Stress Star Cluster

man busy at deskThe Stress Star Cluster is the first useful Star Cluster to explore, because as you'll soon find out it easily and frequently leads to the other star clusters. Excessive stress in life can lead to Adrenal Imbalance, which is in a nutshell:

Stress  ↔ Low energy


 This simple little formula tells you a couple ingredients that make adrenal imbalance so frustrating to go through. For one, stress often contributes to low energy so they often exist together in adrenal imbalance and feed off each other. Low energy makes it harder for the body to deal with stress, and so we have a cycle that continues unchecked. The arrow points back and forth, eventually making it hard to tell what is irking the body the most.

Before we explore the symptoms that make up Adrenal Imbalance, let's first look at what "Adrenal" means, what the adrenal system accomplishes, and how an unbalanced or tired adrenal system leads to many common chronic symptoms.

What is the Adrenal System?

"Adrenal" basically means of or near the kidney. "Ad" (to) plus "renal" (kidneys) lets you know where the adrenal glands are located. The adrenal system consists of two small glands that are situated on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands are endocrine glands, meaning that they release hormones directly into the bloodstream to regulate functions in the body. Both glands have an inner part (called the medulla) and an outer part (called the cortex) that make different hormones that the body uses.

You may recognize a similarly sounding word, adrenaline (or epinephrine) that is a hormone/neurotransmitter made by the inside of your adrenal glands. The outer part makes an important hormone called cortisol, that has everything to do with adrenal balance/imbalance. The adrenal glands also make other hormones, which we'll explore as they come up.


Cortisol is a buzzy hormone. What that means is it alerts the body, prepares it for action, helps the body adapt to stress, and is on during the day. It makes sense that you wouldn't need so much of it in the evening and at night, so it peaks in the morning and declines as the day goes on. What else does cortisol do that's so beneficial to health and survival?

  • Helps regulate heart rate and blood pressure daily and during stressful times
  • Works with other body systems to tailor blood sugar levels according to the body's needs
  • Helps reduce inflammation in the body so that it doesn't run amuck
  • Supports nervous system functions such as concentration, memory, behavior, and mood

Cortisol is the main hormone whose levels become erratic and low when stress is prolonged without any rest in between. When cortisol should be starting to decline before bed, it'll instead be unnaturally high and keep you up (or buzzing). Likewise, in the morning around 8 am when cortisol should serve as your built in alarm clock, its levels will instead be too low to give you enough umph to rise with energy out of bed.

What typical factors contribute to cortisol fluctuations and decline?

There are common causes of adrenal imbalance, many of which will probably sound familiar to you. Some of these may be in response to stressful jobs or situations and some of them are habits that are formed earlier than most people can remember. Once they appear in life, these factors have a tendency to snowball and keep running at a pace that is hard for the body to keep up with. A partial list includes:

  1. Blood sugar derailing diets--Those diets especially high in refined wheat and sugars
  2. Poor sleep habits--Months, but often years of irregular, unrefreshing, and unrestorative sleep
  3. Escape-happy habits--Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and again sugar. Things that make you feel a "high."
  4. Excessive or prolonged...mental/emotional anguish, including worries, anxieties, and stress

Try out these "Adrenal Observations" experiments below that point out common clues that your body might send you during stress and especially prolonged stress.

Adrenal Observation 1

Notice for a week how often you crave sugar, caffeine, or nicotine. Also note when you crave these things, if you do at all.

If you find that you are craving these substances daily, and even multiple times a day, you may have a case of adrenal imbalance. Craving substances that make you feel a buzz or a high are often the body's way of saying, "My adrenals are tired, and I want some quick energy--now!" They often create a temporary high, only leading to a crash afterward and often withdrawal if you abstain from them for a while.

These habits also place additional burden on the adrenals by increasing an already hyper-alert state in the body.

Adrenal Observation 2

Right now, go ahead and see if you can lower your shoulders at all away from your ears.

If you can noticeably lower them, they were probably hiked up from tension and stress. Checking in with your shoulders from time to time can help you notice when stress is creeping into life.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? The lifestyle factors above knock on the adrenal glands' door to ask for more cortisol, but they're demanding supplies that are too high for the body to keep up with. The body doesn't like these demands, and you'll be able to tell by the clues it gives you--a.k.a. stars.

At first, when stress is happening in small amounts, the adrenal glands will provide you the cortisol you need for an extra boost during challenging times. You may be familiar with the "fight-or-flight" response that is often talked about, which will give you an adrenaline rush during an emergency so that you have the alertness and strength to either run or fight.

Imagine having micro (or small) fight-or-flight responses nearly every day. Sure, it won't be the same amount of adrenaline and cortisol release that it takes to run as fast as Tom Cruise in a "Mission Impossible" movie or to lift a car. But on a micro level, the mini cortisol and adrenaline pushes will have an effect on the body that isn't too noticeable at first. After enough time spent dealing with accumulated stress, however, the body will react--and it will be noticeable.

