There's lots of controversy around the term “Adrenal Fatigue", which is why there’s no official diagnosis in the world of conventional medicine.
But that doesn’t mean to say that adrenal fatigue isn’t real and debilitating for those suffering with feelings of exhaustion and tiredness on a daily basis.
The connection between adrenal fatigue and stress
With so many stressors in our modern life, it’s easy to see why adrenal fatigue is becoming more common.
Because, yes, stress can cause extreme fatigue. One study shows that long-term stress can impair the cortisol awakening response (your cortisol response on waking). By limiting this surge in cortisol that naturally occurs every morning when you wake up to help you feel alert, stress inhibits your ability to wake up fully, no matter how much sleep you get.
Another study shows that chronic fatigue syndrome can alter adrenal function. And there’s research linking depression to the development or effects of adrenal fatigue, as cortisol responses do not easily readjust to normal levels following a bout of depression.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Although your adrenals are no bigger than the size of a walnut, they produce more than 50 essential hormones making them incredibly important to your overall health and vitality.
Your brain tells your adrenal glands what to do via your HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) or simply the brain-adrenal axis.
Adrenal fatigue happens when communication between your brain and adrenals aren’t working well, causing your stress hormone, cortisol, to overproduce or under-produce at the wrong times. This can leave you feeling wired, tired and unable to sleep well, as well as bring on a whole host of other symptoms.
Adrenal fatigue is really a dysfunction of your brain’s communication with your adrenals – not a dysfunction with the adrenal glands themselves.
When your brain-adrenal axis isn’t functioning as well as it should, it doesn’t just impact your hormones, but also every other bodily function. While your body will do a good job to try and make up for this communication problem, it comes at a price.
When you’re experiencing chronic adrenal stress your body will be unable to effectively rest, digest, heal and protect, so the likes of your digestive system, immune system and hormone health are all going to be compromised.
What stresses the brain-adrenal axis?
There are also different stages of adrenal fatigue depending on the level of dysfunction your brain-adrenal axis is at.
Symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue generally have multiple causes. Typically though, the brain-adrenal axis is overstressed by a number of different factors, some of which include:
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Gut inflammation
- Unhealthy diet and food sensitivities
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Infections (bacterial, yeast or viral)
- An overload of environmental toxins (pesticides, pollutants, heavy metals, etc.)
- Stressful events like death of loved one, divorce or an operation
- Physical trauma and pain
- Prolonged mental and emotional stress
- Bad posture
- Excessive exercise
Signs that you may be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue
The major issue with adrenal fatigue is that there can be many symptoms, which are often also associated with other health conditions. It’s another reason why there is so much controversy around the topic “adrenal fatigue”, despite the very nature of the effects on our health of cortisol and bodily hormones being far-reaching.
Adrenal fatigue can show up differently, in different people. But here’s some symptoms that can be experienced as a result of adrenal fatigue:
Waking up feeling tired - you find it hard to get up in the morning, even after a long sleep.
Fatigue throughout the day - without healthy cortisol output, adrenal fatigue can make it difficult to maintain a decent energy level.
Difficulty falling asleep - after being tired all day, you get an energy boost in the evening as your cortisol levels rise. And this increase in energy is more of an edgy “wired” feeling.
Reliant on stimulants - like caffeine or energy drinks to get you through the day.
Unable to handle stress - without sufficient hormones to regulate your stress response, you find it hard to focus mentally and feel too tired to perform daily tasks and exercise.
Cravings - you crave sweet and / or salty foods which is a sign that your body is unable to balance the levels of minerals in your blood.
Digestive complaints - elevated levels of cortisol can cause digestive complaints by inhibiting digestion and reducing levels of healthy bacteria in your gut.
Other signs that you have brain-adrenal communication problems:
- Hormone imbalance
- Weight gain
- Decreased libido (sex drive)
- Muscle weakness or tension
- Brain fog - Irritability or poor focus
- Hair loss
- Frequent urination
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme tiredness after exercise
As you can see, this long list of symptoms can also be related to other underlying health conditions.
The thing with adrenal fatigue too, is that you may look fine, and you may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, yet you live with a general sense of unwellness and tiredness, that affects your lifestyle.
3 ways to overcome adrenal fatigue naturally
If you suffer with adrenal fatigue, or are concerned that you seem to be experiencing adrenal fatigue symptoms, don’t worry there’s plenty you can do to help reverse it. Here are 3 key ways to make a positive difference:
1. Exercise to energise
If you’re exercising too much, or for too long, or too intensely for too long, back off, and give your body a break. There’s a point when exercise can become harmful rather than helpful.
Always make sure your body is properly fueled before and after you exercise. Not eating enough prior to any physical activity will create stress in the body, and likewise not replacing burnt energy with sufficient nutrients after you’ve exercised, isn’t helpful either.
This means you want to be eating nutritionally balanced meals at the right times. If you haven’t eaten much, or very well the night before you exercise the following morning, you'll in effect be trying to run on an empty battery.
If you have very little energy to exercise in the first place, start off slowly and build up gradually on a week-by-week basis. The important thing is to feel rejuvenated after physical activity, not depleted.
2. Reduce chronic stress on your body and mind
Pinpoint your key areas of stress, and work to modify them, whether that means detoxifying your environment, testing for food intolerances, or just clearing your schedule for awhile.
You can never eliminate all stress in life, but you can build periods of rest and relaxation into your day, so that you get a break from stress.
3. Fuel your body with optimal levels of nutrition
Every vitamin and mineral play a role in keeping you healthy. If you’re not getting sufficient nutrients, your body will be under stress trying to carry out essential tasks - such as, repair cellular damage, detox, build bones, make collagen and produce energy.
Plan your meals so that you have an array of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, pulses and veggie protein if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
Aim to get optimal levels of nutrients. This means supplementing, with a pharmaceutical grade quality multivitamin, vitamin D and omega 3 fish oil.
Remember that vitamins and minerals work synergistically. While it’s not only important to get enough, you also don’t want to throw the body out of balance with too much of one nutrient, which is why I suggest a multi-vitamin you can trust.
Because of the nature of adrenal fatigue and the broad range of symptoms you can experience, you may want to work with a Functional Medicine Practitioner who can help you address the underlying issues and imbalances in your body that are connected to your adrenal fatigue.
If this post resonates with you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Hi, I'm an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Pain & Stress Management Therapist, and Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner.
I help people elevate their mind and body health by addressing diet, nutrition and lifestyle symptoms. Let's work together to optimize how you feel and function.
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