Winter is not usually a season which makes us think of allergies. However, the stress of the holidays, colder weather and dietary slips can all result in “allergy-like” symptoms. All of these things, as well as emotional stress can lead to an exhaustion of the adrenal glands, which puts the immune system at a deficit for being able to handle everyday stresses. These stresses can manifest as the red itchy eyes, dry mucous membranes, hay fever, dermatitis, heart palpitations or sore joints commonly attributed to allergies.

The adrenal glands are responsible for managing stress through the secretion of a hormone called cortisol. Under chronic stress, the adrenal glands produce an excessive amount of cortisol, which over time exhausts them and they become fatigued. When they’ve reached that point, they are unable to produce the amount of cortisol necessary to mount an appropriate defense against stress.

There are four major categories that contribute to adrenal dysfunction:

  1. Emotional Stress –Especially traumatic events, which lead to grief or loss.
  2. Poor Diet –Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, processed foods, GMOs, negatively affect the adrenal glands. When the gut is stressed by a poor diet, the adrenal glands have to increase production of cortisol to regulate the immune system within the gut to compensate.
  3. Environmental Toxins –Though perhaps not under our control all the time, the toxins we put in our bodies directly affect the amount of cortisol that is produced to manage these stressors. Toxins are not only in the smog, smoke and pesticides which are pumped into our atmosphere, but in things like the plastics we use to prepare and package foods, cosmetics we put on our skin, and all the wonderful smelling “new” products we like to fill our homes.
  4. Chronic Inflammation –Inflammation is a key sign of chronic disease. Inflammation can be seen as the adrenal glands trying to “put out the fire.” When inflammation and chronic pain continue they stress the adrenals to the point of complete exhaustion.

Other common symptoms of adrenal dysfunction are: low body temperature, weakness, irritability, poor concentration, excess hunger, insomnia or mental fog, depression, anxiety, weight gain, and low sex drive.

Working with adrenal dysfunction is a multi-faceted journey, incorporating many aspects of daily living to regain balance. It can be frustrating and confusing, as many of the symptoms are vague or annoying. The underlying foundation which will prove the most beneficial is giving the body, mind and spirit the time to rest and recuperate. Adrenal dysfunction must be addressed holistically, and it will be beneficial to have a natural health practitioner as part of your team for guidance and support.

Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision. 

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