Don’t Stress Too Much, or Your Autonomic Nervous System Will Suffer

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


Try as you might, stress in daily life is ultimately impossible to avoid. Triggers for stress tend to surround you. They can be connected to your family, career, finances, health, dating life, and other factors. What you may not realize, though, is that every time you go through an intense time of stress, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) does more work than you can imagine. And if there is no end to your stress in sight, your ANS can easily become compromised to the point that your adrenals and overall health suffer too.

What is the Autonomic Nervous System?

Neurons, the part of Autonomic Nervous SystemThe nervous system is mainly divided into two parts. First is the central nervous system, which includes the spinal cord and brain. Secondly, there is the peripheral nervous system, a part of which is composed of the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system covers a vast network in the body, including the cardiovascular, genitourinary, GI, ophthalmologic and thermoregulatory systems. Hence, it affects various critical organ muscles and glands. These include the heart, eyes, stomach, esophagus, small intestine, trachea, kidney, bladder, sexual organs, and the adrenal glands.

The ANS performs several critical functions within your body on a regular basis. It does so without the need for any voluntary action on your end since its responses are always done reflexively. In fact, with the assistance of the adrenal glands, it kick-starts a response to stress without you having to do anything.

Critical Response: How the ANS and Adrenal Glands Work Together in Times of Stress

When you are faced with stress, your brain’s hypothalamus essentially functions as a command center. It starts communicating with the rest of your body through your autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is made up of five separate systems, with the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system being the most recognized. When faced with a stressful event, the hypothalamus proceeds to activate the sympathetic nervous system by having the autonomic nerves send signals to your adrenal glands, via the sympathomedullary nervous system.

This kick-starts your body’s fight-or-flight response to the stress. When this happens, your adrenals start pumping the hormone epinephrine, or adrenaline, into your bloodstream. Once the epinephrine starts to circulate throughout your body, you can expect a number of key physiological changes.

First, your heart will start to beat faster than usual. As your pulse rate goes up, so will your blood pressure level. You will also start to breathe more rapidly. The small airways in your lungs will open wide. This allows the lungs to take in as much oxygen as they can with each breath. This extra oxygen will then be sent to the brain to increase your body’s alertness.

When this happens, you will feel all your senses becoming sharper, including your sight and hearing. Around the same time, the epinephrine will trigger both blood sugar and fats to be temporarily released from storage within the body. These nutrients will then make their way to your bloodstream and supply energy throughout your body.

Meanwhile, as the stressful episode wanes, the initial surge of epinephrine throughout your body will subside. However, should the brain still perceive an event as dangerous, the hypothalamus will release a corticotropin-releasing hormone that will make its way to the pituitary gland. In response, the pituitary gland will release an adrenocorticotropic hormone, which then triggers the adrenal glands to start producing cortisol.

Once the threat or stress is gone, the cortisol levels in the body will begin to fall. The parasympathetic nervous system will then dampen your body’s stress response. As this happens, the body will also begin to recover from the stress.

Your heart rate will drop, and your muscles will start to relax again. Meanwhile, you will experience an increase in saliva as digestive enzymes are also released in your body. Your body’s urinary output will also increase to help you further flush out any toxins from the stress you just experienced. At the same time, any adrenaline left in the body will be metabolized. Norepinephrine, which is a neurotransmitter as well as a hormone, will be released, starting at the brain. This will cause a sense of alertness and results in insomnia for many, as well as pounding in the chest and possibly dizziness in some who are sensitive. Blood pressure tends to rise, though for sufferers of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), who are commonly in a state of low blood pressure, this is seldom noticed except by a small number of people.

As you can see, your overall autonomic nervous system and adrenals are very much capable of handling stress. When the stress has become chronic, however, it overworks your body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response to the point that your adrenals experience fatigue.

How the ANS and Adrenals are Compromised Under Continuous Stress

Adrenals and Autonomic Nervous SystemWhen stress is continuous, your body is not able to effectively modulate its parasympathetic nervous system. This means it does not have any chance to recover. In fact, the secretion of epinephrine is continuous, as your body is constantly preparing for a fight or flight.

At the same time, as mentioned earlier, norepinephrine will continue to travel to your heart and brain to keep you more alert. As a result, you may feel that your heart is beating harder or faster than normal. If left to persist, it can trigger serious cardiac problems.

Meanwhile, that surge of adrenaline in your body is a phenomenon that no opposing hormone is capable of neutralizing. As more of it is released, it leads to significant instability within your body, as is evidenced by what happens to your health soon after.

Chronic Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

When your body’s fight-or-flight response is activated too often, you can end up suffering from adrenal fatigue without warning. The continuous presence of stressors can cause your body to release significant amounts of various stress hormones, including cortisol.

