune diseases and hypersensitivities grow unchecked. When it’s the reproductive system, women can lose their menstrual cycle (amenorrhea). Men can experience a severe drop in testosterone, which affects motivation and masculinity. Both sexes lose sex drive and fertility. Mental breakdowns, depression and thoughts of suicide are common.
As a society, we’ve come up with a variety of coping mechanisms to help us through unsustainable levels of stress. You could externalize the stress by venting to others, blaming others for your ills, kick the dog, or project your weakness onto others. You could supplement your adrenaline with copious amounts of caffeine and sugar. You could also manipulate your brain’s perception of reality with alcohol and drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, or “recreational”). You could also check out from reality by immersing yourself in videogames, TV, online shopping etc. You could also micromanage a part of your life you think you can control, and become obsessive or compulsive about it. Overusing our behavioural coping mechanisms can cause other problems, which can go on to affect others around us as well. When we combine external stress with mind-altering chemicals (anti-depressants, alcohol, drugs), you can get the raging alcoholic who beats his wife or kids. In the U.S., this could become the mass shooter that kills random people. Over time, you can become really good at disconnecting from body signals and pain. You may even take pleasure in causing pain, as in compulsive behaviours (pick their skin, pull out hair) and/or harming yourself (cutting, attempt suicide).
Adrenal overload can also occur in children and because this is not something talked about, the symptoms can be easily overlooked or mistaken for something else. Physically, overloaded children can complain of pain, such as headaches, joint pains and tummy aches. They may find normal sensations painful and express this as fussiness, anxiety and tantrums. Emotions can be very difficult to handle and so some kids might be at the mercy of out-of-control emotions. They might also disconnect from all emotions or feel helpless in any non-routine situation. If the child takes mind-altering medications (including mood stabilizers, stimulants, relaxants, etc.) this can seriously affect their ability to develop higher level brain function, including rational thought, problem-solving, seeing others’ perspectives, taking responsibility… basically growing up. Organ problems can also show up in young overloaded children, like skin rashes, breathing difficulties, frequent infections, lupus, and food sensitivities. Behaviourally, the overloaded child can be aggressive, very whiney, try to comfort himself/herself with rocking movements, self-stimulating or withdrawing from others, like tuning out the real world and immersing in TV, videogames, music etc.
The hardest part of adrenal overload from a young age is that the person won’t know what “normal” is supposed to feel like. Headaches and tummy aches are not supposed to be normal. Menstrual periods are not supposed to be painful. Feeling sluggish and weak and unmotivated is abnormal. Chronic illnesses, even in seniors, are not supposed to be a normal part of aging.
Chiropractic plays a unique role in reversing adrenal overload. Many natural therapies aim to heal the adrenal gland itself, such as adrenal support supplements. Chiropractic’s role is to help the brain and nervous system take back control over the adrenal gland and mind so that you can choose how you live your life. Special attention is needed in the areas that control the sympathetic (fight or flight) message. This takes time and a lot of repetition to re-set it. There are special techniques in chiropractic (tonal techniques) that are especially well-suited to this task. More importantly is a chiropractor who can give enough attention to follow the patient through the whole process.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, feeling mediocre is so accepted that people don’t realize when they’re slipping into dangerously poor levels of health, like adrenal overload. Since adrenal overload is a slippery slope and symptoms can be subtle, it is good to get evaluated from time to time on your measures of health: physically, mentally, emotionally, behaviourally, neurologically and viscerally (organs). Click here to download a Baseline Health Questionnaire and schedule a free consultation with Dr. Sabrina Chen-See.