During a typical fight-or-flight response, the senses take in input about the danger and transmit them to your brain. The brain sends signals to your heart, muscles, adrenal glands, blood vessels, lungs and other organs to react immediately by releasing quick energy and sugar. During a micro response, the same organs are affected and you are kept in a state of unnatural alertness without the ability to truly relax and unwind. Everyone needs to unwind sometimes!

Prolonged high cortisol levels actually start to wear the body down in the following ways:

  • Weakens and breaks down muscle and bone
  • Slows growth and repair in the body
  • Takes up important molecules that help make other hormones in the body
  • Creates overall hormonal imbalance 
  • Disrupts blood sugar regulation and promotes weight gain
  • Weakens the immune system
  • Makes the brain feel wired, dazed, or both
  • Leaves little or no energy for healthy functioning

Over time, the adrenals have less ability to keep up with a high demand for cortisol. If you or someone you know has high amounts of stress, it's important to know which symptoms can creep up during adrenal imbalance.

Because the effects of the Adrenal glands' functions reach so many organs, the symptoms from adrenal imbalance are spread out across many organ systems. Metabolism is affected, as well as immunity, nervous system function, hormonal balance, and other body functions. Here is a partial list of some common symptoms seen from adrenal imbalance.

  • Weight gain
  • Fuzzy thinking
  • Insomnia
  • Bad fatigue
  • Thyroid imbalance
  • Quick and stressful aging
  • Extreme mood fluctuations
  • Skin problems such as acne
  • Tight neck/shoulder muscles

Read down the Stress Star Cluster page to find out more about some of the more complex symptoms and how they're interconnected, along with how adrenal imbalance affects other star clusters.

Stress Stars

Click through the symptoms below to find out more about the stars that make up the stress star cluster. You'll notice how one star can easily affect other stars. For example, sleeping problems can cause low energy and low energy can then make the immune system feel weaker. See how many connections you can spot among the stress stars. For more information and help on how to resolve stress-related symptoms that may be affecting your health, click on the button below to take the Stress Level Survey and visit our Services page.

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Weight Gain

Stress and adrenal imbalance cause weight gain in a couple ways. In nature, when a creature is in a state of stress, the body reacts by quickly releasing lots of energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats. Once the threat is gone, however, there is a physiological response to refuel with calorie dense foods that can be stored as fat.

The same happens for us with repeated stress signals in the body. First, our energy stores release primarily carbohydrates and some fat to meet the body's demands. But we don't really need all the extra calories made available during stress spurts, so the fat from excess calories needs to go somewhere. It is primarily stored around the abdomen leading to a "spare tire" around the middle.

We also start craving heavy comfort foods with lots of fat and feel good sugars to "refuel" the body because it is prepping for future danger, even though the initial stress is not often big enough to be called danger. Under the influence of repeated stress and cortisol, the body becomes less sensitive to leptin, which is a hormone that usually signals satiety (or fullness) after a meal. Without the fullness signal, we are more likely to overeat.


Fuzzy Thinking, and More Brain Stuff

There is an assumption that memory function and speed of thought slow down only as the body ages. It may be surprising to hear that constant stress can fray the brain's mojo at any age so that you can forget simple things and overall feel mentally slower.

Chronic stress pumps out high levels of buzzy and energetic hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine like we talked about earlier. This fueled cocktail leads to symptoms of cortisol dominance in the body, not just physically but also mentally. Disrupted cortisol levels act on the brain by affecting memory, concentration, and learning. With spikes in cortisol, there are also times when the body can't keep up and cortisol supply is too low, also affecting mental functions.

There are some telltale signs of whether the mind has been under the influence of too much, or too little cortisol.

  • In the morning, it may be hard to get your mind jogging and involved in the day (Too little cortisol)
  • During unexpected moments, thoughts may start racing frantically (Too much)
  • You feel wired a lot, even when not drinking coffee (Too much)
  • You just feel foggy overall, and the head feels heavy and murky (Swamp Brain, too little cortisol)
  • You're forgetting where your keys or wallet/purse are...a lot (Too much or too little)
  • Learning new things is too hard compared to before (Too much or too little)

The effects of too much and too little cortisol often yo-yo back and forth, so that you may experience multiple disruptions in your nervous system at once. You might feel wired for a few hours, and then very foggy. It can be rather unpredictable.

Chronic stress can lead to short-term and long-term changes in the brain's activity, and can make you feel mentally older than you really are. It also causes problems in the production of neurotransmitters that help regulate mood, leaving us grumpy, irritated, and depressed.

