Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Designed to regulate blood pressure and immunity during a physical or emotional crisis, cortisol helps people tap into their energy reserves and increases their ability to fight off infection or danger. Unfortunately, unrelenting stress keeps this “fight or flight” survival mechanism afloat and undermines cortisol’s good intentions. Chronically high cortisol levels ultimately cause a variety of physiological problems, including fatigue. Fortunately, there is hope for sufferers of stress-induced fatigue. By activating the body’s relaxation response, people can access nature’s antidote to cortisol production.
The Adrenals – Makers of Cortisol
An important control center for many of the body’s hormones, the adrenal glands are walnut-sized glands located on top of each kidney. Responsible for producing cortisol, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), estrogen and testosterone, the adrenal cortex is this gland’s outer layer. The centers of the adrenal glands produce adrenaline, the hormone named after them.
By increasing the production of adrenaline and other hormones, the adrenal glands’ primary task is to concentrate all of the body’s resources into “fight or flight” mode. Healthy adrenal glands can instantly increase heart rate and blood pressure, release energy stores for immediate use, slow digestion and other secondary functions and sharpen the senses.
Because a person’s survival could rely on adrenal activation, the body prioritizes the “fight or flight” response over all of its other metabolic functions. To help the body quickly respond to imminent danger, the adrenal’s release of hormones evolved as a short-term solution. While this is useful for escaping a rabid animal, the adrenals are not designed to provide a continual hormonal supply.
Unlike our ancestors, many modern humans live under constant stress. Instead of occasional, acute demands followed by rest, many people’s high-stress lifestyles overwhelm their adrenal glands. Inevitably, this unremitting cycle leads to adrenal exhaustion.
When chronically overworked adrenals strain to maintain high cortisol levels, they lose the capacity to produce sufficient amounts of DHEA. Necessary to moderate the balance of hormones in the body, DHEA is a precursor hormone to estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. While there may be many other accompanying symptoms, DHEA insufficiency undoubtedly causes fatigue.
Stopping Adrenal Exhaustion
Many healthcare practitioners help their tired patients by identifying adrenal exhaustion and working with strategies that target adrenal gland recovery. However, those who experience profound fatigue can help themselves by blocking the process responsible for their low energy – the “fight or flight” mechanism.
When you recognize being under constant stress, consciously focusing on relaxation can stop your body’s requests for cortisol. According to Herbert Benson, MD, the founding president of the Harvard Medical School Mind/Body Medical Institute, relaxation techniques can help undo the damage done by stress hormones.
Scientists around the world, including at the Harvard Mind/Body Medical Institute, have studied what techniques bring about a healthy relaxation response. The following approaches have been found useful for interrupting “fight or flight”:
- Meditation – In a six-week Thai study at Maharishi University, subjects who practiced Buddhist meditation daily for four months decreased cortisol by an average of 20 percent.
- Prayer – According to University of Mississippi researchers, religious rituals can lower cortisol secretion by up to 25 percent.
- Massage – According to studies at the University of Miami School of Medicine, massage therapy reduces cortisol levels by an average of 31 percent.
- Humor – According to researchers at Loma Linda University, laughter really is the best medicine. They found that laughing – or even anticipating laughter – is enough to reduce cortisol levels by up to 39 percent.
There are so many possible causes for fatigue. However, struggling with high, prolonged levels of cortisol is becoming a more likely culprit of exhaustion than ever before. Luckily, you can reverse the demand for this stress hormone by simply meditating, praying, receiving a massage or laughing. Supported by research spanning across a variety of disciplines, initiating the relaxation response gives your adrenal glands a break, which is a phenomenon capable of successfully restoring your energy levels.