Adrenal glands, the star-shaped endocrine glands located on top of the kidneys, play a major role in regulating our body’s stress response through processing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. When faced with stressors, the adrenal glands, working along with the pituitary gland (the master endocrine gland), excrete increased amounts of these hormones to help us cope with whatever pressing situation is at hand.
These stress hormones can be essential to survival when we are placed in dire peril at a moment’s notice. For example, when our ancestors came face to face with a predator while hunting in the wild, the endocrine system would trigger the fight-or-flight response, and stress hormones would cause the heart and lungs to work harder in order to prepare for a battle or escape. However, in today’s modern world, this process can be unnecessary, and actually harmful. It’s not often today that we have to face down lions on our way to work, but driving in rush hour traffic could have the very same effect on our bodies.
Of course, some stress can be a good thing; it's uncomfortable but, let's face it, without stress life would be pretty dull. Now, you probably know that under certain conditions, stress can be more than uncomfortable: When stress becomes dis tress, it can wreak havoc on your body and your feelings. ( Dis tress occurs when you're under prolonged stress with no chance of resolution or escape.)
How you handle stress can be a matter of life and death. I’ve seen anger, chronic stress, depression, and social isolation take a big toll on patients. Those feelings can light a fuse inside the body that causes an immediate and deadly explosion, such as a heart attack or stroke, or trigger a cascade of harmful chemical changes that become deadly over time. These risk factors are hidden, and doctors don’t usually address them.
The two most common stressors for American women are holding a job and taking care of a household. Research has shown that, of all biographical factors, the combination of these two stressors is most strongly associated with elevated exhaustion scores. Such research revealed a condition that is actually beyond stress. It's called vital exhaustion (VE). If you're feeling chronically "stressed," this is something you should definitely explore. You might actually be stressed to the point of exhaustion.
How do you know?
Symptoms of VE
Two studies, one involving 307 men and women and the other involving 3,877 men, took a close look at VE. These studies defined VE as a mental state characterized by lack of energy, increased irritability, and feelings of dejection or defeat. They also noted a high correlation between elevated exhaustion scores and dyspnea (difficulty breathing), peripheral vascular diseases (like leg claudication, or pain on walking), and the use of medication.
People who suffered from VE tended to have several conditions in common, including lower education, younger age, and female gender. These conditions offer few resources for managing stress. Other causal factors include severe fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and unrecognized, and the expression of hostility and cynicism. The problem is, these studies have shown that when vital exhaustion surfaces, your risk of myocardial events increases. This is particularly true for women. One Dutch investigation of 169 women showed that three major components—unusual fatigue, increased irritability, and feelings of demoralization—preceded the onset of myocardial infarction (MI).
In my book Heart Sense for Women, I made a similar observation. Role strain and exhaustion are risky business for a woman's heart. To put it simply, trying to compete in the workplace like a man, act soft and feminine like a woman, and work like a dog to keep everything in balance is an unholy trinity that places women at tremendous risk for heart disease.
Since studies suggest that women are more vulnerable to exhaustion than men, women need to be informed. They need to know that they're at greater cardiovascular risk, so they'll know what actions to take.
And men, you're not off the hook on this one. If the above symptoms sound familiar to you, read on. The special clinical markers for men, in addition to the symptoms researchers have described, are low energy and a low DHEA level. So if your sex drive is feeling nonexistent, too, you need to listen up.
The Physiology of VE
Why does vital exhaustion increase cardiac vulnerability? Much of the reason has to do with hormones, especially those from the pituitary and adrenal glands I mentioned previously. You might have heard the nickname "adrenal exhaustion." It describes a condition where the immune system has been overwhelmed so many times that it's barely up and running. The problem is that, when your immune system is down, your heart is more likely to be struggling too.
VE also correlates with enhanced blood coagulability, though we are not sure why. In other words, folks with high VE scores have stickier blood. This might be another reason for the high correlation between MI and VE. So if you're feeling vitally exhausted, be mindful that thick or sticky blood can be a harbinger of clots, heart attack, and stroke.
What Is the Solution for VE?
First of all, awareness can be curative. Ask yourself these questions:
Do I feel like I'm in an unremitting state of energy drain?
Am I uncharacteristically jumpy and irritable, ready to pounce at the slightest frustration?
Do I feel down, dejected, demoralized most of the time?
Do I feel I am holding the whole world on my shoulders?
Am I feeling defeated before I even start the day?
If you answer most of these questions affirmatively, you might be vitally exhausted. In that case, you must recognize the situation and dramatically reduce the stressors in your life. One of the best ways to support yourself is with natural remedies. They can help alleviate some of the hormonal and metabolic abnormalities that VE causes. Here are a few tips if you think you might have VE:
Talk to others, particularly about how you are feeling inside. Just letting others know what you're feeling can be like a release valve on a pressure cooker. Here again, psychotherapy is helpful to unravel some aspects of self-destructive behaviors.
Have your doctor check your DHEA level. If it's low, supplemental DHEA might be the answer.
Make sure you take nutrients that thin the blood a little, like garlic. Other natural blood thinners include ginger, ginkgo biloba, and, to some degree, vitamin E.
Take supplemental omega-3s. For VE, a high-quality fish oil can be literally life-saving.
Rest and sleep more, and take time off if you can.