TCM Approach to Adrenal Gland Exhaustion

THE ADRENAL GLANDS' RESPONSE TO CHRONIC STRESS CAN PRODUCE A RANGE OF MENTAL AND PHYSICAL AILMENTS

The adrenal glands are located at the top of each kidney. In describing the  function of these glands, physiologist Mr. Walter Cannon, in 1915, discussed it in relation to the body’s reaction to stressful situations as a “fight-or flight” mechanism. When the pituitary gland receives a high stress signal, the adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) is released into the bloodstream, stimulating the liver to provide the body with stored carbohydrates which in turn provide extra energy and increase muscle tension, blood pressure, heartbeat, respiration.

The adrenal glands consist of two regions called the cortex and medulla, each of which performs different functions:
– The adrenal cortex secretes hormones that effect the body’s metabolism and physiological characteristics. Cortisol and corticosterone, both corticosteroids, and the hormone aldosterone are secreted from the adrenal cortex directly into the bloodstream.
– The adrenal medulla helps the body handle emotional and physical stress by secreting the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones contribute to the body’s “fight or flight” response by increasing blood pressure and blood flow, relaxing smooth muscles and increasing the body’s energy supply by stimulating the release of blood sugar, or glucose, from the liver.

Stress and the Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands are very sensitive to stress. Their response to chronic stress, in combination with a number of other factors, can produce a wide range of mental and physical problems or illnesses.

My years of personal clinical observation have bolstered my strong belief in the crucial role that stress plays in many diseases. This stress mechanism, and others associated with it, can produce a wide range of physical, as well as mental, problems.The exact mechanism by which this occurs, however, is unclear in western medicine. The list of disorders that chronic stress can create includes, but is not limited to:

• Gastrointestinal Disorders: ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
• Genitourinary Disorders: impotence, incontinence, menstrual problems
• Cardiovascular Disorders: coronary artery disease, stroke, heart attack
• Immunological Disorders: possible tumour promotion, reduced resistance to infection
• Psychiatric Disorders: neuroses, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

TCM and Adrenal Gland Exhaustion

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory adheres to a macro approach (Western medicine tends more towards a micro approach, focusing inwards on the fine details of cancer cells, for example). In contrast, Chinese medicine’s macro approach will focus on the whole person, as well as outward toward their environment. The TCM practitioner typically utilizes the concept of correlation and examines all aspects of the person’s life – physical and mental – taking note of sleep patterns, diet, digestion, etc., in order to build a complete picture of each unique patient). I use the term Macro Correlation Concept to educate both my students and my patients. In the ancient TCM textbooks, one diagnostic term (among others that may be applicable, depending on the patient’s unique constitution) regarding adrenal gland exhaustion is named ‘The Fire of the Vital Gate’.

Let’s look at the ways that adrenal gland exhaustion can manifest in the human body, from a TCM perspective.

Kidney Yang Deficiency – Symptoms that can indicate kidney yang deficiency include: cold limbs, weakness in the loins and knees, intolerance of coldness (especially in the legs), frequent urination, especially during the night; and in men, kidney yang deficiency can cause impotence, while in women it can cause difficulty with conception.

Kidney yang deficiency is often involved in cases of hypothyroidism, adrenal weakness, chronic kidney inflammation, chronic enteritis (small intestine inflammation).

Kidney Yin Deficiency – Symptoms that can indicate kidney yin deficiency include: night sweats, weakness in the loins, weight loss, insomnia, amnesia, anxiety with feverish sensation in the chest, palms and soles, along with dry mouth or throat, and fever.

This syndrome can be found in cases of tuberculosis, chronic kidney inflammation, diabetes, and sterility.

Kidney Essence Deficiency – Symptoms include:
in children: retarded growth, blunted mental acuity, rickets; in adults: senility, hair loss, dull skin, loose teeth, tinnitus or deafness, amnesia, wobbly legs; in men: sterility, low sperm count; in women: menstrual problems, sterility; in both men and women: low sexual function.

Liver Chi Stagnation: Symptoms that can indicate liver chi stagnation include: depression, chronic anger, distending pain in the lower abdomen, heaviness in the chest, difficulty swallowing; in women: pain in the breasts, painful menstrual cramps. This syndrome can be found in chronic cases of hepatitis, gallbladder inflammation, gastritis, and gastric or duodenal ulcer.

In today’s fast-paced world, the body can easily be adversely affected by stress, unhealthy diet, overwork,  long-term medication use, pollution, and any number of auto-immune disorders which disrupt the entire body.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and Qigong meditation can help to heal or relieve adrenal gland exhaustion.

Furthermore, environmental stress factors may be unavoidable, but a gentle 45-minute long walk, or a session of Qigong, yoga, or Tai Chi before bedtime can help you to reduce, or even eliminate the potential harm that a stressful day can impart.

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