Riding the Adrenaline Highway

You control the effects of this important hormone.

“You are what you eat”—and that’s just the beginning. You are also “what” you move (and think). Whatever choice you make, the environment in which you immerse yourself prompts your body to react, and that results in transformation down to the cellular level. (The field of epigenetics studies how environmental signals stimulate gene expression.)

Call it adaptation, performance gains or aesthetics, you are the result of what signals your cells are receiving and the actions which ensue. Put your body into a swimming pool and do laps every day, and you will develop the body of a swimmer. Run every day, and you’ll begin to look like a runner.

Just as software code prompts computer hardware to output an app or a game, environmental stimulus prompts a signaling agent in your body, which leads to cellular response and expression, and that triggers changes in physiology. Those shifts could result in changes to your physical shape, your energy levels, your healing, illness, and so on.

Adrenaline is a signal

Adrenaline is a signaling powerful hormone and neurotransmitter—and it’s a signaling agent that is part of your biological response to your environment. When your sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress, adrenaline plays an important role in the fight or flight response.

Stress is stress, but you can control the outcome of that stress by choosing the source and regulating your body’s response. Adrenaline can give a significant boost to performance, which is why it’s a hot topic of conversation among the fitness crowd. When adrenaline is released through the adrenal glands into the bloodstream, it increases heart rate and blood pressure to deliver more blood to muscles for increased capacity for work. Adrenaline also signals the liver to flood the body with glucose, giving the body more fuel. Your pupils will dilate to allow more light (and information) into your brain, your airways open to allow more oxygen, and you feel more alert and have more energy when adrenaline is circulating in your bloodstream.

Now, this sounds pretty good, right? It can be, in small doses—say, just before your workout session. A “warm-up” in a well-designed workout program does just that: It boosts the necessary chemistry—including adrenaline—to prepare your body for physical movement.

Supplementation, caffeine and other stimulants also create this response in the body for an even more acute effect. Combine the effects of adrenaline release stimulated by exercise with adrenaline from supplementation and daily stress, and you might create a perfect storm of disruption to your health and your physical performance. Increased exposure to adrenaline has been shown to weaken the immune system, lead to peptic ulcers and cardiovascular disorder, and even damage your DNA.

The dosage is the key

But it’s not that adrenaline is good or bad. It’s really a question of dosage: Small, intermittent doses are productive for health and performance. Large doses and constant exposure to adrenaline is what will lead to damaging results.

Two familiar examples of adrenaline stimulation are exercise and watching TV. Here’s how those environments put a dose of the hormone into play in a good—and in a not-so-good—way.

  1. You exercise — your body responds to the movement with a release of adrenaline — which signals your liver — whose cells express an increase in glucose release — which changes your physiology by providing more fuel in your bloodstream — and that means you feel energized and you have a great workout.
  2. You watch TV at night in a brightly lit room — your body responds to the light with a release of adrenaline — which signals your gastrointestinal tract — whose cells disrupt your serotonin and adrenaline balance — which changes your physiology by making you more alert and awake — and that results in your difficulty falling asleep.

Choose wisely—and let biology take over

Since the release of adrenaline is a response to neural inputs such as stress, emotions, exercise, excessive light and loud noise, it’s not surprising that the modern world is an environment that triggers a dose response that’s too high. Chronic stress and overexposure to the same cell signals result in adrenal fatigue and ultimately system breakdown. You know some of the signs: It becomes harder to reach your fitness goals and even to stay healthy.

So you try harder—by exercising more, for example—but that adds more stress. Instead of compounding the problem, the answer is to regulate—and the easiest way to do that is to change your environment, which is the catalyst for your body’s response. Change your environment, and your body’s signals, cell expression, physiology and results will be altered.

We need adrenaline but in appropriate doses. So here are four ways to regulate your environment and your adrenaline, so that when you do release it, it has positive effects.

  1. Turn it on. Make time in your day to engage in vigorous stimulation. Physical activity, light and noise are all good when taken with the right dosage. Spend part of your day “turning on.”
  2. Monitor your stimulants. Try a physical warm-up, concentrate on a task, and use directed focus to enhance adrenaline’s release and its effects.
  3. Vary the intensity of your workouts. Pushing yourself hard, going at it 50 percent and taking it easy during different workouts will maximize your ability to regulate adrenaline.
  4. Turn it off. Take time out of your day or week to relax and calm your system. Laughing, slow breathing, good sleep hygiene and getting outside into sunlight all have calming effects and reduce adrenaline.

Photo credit: UberImages, Thinkstock; DaLiu, Thinkstock; DragonImages, Thinkstock; scyther5, Thinkstock