There is no denying that many of the chronic ailments people suffer from today are worsened by (or even directly caused by) stress. This has been demonstrated in doctors’ offices for decades as well as being discussed in the media and in medical conferences and confirmed by medical research. Illnesses such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia all have connections to stressors we are exposed to in our lives. If we know this to be true, why then don’t more doctors (and their patients) pay more attention to stress itself?

Although many physicians tell patients that stress is merely in their heads, true stress and our response to it is a full-body phenomenon, from the immune system to digestion to hormones to neurological function and all points in between. In particular, people who are more sensitive to stress generally need only some type of added stimulus (the straw that breaks the camel’s back, if you will) to finally trigger the symptoms (a normal biological response) of whatever their particular chronic illness may be. This stress can be of any nature, not just emotional, and is certainly not just “all in our heads.” Some examples include the physical stress of an automobile accident, a physical trauma, a virus, the energy expenditure of caring for an ailing parent, the mental stress of an exam or large project at work, or a true emotional stressor like a death in the family, divorce, or abuse of some kind. No matter what the cause, the response to all these stressors has one thing in common: the adrenal glands.

The adrenals are small glands that sit on top of your kidneys and function as part of your hormone system. These relatively unheard of glands have the incredible job, in conjunction with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, of determining how we handle any stress in our lives. When presented with a stressor, whether concrete or perceived, the adrenals are automatically stimulated by the nervous system to release the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These hormones have a global effect on the organs and tissues of the body, resulting in modulation of our blood sugar, inflammation and the immune response, cardiovascular tone, digestive function, and even the construction and breakdown of our muscles and connective tissue.

To get an idea of what it’s like when the adrenals are vigorously stimulated, picture your immediate response to speaking in public or getting cut off in traffic. Feel the blood rushing to your muscles and heart as your eyes dilate, your pores open with sweat, and your breathing and heart rate quicken—you are now experiencing fight or flight. This is the stress response. At this point you are, in effect, set either to run away from or to try to kill the proverbial tiger. The problem is that there are far too many “tigers” (stresses and demands) in society today—our jobs and bosses, families, schedules, children’s schedules, gas prices, politics, and what kind of protein, fat, and carbohydrate (if any at all) is okay for dinner. It is precisely this combination of an inability to adapt to constant overstimulation of the adrenal glands and the adrenals far-reaching influence over the body’s systems that make them the common denominator in the various illnesses experienced by so many patients.

Signs and symptoms of weakened adrenal glands include (but are in no way limited to) fatigue, pain, frequent colds, allergy, headaches, irritable bowel, low (or high) blood pressure, lightheadedness, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, poor blood sugar control, “brain fog,” and a multitude of other hormone-related imbalances such as PMS, menopausal complaints, low libido, hypothyroidism . . . and the list goes on. Any of this sound like anyone you know? If so, then he needs to be evaluated for adrenal dysfunction and will more than likely need to find ways to both reduce and better cope with his stress. A simple salivary hormone test, available online, that can be done at home has been shown to provide an accurate assessment of adrenal hormone status.

The bottom line is that too much stress weakens adrenal function, which may lead to a myriad of symptoms. Can we as doctors and patients do something about this? The answer is a resounding yes!

The first and foremost way to strengthen adrenal function is to reduce stress. The bottom line is that we have choices in life, and the trouble is that we are choosing to make our lives more stressful than they need to be. The reduction of stress starts with the recognition of the various stressors in our world; it is only then that we can begin to deal with them. This requires work and effort, but the fruits of this labor include a greater sense of health, balance, energy, love, satisfaction, and well-being.

One of the major stressors that we have in society today is a poor diet. Proper diet and nutrition starts with proper prenatal nutrition, which is currently inadequate; continues through breast-feeding, which we’ve been told is not all that important because it can be replaced by formula; and continues on throughout life with the often appalling choices of what we call food. The quality of our current food supply and eating habits is, to put it quite simply, abysmal and beyond the scope of this article.

One of the major tenets in naturopathic medicine is that we must follow the laws of nature. These laws are undeniable—if you don’t believe this, put down this article, decide not to be subjected to the law of gravity, and see how you fare. Nature provides us with high-quality, nutrient-dense, nourishing foods from the earth. This is what is required to truly build our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. What we don’t need is so-called food created in a chemist’s lab from genetically modified seed, farmed in nutritionally deplete soils laden with so-called safe pesticides and chemicals—food that has been stripped down (i.e., “enriched”) to make it last longer on the shelf or food that has been manipulated to be “low-fat,” “low-carb,” or “sugar-free.” Sounds not only delicious, but nutritious, right?

We need to shift from blindly accepting that everything in the supermarket is good for us and from eating for purposes other than nutrition to eating to nourish our entire beings. Specific to adrenal patients is the necessity for a blood sugar–balancing diet, the principles of which are relatively simple. Eat small, frequent meals of whole foods, eat protein and fiber with each meal, eat only whole grains, and avoid refined carbohydrates such as most breads, pastas, and potatoes as well as sugar-laden foods like cakes, cookies, and most processed foods. This may be easy to say but can be a lot less easy to put into daily practice. However, if we control our blood sugar (and nutritional status) with our diets, then our adrenals have just one less thing to do. And in a world of constant, unavoidable stress, we have to pick our battles by focusing on those stressors that we can control.

Another crucial aspect of stress reduction is balance—in all things. Our lives are too hectic and busy and often too overscheduled and demanding. We work too much and play too little. To survive this life, we must make time for ourselves and our families, we must find quiet and peace, and we must find balance. There are many ways for us to bring about this balance: from deep breathing and prayer, to meditation and massage, to walking and exercise. This is essential if we are to heal ourselves for the long term. Balance is possible if we prioritize it and focus on it.

In addition to lifestyle modification and dietary changes, there are certainly nutritional supplements, vitamins, and herbs that can be utilized to supplement these core changes in our lives, but these things must only be used in addition to these other very fundamental changes if we want to avoid the ongoing cycle of transient improvements followed by relapses when the next stressor presents itself.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health”, visit

Author's Bio: 

D. Andrew Neville, ND, trained as a naturopathic physician at Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington, prior to undertaking a residency with Dr. Gerald Poesnecker, a pioneer in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome and adrenal weakness. He now focuses his entire practice on helping people with this debilitating yet largely unrecognized condition. He practices at Clymer Healing Center in beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in an integrated medical setting. He is a member of the International Association of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the CFIDS Association of America, and the Weston A. Price Foundation. As a board member of the Pennsylvania Association of Naturopathic Physicians, he is active in pursuing state licensing efforts for trained naturopathic physicians to ensure freedom of choice to all qualified health care providers.