The adrenal glands are responsible for secreting essential sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, as well as steroid hormones like cortisol and aldosterone. Their chief function is to regulate our hormones while controlling our bodies’ reaction to stress. It is the adrenal medulla, or inner region of the adrenal glands, that helps us cope with physical, emotional and mental stress. The effects of coffee on the adrenal glands are substantial, triggering the release of those hormones artificially, which produces an unnatural state of alertness. After prolonged stimulation, the adrenal glands become completely depleted and this can result in a host of psychological and physical effects.
When the adrenal glands are stimulated, they release a potent cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters, with none so powerful as adrenaline. Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is triggered by the flight or fight response. The function of adrenaline is to ready us for emergency situations. It is what enables fire fighters to carry bodies out of burning buildings, or a mother to lift a car to save her child. It is what propels an athlete into super stardom, a remnant from our caveman days when survival meant split-second reflexes and superhuman bursts of speed. Caffeine taps into that primitive hormone, flooding our bodies with excess amounts of it, which causes our pulses to race, pupils to dilate and regular functions such as digestion to shut down.
Fight or Flight Response
Human beings have a universal reaction to real or perceived danger. The Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye named this response GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome). Selye proposed that when our bodies are put under stress or threatened with danger, we graduate through three distinct stages. Stage one is alarm, where adrenaline and cortisol are first pumped out in order to provoke the fight or flight response. Stage two is resistance, where the body tries to find a way to cope with the increased stress level. Finally, stage three is exhaustion. The body’s primary functions break down, resulting in a depleted immune system that acts as a gateway for a host of diseases and illnesses.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
When adrenal exhaustion goes on for too long, you can develop a condition called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This syndrome usually follows another sickness or illness and can persist for six or more months. The symptoms range from muscular pain and weakness to depression, dizziness and severe fatigue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “between 1 and 4 million Americans suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).”
Adrenal exhaustion can lead to disrupted sleep patterns, weight gain, decreased immune response, mood disorders, chronic fatigue and the breakdown of muscle and bone. These effects are largely due to the production of a chemical called cortisol. Short-term production is considered a good thing, but long-term cortisol production can overtax the adrenal glands, effectively tiring out your body. Stephen Cherniske, author of “Caffeine Blues,” has dubbed the state of toxicity from copious amounts of caffeine: “caffeinism.” He states that caffeinism “usually combines physical addiction with a wide range of debilitating effects, most notably anxiety, irritability, mood swings, sleep disturbance, depression and fatigue.”
An easy solution would be to quit drinking coffee, if it weren’t for the addictive properties of caffeine. Caffeine works similarly to every other drug–it initially produces a powerful effect that your body gets used to over time. Gradually, you need more and more caffeine to produce that initial “kick” and if you don’t have any, you start to experience withdrawal symptoms. These include headaches, light sensitivity, mood swings, anxiety, muscle pain and nausea. The most effective solution, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, is to slowly reduce caffeine consumption until you no longer feel the need to drink it. This gradual plan eases withdrawal pains and opens the pathway for the substitution of a healthier beverage into your daily diet.