By Dr Sandra Cabot
People who have been subjected to prolonged physical and-or mental stress often go to see a doctor complaining of severe fatigue, lack of emotions, insomnia and anxiety.
The doctor may not realise that these symptoms are hiding the patient’s true diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Everyone knows PTSD occurs in war veterans but it can arise in many other settings. Think of someone who has been a shift worker for 30 years, a woman who has endured domestic violence, a parent with several autistic children, a full-time carer, or a person raised in a violent household.
Therapies used to heal PTSD may include clinical hypnosis, counselling, anti-depressant drugs, yoga and Pilates.
Adrenal glands involved
We know that PTSD can affect the whole body and can have a sudden or gradual onset. It affects the endocrine system via the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. The adrenals become adversely affected and the symptoms become worse.
The adrenal glands can be compared to energising batteries in our body. The soft centre of the adrenal glands is called the adrenal medulla and it manufactures adrenalin from the amino acid tyrosine. The medulla secretes adrenalin into the blood stream to regulate heart rate and blood pressure and to stimulate our nervous system.
If your adrenals are unable to produce adequate adrenalin levels, you will feel fatigued and probably depressed, just like a flat battery.
Fight or flight
Conversely, if your adrenals manufacture excess adrenalin you will feel like an over charged battery. Your blood pressure and heart rate will increase, you will feel ready for fight or flight and you may become restless. This is fantastic if you are just about to enter a competitive sport game or need to fight to survive but not if you are trying to relax on the weekend.
Some people crave stimulants such as cocaine or caffeine because these substances cause the adrenal glands to pump out more adrenalin. Cocaine hydrochloride is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant, which is indigenous to the Andean highlands of South America. In its purified form, it is one of the most potent stimulants of natural origin.
For thousands of years, the Native Americans in the Andean region have chewed coca leaves to relieve fatigue. North American Indians used cocaine to prepare themselves for fierce battles. Thus, you can understand how adrenalin can be addictive and why adequate blood levels are essential for good health, success and survival. In our dog-eat-dog world, we really do need healthy adrenal glands!
Cortisol and DHEA
Surrounding the adrenal medulla there is another part of the adrenal glands called the adrenal cortex. The cortex manufactures steroid hormones from cholesterol; it turns cholesterol into the hormone pregnenolone, which is then turned into cortisol, DHEA and aldosterone, amongst other hormones. Cortisol reduces inflammation that is produced by free radicals in the body and DHEA makes us physically and emotionally more robust.
Recovery requires support
The adrenal glands are high in fat and fat is easily oxidized by free radicals; thus, our adrenal glands are vulnerable to damage from many causes. I call our adrenal glands our “survival glands” and to recover from PTSD it is essential to support them.
The symptoms of underactive adrenal glands are:
- Extreme fatigue, often worse in the mornings
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness and light headedness
- Excess inflammation anywhere in the body which may manifest as fibromyalgia, or other painful conditions
- Severe reactions to infections
- Increase in severity of allergies
Testing adrenal function
It is easy to check the function of your adrenal glands. A blood test to measure cortisol levels in the morning and evening are done, as well as levels of DHEA.
If the cortisol levels are below the normal range a specialised test is done to diagnose adrenal failure. If the cortisol levels are within the normal range but are at the lower limit of the normal range, we can diagnose adrenal malfunction.
Adrenal malfunction needs to be monitored as it can progress to adrenal failure. Endocrinologists treat adrenal failure with synthetic steroids, namely hydrocortisone, fludrocortisone and this is life saving.
Causes of adrenal malfunction can include:
- Chronic stress, especially PTSD
- Chronic insomnia
- Heavy smoking
Adrenal gland dysfunction of mild to moderate degree is much more common than adrenal gland failure, however it too can produce crippling fatigue and emotional disorders, if left untreated.
Supplements to boost adrenal gland function include:
- Vitamin C in a dose of 2,000mg daily – this is very protective of the adrenal glands. The highest concentrations of vitamin C are found in the adrenal and pituitary glands and that is because these fatty glands are prone to damage. The body stores vitamin C in these glands because it knows they need to be protected. Yes, the body knows these are our survival glands.
- Magnesium in a dose of 200 to 400mg daily
- Tyrosine tablets or powder 500mg tablets, 2 twice daily
- Beef adrenal capsules in daily doses ranging from 100mg to 300mg taken once or twice daily. The most important dose is the morning dose, so do not forget it!
Adrenal gland supplements are available in capsule form and are popular in the US, but are largely unknown in Australia. This is a pity, as these adrenal gland supplements can work very well. Adrenal gland capsules are available on the Internet from the US and vary in strength from 100 to 250mg per capsule. The Liver Doctor brand of adrenal gland capsules is derived from free range grass-fed Australian and New Zealand cattle.
Melatonin can also help: doses range from two to six milligrams to aid sleep. Melatonin is the natural sleep hormone made in the tiny gland called the Pineal gland, which is situated at the base of the brain and communicates directly with the brain
Supplementing with DHEA (Dehydro-epiandrosterone) can help people with adrenal gland exhaustion. In the US, capsules of DHEA are available over the counter or via the internet, but in Australia and New Zealand, DHEA is only available on prescription.
Dr Sandra Cabot is the Medical and Executive Director of the Australian Women’s Health Advisory Service. Her ground-breaking books, including Hormones – Don’t Let Them Ruin Your Life, The Body Shaping Diet and The Liver Cleansing Diet. Her medical centres are at Camden, South Australia, and Merimbula, New South Wales. www.cabothealth.com.au