Trouble Sleeping

Did you know that stress is the main cause of insomnia that so many people suffer from? People with constant stress have higher levels of cortisol released in the evening before bedtime and in the first half of sleep. They also have more quickened brain-wave activity during part of the sleep cycle. What all of this means is when the body should be unwinding and getting rest, a stressed body is instead in a state of arousal even during sleep.

Usually when we fall asleep, the metabolism slows down, heart rate slows, and blood pressure goes down. Muscles start to relax after a long day and the activity of nerve cells in the brain get into sleep mode and away from the complex activities from the daytime. Cortisol, which is an active and excitatory hormone should wind down to allow all these restful changes to take place.

But in people who experience stress all day, day in day out, the cortisol levels usually do not drop enough before bed and make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, and have deep restorative sleep. Restorative sleep is so important for many facets of health including:

  • A regularly moving digestion
  • Healthy and toned skin
  • A strong immune system
  • Balanced mood
  • Repair of muscles and other tissues
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Clarity of mind
  • Hormonal balance

It's pretty easy to see why rampant stress, and resulting poor sleep are big culprits of many health issues and star clusters. Once both are attended to, it is remarkable what kinds of positive changes can result in overall health.


Fatigue and Exhaustion

Remember the formula "Stress  ↔ Low energy" that we looked at earlier to describe the vicious cycle of adrenal imbalance? We're going to talk about it a bit more now in terms of how it leads to fatigue.

The term Adrenal Fatigue came about because the most common symptom people will report to their doctors when suffering from adrenal imbalance is fatigue. There just doesn't seem to be enough energy to get moving through the day, and people will feel almost like they're being dragged along from morning to night.

Cortisol is the active excitatory hormone, so why do high levels of circulating cortisol in the blood cause fatigue instead of just more energy? That's a good question.

Cortisol and adrenaline both do give the body energy and in extra amounts when stress levels are higher. But the kind of energy provided by these buzzy hormone spikes are more like jolts rather than gentle and supportive lifts. The naturally sustained energy provided by a healthy diurnal (during the daytime) cortisol curve looks like this:

Moving from left to right, the curve shows changing levels of cortisol from early in the morning to right before bed. The level peaks in the morning right around 8 a.m. and then slowly goes down as the day progresses and you require less energy toward evening, night, and during sleep. The low levels before bedtime allow your body to unwind and get prepared for sleep.

The mini energy jolts provided by increased cortisol levels during stress aren't always helpful, especially during times when you need to unwind and get rest. High levels can, first off, rob you of sleep. Second, your energy reserves are being shunted toward dealing with repeated stresses at the expense of healthily maintaining regular functions in the body such as smooth digestion, strong immunity, active metabolism, and hormonal balance, among others.

Combining a lack of sleep with disrupted organ systems, fatigue sets in and then cycles back around causing even more stress. Reading this doesn't have to stress you out, however. There are ways to both bring cortisol release back into balance and curb what feels like never ending fatigue. Keep reading the page to find out more.


Thyroid Imbalance

Adrenal imbalance can easily lead to thyroid imbalances as well, so it's usually a good idea to get both checked out when you're feeling tired and low on energy. How are these two areas of health related?

The thyroid's hormones tell the body how fast to burn energy (metabolism) and make proteins. Just like the adrenal glands, the thyroid glands act as the body's sensors in that they respond to changes in and out of the body. With the input they get, both the adrenals and thyroid relay the information back and forth between the brain and body so they can react accordingly.

Science Alert--Read on to see how these 2 sensors connect:
  • Excess cortisol blocks thyroid activity from happening to its fullest capacity.
  • The hormone that signals cortisol's release from the adrenal glands (Corticotropin Releasing Hormone--CRH) also blocks thyroid activity in excess. CRH comes from the brain's hypothalamus.

How do excess cortisol and CRH block the thyroid? First, with a little more science speak:

  • Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) released from the pituitary gland near the brain is blocked.
  • TSH therefore can't tell the thyroid to make hormones.
  • The less active thyroid hormone T4 (thyroxine) is also blocked from being converted to the more active T3 (triiodothyronine) in the liver.


Okay, so you'll probably recognize what happens next as thyroid-related symptoms, some of which also sound like adrenal imbalance symptoms. These include:

Fatigue, Cold intolerance, Weight Gain, Poor Memory, Poor Concentration, Depression, Hair Loss, Dry skin, and Infertility

The changes that occur with adrenal imbalance and their effect on the thyroid can happen quietly for years without causing blatant symptoms. Even lab results can't always be accurate on thyroid health, because normal results can still persist in the face of bothersome thyroid-type symptoms (typically called subclinical hypothyroidism).

In conclusion, if you're dealing with these overlapping symptoms it's important to get both adrenal and thyroid function checked out.