It should come as no surprise that the American Psychological Association (APA) found nearly 75 percent of Americans are stressed, and experts are concerned about how stress is affecting the body both physically and emotionally, especially in children young adults. Not only does stress contribute to risk for developing chronic illnesses, suppressed immune function, depression, anxiety and exhaustion. Chronic stress taxes the adrenal glands, which play a critical role in how well the body resists the effects of stress. If the adrenals are not performing properly, feelings of anxiousness, depression and fatigue may occur; it can even affect immunity.
The adrenals are small, triangular glands located on top of each kidney. They secrete hormones that affect metabolism, including cortisol, which controls the body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates; and corticosterone, which helps to suppress inflammation and affects the immune system. They also help the body to cope with stress by secreting adrenaline, which increases heart rate and facilitates blood flow to the muscles and brain; and noradrenaline, which increases blood pressure.
Because managing stress is so dependent on optimal adrenal function, if you feel that yours may be suppressed, a simple saliva test of your cortisol level can indicate if there is an issue. For children in particular, a groundbreaking study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, links cortisol levels not simply to behavior problems, but to the length of time individuals have experienced behavior problems.
Researchers analyzed saliva samples taken from young people during early adolescence. They then matched cortisol levels to behavioral assessments taken in childhood and again during adolescence. Problem behaviors were classified as either "internalizing" (depression and anxiety) or "externalizing" (aggression, attentional problems). Youngsters who developed depression-like symptoms or anxiety problems in adolescence had high levels of cortisol. However, those who developed symptoms earlier had abnormally low cortisol levels. Why?
Cortisol levels go up when individuals are first stressed by depression or anxiety, but then decline again if they experience stress for an extended period. It seems the body adapts to long-term stress, such as depression, by blunting its normal response. Eventually, cortisol levels become abnormally low. In the short term, high levels of cortisol help the body respond to stress. However, in the long term, excessive levels of cortisol are linked to a range of physical and mental health problems. So, to protect itself, the body shuts down the cortisol system -- which is not good either.
This study suggests interventions should begin as soon as a behavioral problem appears. For children with severe externalizing problems, this may be very early, perhaps even when they are preschoolers or toddlers.
For all Americans, adrenals are dependent on mental and emotional health. This cannot be accomplished without dietary and nutritional support. Vitamin C, B-vitamins and magnesium are crucial, since levels of these nutrients in the adrenals are lost during periods of great stress. There are also many herbs that are used for adrenal support, are so dependent on individual need that we cannot recommend them without the expertise of a licensed health professional.