Have you heard the term ‘adrenal fatigue’? There’s a lot of controversy about this term; many doctors don’t believe it’s a real thing. Naturopaths and nutritionists have improved many adrenal fatigue symptoms through natural food, stress reduction and supplements.
Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms
In case you’re wondering, here are some of the more common symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
- Chronic fatigue that’s really got no explanation
- Poor sleep – you either can’t fall asleep or you can’t stay asleep
- Unexplained weight gain, especially around your middle
- Poor concentration, poor focus, memory loss
- Feeling dizzy when you stand up after sitting or lying down for a while
- Sugar and/or salt cravings
- Major drop in energy after lunch
While we may not realize it, our lives are full of stressful events. Financial worry, pressure to meet a work deadline, concern over how to get the kids to soccer, or even criticism about your diet or exercise all manifest as stress.
The Adrenal Glands
Your adrenal glands look like walnuts that sit on top of each of your kidneys. The adrenals are made up of two parts – the medulla and the cortex. Your adrenal glands are super important, despite their small size! They help regulate and produce many of your hormones, including the stress hormones, cortisol and aldosterone.
Adrenal Fatigue Explained
Stress can have a huge impact on your health and wellness.
Acute stress, or short-term stress, isn’t a bad thing. We want our stress hormones to be released when we’re faced with a knife wielding maniac or plunged into an icy ocean (yes, my imagination is wild!). In these situations, our stress hormones prepare our bodies to fight or flee. I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘fight or flight’ phenomenon before. After a short time, the elevated hormones stabilize back to normal and your body returns to its pre-stress state.
Chronic, or long-term stress, is another story. This is the type of stress we face every day in modern society because we don’t ever need to fight back or flee when faced with deadlines or screaming kids. (Although, you probably have wanted to on occasion, haven’t you? I know I have!) Hormones continue to circulate in our bodies, keeping it ready for ‘fight or flight’ for very long periods.
Long-term stress causes the adrenals to produce cortisol and norepinephrine (another hormone) almost constantly. This constant production of hormones places pressure on what’s called your “hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis”. When the HPA axis become dysfunctional, adrenal fatigue sets in.
Your HPA axis typically regulates things like mood, stress, emotions, digestion, sex drive, energy and metabolism. Chronic stress can lead to extreme fatigue, a weakened immune system, inflammation, hypothyroidism, mood disorders, diabetes and more long-term health problems.
Adrenal Fatigue and Weight Gain
If your body is designed to face stress, why doesn’t it manage chronic stress very well? What causes your adrenals to become overworked, leading to adrenal fatigue?
Your body releases cortisol in response to perceived stress. This gets the body ready for action.
Cortisol signals the release of glucose from cells (often muscle cells) and the release of insulin from the pancreas to get the glucose into the cells. This is fine when your next step is to run really fast or to stand up and fight back – your body will use all that energy to get you through your fight or flight decision.
But, if a perceived stress still causes cortisol to signal glucose and insulin to mobilize, but you don’t burn off that extra energy, what happens? Well, because the muscles don’t need any more energy, insulin shunts that excess glucose into your fat cells. And, cortisol loves to have energy readily available, so most of that excess energy is placed in fat around the abdomen.
Adrenal Fatigue and Cholesterol
Do you avoid foods high in cholesterol because your doctor told you that your cholesterol is too high? Unfortunately, high blood cholesterol, especially the ‘bad’ stuff, LDL cholesterol, affects a lot of people. It’s thought that estrogen keeps it in check so menopausal women are more at risk of high LDL cholesterol than their younger counterparts.
But, high LDL cholesterol isn’t affected by your diet. Cholesterol is a vital substance that your body needs to produce some of your very important hormones! Cholesterol is the backbone of progesterone, cortisol, estrogen (all 3 types), DHEA, testosterone and aldosterone.
Stress and Cholesterol
Perceived stress – mental and emotional stress, food sensitivities, blood sugar imbalances, infections and excessive exercise – prompt your body to use up cholesterol to produce cortisol. But, your body only has a limited amount of cholesterol to use to manufacture more cortisol. And, your body prefers to make cortisol from cholesterol over the other hormones.
So, if you’re chronically stressed, your body is using up all its cholesterol to make cortisol and NOT making enough progesterone, testosterone, aldosterone and estrogen. This is often a major cause of PMS, menstrual cramps, hot flashes, salt cravings and low sex drive.
Adrenal Fatigue and Sleep
Your adrenals can become overactive, where they produce too much cortisol, or underactive, where they stop producing enough cortisol. Both of these situations have major effects on blood sugar!
Overactive adrenals increase blood sugar levels, which eventually leads to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. You feel ‘wired and tired’ when you adrenals are overactive.
Underactive adrenals play a role in reduced blood sugar because they can’t produce enough cortisol to raise blood sugar. You feel dizzy or shaky because your blood sugar is imbalanced. When your adrenals are underactive, you typically wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep.
