Hidden Triggers of the Sympathetic Stress Response

Some unexpected stress factors to consider that can sap adrenal health.

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Almost anything the body perceives as a threat can kick the sympathetic nervous system into gear and keep it there, which is why many of us can be perpetually triggered and not know it. Here are a few surprising factors that contribute to adrenal overdrive.

In-Utero and Early-Childhood Experiences

Some of us may have a lower stress “set point” because of exposures in utero or experiences during early child­hood, resulting in greater sensitivity to the stresses of daily life now.

If your mother was worried about having enough food or money during her pregnancy with you, for example, you were exposed to the stress hormones coursing through her system. This can create a lower stress set point, potentially making you more reactive than someone whose mother had a more secure pregnancy.

If you add adverse childhood experiences to this — like an abusive caregiver, or a death in the immediate family — it can lower your resilience even further.


Being a perfectionist triggers the primal fear that if we don’t do everything, and do it just right, we’ll get kicked out of the social community.

This fear stems from the time in our species’ history when we needed the group for protection, because a ­predator could easily eat us if we were alone. So perfectionism isn’t just anxiety about mistakes themselves; it’s anxiety that we’ve jeopardized our sense of belonging — which triggers the survival response.

Learning to embrace your mistakes and vulnerabilities is a far better survival strategy.

Low Blood Sugar

When your blood sugar stays low for a long time, your body switches to an energy-conservation mode. It doesn’t know that you just skipped breakfast because you were busy; instead, it behaves as though you were entering an indefinite food shortage.

Starvation is one of the original mortal threats, so when you’re hungry for too long, the body raises cortisol and sets the stress response in motion. Eating adequate amounts of good-quality protein and fat, and avoiding excess sugar (which yanks insulin around), helps keep the nervous system in balance.

Food Intolerances

Food sensitivities involve immune reactions. So when someone who is gluten intolerant eats gluten, his immune system releases an inflammatory cascade to vanquish the invader. The body treats inflammation as a crisis and fires up the stress response. This means if you regularly eat a food that your body doesn’t tolerate, it will continually provoke the stress response.

Environmental Toxins

Body-care products, air pollution, chemicals in the home — all contain toxins that can trigger the immune response and, by extension, the stress response.


Two particular genes — MTHFR and COMT — influence the body’s ability to eliminate toxins. If you’re exposed to toxins and you carry alterations on either of these genes, your body won’t eliminate them as well as someone with no alterations.

Additionally, people with an alteration on COMT don’t break down stress hormones as effectively. So when they get a hit of adrenaline, it stays in their systems. They generally can’t tolerate coffee and avoid roller coasters and scary movies, because they know that when they’re exposed to these kinds of stimulation, it will take a long time for them to calm down.

Viral Infections

Simmering viral infections stimulate the stress response in the same way that food sensitivities do, resulting in chronic inflammation that triggers a state of alarm in the body.

This article originally appeared as part of “Reset Your Stress” by Aviva Romm, MD.

Aviva Romm, MD, is an award-winning functional-medicine physician and herbalist with practices in West Stockbridge, Mass., and New York City. Her next book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, will be out in January 2017.

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