Over time, your constantly elevated stress levels would cause your internal organs to become depleted of the raw materials they need to produce more neurotransmitters and hormones. Essentially, your body would experience a burnout, and this is what triggers AFS.

Once you have adrenal fatigue, your health will become compromised almost immediately. For starters, you will experience extreme fatigue, lightheadedness and difficulty sleeping. A study conducted by several institutions in Spain and Cuba also found that high cortisol levels are linked to increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and reduced immune function.

Furthermore, you can end up suffering from hair loss, muscle loss, and bone loss. You may also suffer from hormonal imbalance, skin ailments, insulin resistance, and even brain fog.

Aside from everything being experienced in your body, you may also find that you are not emotionally well. This is because adrenal fatigue can trigger feelings of depression and irritability. Hence, it may also affect your ability to focus and be effective at work.

How to Prevent Chronic Stress

As you can see, it’s important for you to better manage your stress so that your autonomic nervous system and adrenals don’t get overworked and compromised. There are several ways to deal with stress and keep it from getting worse. Before you try any remedy, however, it is always recommended to consult with your physician first, especially if you are trying a new supplement or therapy. In this way, you can be certain that the remedy you are trying is suited to your condition.

That said, here are helpful tips on how you can effectively manage chronic stress:

Check if Your Stress has a Biological Cause

Stress affecting a woman's Autonomic Nervous SystemIn some cases, there are some biological factors contributing to and exacerbating chronic stress. For instance, having vitamin B12 deficiency can readily trigger fatigue, anxiety, depression, weaker memory function, and a reduced attention span. If you happen to be B12 deficient while facing chronic stress, your adrenal fatigue can easily go from bad to worse.

Similarly, magnesium deficiency can also trigger several symptoms of stress, including fatigue, anxiety, and increased depression. Furthermore, a study conducted by the I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University and Ministry of Health of Russia found a link between stress and magnesium deficiency. Hence, it is believed that compensating for your depleted magnesium levels can enhance your ability to handle stress.

On the other hand, certain allergies and toxicity are also believed to cause stress. One study conducted by the Sapthagiri College of Engineering in Bangalore, India found that constant exposure to heavy metals can trigger oxidative stress. In fact, a study done by the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil also found that mercury toxicity can induce oxidative stress among growing cucumber seedlings.

Meanwhile, many who suffer from gluten sensitivity also report feeling fatigue. Some also report experiencing brain fog and sleeping problems. As you can see, these are all symptoms that people suffering from adrenal fatigue also experience.

If you believe you are suffering from any of these conditions that cause stress or make it worse, it’s best to have yourself checked out right away. Make an appointment with your physician. It is likely that they will recommend some laboratory tests to check for any sensitivity or deficiency you may have. Once they have determined what type of food or toxicity is causing you to become more stressed, make a conscious commitment to avoid these as much as possible.

Given that deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals cause fatigue and stress, it makes sense that taking supplements can help you combat these conditions. Ideally, you should opt for a supplement that helps your body balance its stress response. This can be a multivitamin that already contains B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, zinc and magnesium. You may also want to consult with a physician regarding what other vitamins and supplements you should take to help improve your body’s stress response. Unfortunately, this only applies to those with very mild forms of AFS. The weaker the body, the greater the tendency for the body to become sensitive to these nutrients. Paradoxical reactions can occur and adrenal crashes may be triggered.

Try Adrenal Breathing

Adrenal breathing is a special technique form of intentional breathing that is designed to help the body heal without stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. It is something that you can consciously practice in order to keep stress from taking over the rest of your life. The best part about it is that it’s quite easy to learn and practice regularly.

With every breath you take, you will find that you are becoming calmer. Hence, you will also be able to have better control over your reactions to stress.

Commit to Improving Your Sleep Quality

A woman improving sleep quality to support her Autonomic Nervous SystemYou may not realize it, but the quality of sleep that you get greatly affects how you are able to cope with stress. According to the American Psychological Association, a survey conducted in 2009 found that 47 percent of Americans cannot get proper sleep due to stress. If you can improve the quality of your sleep and sleep for around seven to eight hours regularly, you will feel more revitalized and rested upon waking up. This puts you in a much better position to deal with stress.

Take note of these tips and you will become better at handling any stressful event that comes your way. Remember, stress doesn’t just make you feel bad emotionally. It compromises your overall health, too. This is why it’s most important to keep its presence to a minimum in your daily life. With reduced stress, you will immediately feel much healthier. In addition, you will also become happier and more energized.

 
© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The autonomic nervous system is a part of the brain that handles the body’s response to stress. It triggers the adrenal glands along with other organs and glands in the body to prepare for a fight-or-flight response right away.


Autonomic nervous system