Do I Have Adrenal Fatigue?
If you feel any of the following symptoms regularly, there’s a good chance your adrenals are dysfunctional.
Symptoms like extreme fatigue, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, weight gain (especially around the abdomen), joint pain, sugar or salt cravings, frequent infections like colds or flus, or light-headedness and irritability between meals indicate adrenal fatigue.
Unfortunately, because most medical doctors don’t recognize adrenal fatigue as a real thing, there are no blood or urine tests available to test for this condition. However, if you work with a health coach or holistic nutrition consultant, they can help determine your cortisol levels with a saliva test. Just ask them about this next time you meet with your coach.
Adrenal Insufficiency Diagnosis
Most doctors diagnose adrenal insufficiency when the adrenals are so sick that they have stopped working – this is Addison’s Disease. Wouldn’t it be so much better to address adrenal fatigue BEFORE you had a medical diagnosis like Addison’s?!?!
(Notice that I say ‘most’ doctors – there are now a few out there who do recognize that our adrenal can become dysfunctional without a full-blown Addison’s Disease diagnosis.)
I do recommend that you still see your doctor about your symptoms because some of these, especially in combination with others, can indicate other health issues. If you’re lucky, your doctor might be open to discussing wellness strategies to manage stress or point you towards someone who specializes in adrenal fatigue.
What Can I Do If I Suspect Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue typically manifests from long-term, unmanaged stress but the type of stress you’re dealing with could be a number of things. Keep reading if you think your adrenals could use a little TLC.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Obviously, adrenal fatigue has a LOT to do with stress. Emotional and mental stress are just two types of stress that can drain those poor adrenals of yours. To manage your stress, I recommend sticking to a schedule as much as possible for sleep, work, food, and fun. Your adrenals LOVE routine.
If your symptoms are really bad, seriously consider a vacation at this time. Getting away from your routine and everyday life is often the only thing you can do to really give those adrenals a rest. Pack up the family, book a relaxing location, and spend at least 10 days just vegging out, laughing, dancing, swimming, hiking, or anything that makes YOU happy. Happiness is the goal of this vacation!
And, if you feel you need a solo vacation, heck, go for it!
But, if you can’t get away for a vacation right now, you can still give yourself some relief through relaxation. Read a good book every Sunday morning before your kids wake up. Spend 15 minutes breathing deeply while stretching each night. These are some things you can do to take your mind off of your busy life.
Stress management is more than just yoga or meditation.
Stress management means doing something that makes you smile, relax and think positive thoughts. I do highly recommend that you do something you enjoy for 15 minutes every day that relaxes you – exercise, yoga, meditation, lay on the floor of your bedroom and stare at the ceiling, listen to your cat purr…ANYTHING that makes YOU feel relaxed counts!
Exercise is a special topic when it comes to adrenal fatigue. Working out is a great way to reduce stress BUT exercise is a physical stressor on your body.
So, LISTEN to your body before you exercise! This morning, I planned a 2 mile run and 25 minutes of heavy weights for my workout; I got to the gym, walked up the two flights of stairs to the track, and changed my mind fast – my body was exhausted! So, I walked a few laps and did some moderate upper body weights instead. I think my body needed a break from my usual hard-core workouts. And I don’t feel guilty about a lighter workout and neither should you!
Too much exercise can make you fat because it stresses out those poor adrenals, upping your cortisol and blood sugar levels and causing extra to be stored as fat.
Do these exercises when you feel fatigued:
- squats (they get extra glucose into those larger leg muscles),
- yoga and stretching, and
- light to moderate weight lifting.
No running, no HIIT, no hardcore cycling.
I’m giving you permission to do a light workout and NOT feel guilty about it!
Ah, this is a huge topic on its own so I will write a full blog post on this in the coming weeks. But, for now, consider this:
Long-term low-carb diets may disrupt hormones in some women and affect that delicate HPA axis. Your body perceives a low-carb diet as a stressor and, thus, produces cortisol in response.
Low-carb diets can also decrease thyroid function, testosterone production and suppress your immune function. This happens because women’s bodies are more sensitive to low energy (i.e. low glucose) and the availability of carbs.
So, if you’re a low-carb advocate, try to have one healthy, carb-heavy meal every 6-10 days to refuel your energy sources. This should be enough to keep your cortisol levels stable.
Conclusion – Is Adrenal Fatigue Clear Now?
Adrenal fatigue is a fascinating, yet complicated, topic that is very dear to my heart. I have suffered from adrenal fatigue, with varying levels of success and failure in attempting to controls it, for years. Lately, I feel absolutely burnt out, which scares me. I don’t want an Addison’s Disease diagnosis. Nor do I want to increase my risk of cancer because my immune system is compromised. I do not want experience that awful perimenopause symptoms that my Mom did for years!