Most people have heard of Adrenaline in the context of an ‘adrenaline rush’ or ‘adrenal fatigue’, or may have heard stories of superhuman strength in stressful situations. However, there is so much more to the importance of the adrenal glands, and so much we can be doing to care for them to ensure optimal body function. Let’s start with what they are.
What are adrenal glands?
Adrenal glands, also known as super-adrenals, are small, triangular-shaped glands located on top of both kidneys. They produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress, and other essential functions.
They don’t act alone! The adrenals are linked to your endocrine (hormonal) system via chemical communication, delivering instructions to and from other glands (e.g. the hypo-thalamus and pineal glands in the brain). These signals or messages are always in response to feedback from the body, both chemically (via hormones) and electrically (via the nervous systems).
What is ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’?
The body’s response to these signals is commonly known as ‘fight, flight, freeze’. It is used to categorise a set of cascading responses when triggered, and its purpose is to help in a temporary, life-threatening or emergency situation. However, in modern times where we seem to be stressed more and more often, this fight, flight, freeze response can have a complex impact on our health.
What is the role of the adrenal glands in ‘fight, flight, freeze’?
It's the role of the adrenal glands to both turn on the fight, flight, freeze response, and also to turn it off once the danger or emergency is over. These ‘switches’ occur via hormone signals to the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems.
When a ‘fight, flight, freeze’ situation occurs, the adrenal glands communicate with the sympathetic nervous system and release adrenaline which rushes through the bloodstream. This enhances all cells’ functions to cope with accelerated demand and boost cell output in a localised area - e.g. muscles, heart, lungs. This can be attributed to the sometimes ‘superhuman’ displays of strength or endurance of otherwise ‘normal’ people in emergency situations.
Once the emergency is over, the adrenal glands are responsible for turning off the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response by communicating with the para-sympathetic nervous system and releasing nor-adrenaline (both a hormone and a neurotransmitter).
How has the modern world impacted on the adrenal glands?
Here is where it gets contentious. This physiological response of fight, flight, freeze is usually a measured response to danger. However, it’s been shown that we subtlety move in-and-out of this state throughout the day by our internal levels of mental and emotional stress. Often, there isn’t necessarily any external threat. This can send our adrenal glands into overdrive, trying to help us prepare to fight off a danger that isn’t there, and using energy to produce hormones.
Another impact on the adrenals is cortisol (another term for hydrocortisone). This is a hormone produced alongside adrenaline. Cortisol is inflammatory and helps the body store excess fluids locally to support cell waste and lymphatic fluid during high response physical exertion. This can be beneficial in small amounts, but when the body fails to turn off the stress response and the production of cortisol, it can result in localised tightness, swelling and pain in joints, muscles and movement, even when you’re just sitting.
Adrenaline is in essence a ‘masking agent’ to these physical impacts or to actual body injury and stress. Our body’s ability to self-regulate is not without side-effects and movement is one mechanism the body uses to moderate negative impacts. Physical anaerobic movement (walking, running, skipping, etc) activates lymphatic drainage - so our sedentary workplaces are not helping this consequence. It’s an important consideration that individuals should make in these settings. If you’re feeling tired and aching, movement is the antidote.
So, how can you manage the fight, flight, freeze response?
The trigger for your body determining whether to switch on or off the fight, flight, freeze response is your heart rate. An elevated heart rate signals to the brain that we must be in danger, so an automatic response is to support this, when in actual fact we could be sitting being stressed about a deadline or an emotionally difficult situation.
A supportive tool is deep slow breathing - in stressed moments (difficult phone call, being pushed to resolve a task or feeling overwhelmed) - separating oneself from the immediate situation and calmly focusing on deep slow breathing with body and mind (say 6-10 breaths) will slow the heart rate and switch-on the para-sympathetic process. This will lead to reduced blood-pressure, clearer thinking, and effective, positive work or social outcomes.
Simple self-care tips for your adrenals:
#1: Self-massage adrenal reflexology points
A physical representation of the Adrenals can be found on both feet.
Located near to centre of the foot (plantar) arch and in line with the 2nd toe - it may present as a hard lump (ball), nodules/granules, but they will be sore when pressed. These two areas are the adrenal reflex points that reflexology uses to calm and release when addressing fatigued adrenals. If you place your foot up on the ball and palpate the mid-arch/plantar (bottom) area you can locate this reflex. Work it with small circular movements on-around and on both feet to help de-stress your adrenal glands. Repeat daily, noticing that they will decrease in sensitivity the more they are de-stressed.
#2: Be mindful of your stress-load
Being mindful of how you stress-load yourself, whether physically, mentally or emotionally, is important in not ‘over-doing’ the adrenals to exhaustion. Adrenal fatigue is similar to diabetes because not only do the adrenal glands fatigue, but your cell function is also reduced as they become adrenaline resistant (like with Insulin resistance and diabetes).
#3: Ensure you have a ‘wind down’ routine at night
Other impacts can include slowed digestion or not feeling hungry, plus diminished sleep quality due to cell over-stimulation during the day. Try to avoid working late into the evening, and give yourself plenty of time without stressful or intense TV before bed. You can always incorporate deep slow breathing or meditation before bed to really support your body’s switch to para-sympathetic rest and sleep.
The most important thing is to make sure your adrenals are maintained by managing your daily stress responses, making sure you regularly take time-out to nurture yourself through therapies such as reflexology and others, whilst also rewarding your efforts with self-praise and positive reinforcement. All these actions support a healthy attitude towards your home life, and workplace and colleagues, which reduces self-generated mental and emotional stress in any situation.