Adrenal Health: A Direct Link to PTSD

By Heidi Toy, Educated Nutrition      

Psychological trauma can cause both acute and long-term issues in individuals. Acute impact can include things such as panic, anxiety, confusion, and heightened cortisol levels due to this response. Some individuals will develop acute stress disorder (ASD), and 80 percent of those individuals will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The psychological trauma brought about by the experience of profound threat leads to a longer-term syndrome that has been defined, validated, and termed PTSD in the clinical literature. PTSD is often accompanied by devastating functional impairment. PTSD is a debilitating anxiety disorder that can be triggered by the smallest things. PTSD victims suffer from hyper-arousal, reliving traumatic events, and avoidance.

Most individuals are aware of trauma’s effects on our mental states, but not the physical effects it has on our bodies. During times of trauma and the PTSD that may follow, an individual’s adrenal glands take a terrible toll. When the brain perceives a threat, the adrenal glands flood the body with adrenaline and cortisol; our body’s natural reaction being “fight or flight.” In individuals with PTSD, quite often military personnel or first responders, the persistent state of hyper-arousal can even lead to permanent neurological changes.

The brain monitors the amount of cortisol our bodies require. Cortisol helps regulate the immune system, blood sugar, and tendencies toward depression. The adrenal system is responsible for processing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can be severely affected after significant trauma leading to PTSD. A variety of symptoms can occur, such as fatigue, exhaustion, and stress overload.

The adrenal glands not only help regulate the body’s reaction to stress, but also produce hormones that regulate reproduction. The major stress hormones are cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These hormones help increase energy, increase blood sugar levels, and speed up circulation and respiration to help the body survive through fight or flight. The major sex hormones produced by the adrenals are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These are all critical for growth, metabolism, strength, endurance, mental drive, menstrual function, and reproductive ability.

Depending on how long an individual with PTSD suffers from adrenal fatigue, they can suffer from both hyper-adrenal issues, as well as hypo-adrenal issues. Individuals with current on-set PTSD are stuck in a state of stress producing stress hormones at higher than normal levels. Individuals who have suffered from PTSD for a longer period have lower cortisol levels than normal, like with advanced adrenal fatigue where energy levels crash from reduced adrenal function.

Most Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals are now being staffed with individuals that are well-versed in PTSD; however, many still do not understand the role the adrenal glands play as the Western medical community does not recognize adrenal fatigue as an accepted diagnosis, although, the symptoms are significant enough to impair a person’s life following the experience or trauma.

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include: slow morning starter, insomnia, crave salty foods, tendency to need sunglasses, bright lights at night bother eyes, tend to be keyed up/trouble calming down, become dizzy when standing up suddenly, experience “hangry” hungry and/or angry if meals are missed (hypoglycemia). If you experience any of these symptoms, lab-based adrenal testing via saliva or DUTCH urine by a practitioner who is versed in reading these tests and writing adequate healing protocols using supplementation, diet, and lifestyle changes should be considered. For the months of May/June 2017, any military or first responder personnel who presents this article to our office will receive $50 off an adrenal saliva index test (not redeemable for cash).

Adrenal Restoration Tips:

Stress management   • Get adequate sleep. 7 to 8 hours of sleep beginning at 10:00 p.m. is much more restoring to the adrenals than 8 hours beginning at 1:00 a.m. Nap, if needed, but not enough to interfere with night sleep • Relaxation: Breathing or skilled relaxation exercises, listen to relaxation tapes, meditate, biofeedback • Accept nurturing and affection • Laughter • Counseling

Diet • Whole foods • Avoid refined sugar • Avoid alcohol • Adequate protein • Eliminate/Reduce caffeine • Avoid all allergic foods such as gluten, soy, corn, which can weaken the system and can be an adrenal stressor • Fasting and detoxification/cleansing diets should be avoided, at least initially

Heidi Toy is a functional medicine practitioner, and the owner of Educated Nutrition, located in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Her focus is helping people heal holistically, with an emphasis on digestion, weight loss, depression, female hormone issues, and fatigue.