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The Vicious Cycle of Stress and Exhaustion

Exhaustion. We’ve all felt a sense of exhaustion at some point or another, whether it’s following a huge week, or a long stressful period. Sometimes however, exhaustion continues to plague us even with the adequate amount of rest and nutrient dense food consumption.

There are various reason that this kind of exhaustion is developed and for each person it will be experienced with different variations of symptoms. The mechanism of exhaustion however, will always be mediated by the HPA axis or the Hypothalamus- Pituitary- Adrenal axis. This axis in the past has been unknown and therefore, mistakenly thought of as, simply ‘adrenal fatigue’, however it is far more complex.

The hypothalamus situated in the brain, perceives stress or stresses felt by an individual and releases a hormone which send a message to the pituitary. The pituitary in turn responds to this chemical mediator by secreting a second messenger hormone directed at the adrenal glands, specifying that they ‘prime’ the body for the stressor experienced. Stressors can come in the form of; viral or bacterial infection, emotional and physical trauma, some medication, excessive stimulant drink consumption, nutritional deficiency, shift work and more.
Cortisol, many of us have known about its responsibilities relative to our circumstances, but very seldom has it been truthfully represented in its’ function or dysfunction. This natural mechanism of the body is fantastic, if its working in response to an imminent stressor. But when an external stressor or internal stressor continues without relief cortisol secretion continues and its actions extend for a while longer, leading to reduced health outcomes. For a normal fight response to be effective digestion and maintenance functions are suppressed with high cortisol presence.
Elevated cortisol congregates within the hypothalamus or the brain, literally changing the chemical and physical structure of the brain. Systemically high cortisol response on a continued basis causes the body to adapt, like what occurs with diabetes mellitus type 2 development.

This same mechanism occurs when under chronic stress contributing to the development of metabolic dysfunction and immune suppression,

  • Insulin resistance,
  • Increased sugar cravings,
  • Melatonin resistance and therefore, reduced sleep efficiency,
  • suppressed stomach acid production along with other digestive secretions and bowel motility.
  • Muscle fatigue and tension,
  • Foggy brain, headaches,
  • Lack of appetite
  • bloating
  • menstrual infrequency or changes, increased pain experienced and menstrual pains are also normal co-symptoms.
So, what did this look like for me?

I first suffered with what I believed was normal end of semester exhaustion in the mist of various personal struggles, normal for a 21 year old woman. After 3 months of feeling this way, my exhaustion lead me to full body bone aches, a consistent inability to wake before 10am, less than 5 hours of thinking time a day and a continued underlying cold to name a few, I went to the doctor. Blood test results came back with a Triple confirmation of EBV infection or glandular fever, and a part answer to my situation. Over the next 2 years my condition was held in control by dietary modification and nutritional supplementation. But at the start of this year, things reverted back. I started having hypoglycemic moments without knowing quite what it was, confused that I was dizzy and nauseous and ravenously hungry, because I had gotten rid of my sugar cravings. These symptoms along with a relapse of the previously mentioned symptoms solidified the need for stronger treatment.

So what did I do?

The first point of call for treating any condition is diet, and HPA axis dysfunction is no exception to the rule. Firstly, I modified the diet to;
low to no grains, including rice, quinoa and wheat varieties.
Vegetable intake was kept at a minimum of 2-3 cups of green leafy vegetables a day (2 cups raw and one cup steamed).
A variety of fats such as; avocado, fish (sardines, tuna, and salmon), coconut oil, olive oil and nuts.
Whole protein sources such as eggs, meats such as; poultry, fish and beef, and a fermented vegan brown rice and golden pea protein powder.
These inclusions focus on high nutrient density, clean, and unprocessed food, which assist with addressing nutritional deficiency, inflammation, and hormone production.

  • High dose vitamin C supplementation daily, was utilized to support adrenal and kidney function by reducing the impact of ascorbic acid dumping with cortisol release. This helped to reduce the development of a functional deficiency and supported immune function.
  • Magnesium 300mg with a vitamin B complex powder once a day helped basic energy production, neuronal signaling and hormone regulation.
  • Epsom salt foot baths where utilized for a practical way to assist with muscle fatigue and cramping. I found, a foot bath more practical because it required less time preparation, less materials used, and I could get more done during the time soaking, such as research.
  • Anti-parasitic herbal tonic to clear any bacterial infection either compromising immune function or increasing irritability of the bowels or inflammation.
  • Probiotic (high dose broad spectrum) replaced bacterial flora, reduced through stress and anti-parasitic herbs. Probiotics assist with increasing digestive function, immune protection, and gut repair.
  • Fermented foods, for a variety of probiotics and are easily digested foods themselves.
  • Increased water intake to 3 Ltr’s a day

While these interventions helped immensely along with a struggle called ‘resting’, any fluctuations with stress even small pushed back on the work I had done. Although the HPA axis was being supported to reduce the continued activation of a stress response, the system had been, in a sense, rewritten and so was more susceptible to activation and following the dysfunctional pathway. To combat this I continued with the above treatment and added an adaptagenic herb complex tablet to each day. Adaptogens assist systems to cope appropriately to their specific stimuli again, in this case, a healthy stress response.

Rest, my final word, and recommendation is the concept of rest. Our current social and professional climates look poorly on the need to rest. Efficiency, work ethic, and productivity are thought to be compromised by rest, however, those who take adequate time for themselves and their families have greater health outcomes, happier workers, and more effective at their jobs overall. Our health especially needs rest which allows not only recuperation of expenditure but also builds stamina for future stressors.

Written by Courtney Jansz, Bc.Hsc. (Nutrition)

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Courtney Jansz

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