Caregivers need care
Often, we forget to look at our own health when so concerned with the ones we care for.
I hear it time and time again – from my patients who are caregivers for aging parents or sick children.
Right after they’re finished with caring for others they say, “and then I got sick as soon as it was all over”. Why is that? And can we do anything to prevent it? One explanation for this phenomenon relates to our adrenal glands.
Our adrenal glands are a pair of organs on top of our kidneys. They are small and mighty: they produce hormones that regulate important body functions like water balance, metabolism, blood pressure, and the body’s response to stress.
The hormone cortisol is essential to the stress response role of the adrenals. Having enough cortisol is necessary for our day-to-day functions, producing energy, and being awake during the daytime.
When the body senses stress, the adrenals release a surge of cortisol.
This surge is what causes the “fight or flight” condition we know in acute stress. It increases blood delivery to the muscles, increases your heart rate and breathing, and it slows processes that are less necessary when under acute stress, such as digestion, immunity, higher brain function, and creating sex hormones.
What’s interesting is that stress can be either physical (running from a tiger) or psychological (being fired form work), but it will produce the same effect on the body. And, in today’s modern world, we are subjected to prolonged periods of psychological stress, with all the downstream effects that that brings.
Picture this: Imagine you have a pair of soaked sponges, spilling over with excess water.
These are your healthy adrenal glands that are full with with energy-producing hormones such as cortisol. With stress, you start to squeeze the sponges little by little.
If you don’t take time to rest, nourish yourself, and refill your sponges, they will slowly start to dry out.
Eventually, you wring out the last few drops of cortisol and reach adrenal fatigue. Your body is no longer able to function properly or handle stress. This is why after someone finishes a big project, completes final exams in university, or no longer needs to care for a sick loved one they find themselves sick shortly thereafter.
When we are caring for a dying parent, we end up holding our breath, putting everything on hold, and doing all that we can in the moments in between – essentially giving all that we have – that our tanks run empty.
For a time, we run on fumes. And when that person departs this place, we can exhale. We let down our guard. We often collapse in exhaustion. And frequently, illness will set in, such as a chronic cough or constant cold that won’t go away.
Dr. Chris Bjorndal is a Naturopathic Doctor focusing on mental health in Edmonton, AB, Canada.