When I was in medical school, my classmates and I were all taught about Addison’s disease. That’s when the adrenal glands literally fail. We also learned about Cushing’s, a disease that occurs when you have too much cortisol and other hormones.
But the idea of adrenal fatigue itself was never a topic. And to this day, many doctors don’t understand it, let alone know how to diagnose it. In fact, the medical industry doesn’t actually even recognize it as a real medical condition.
On the other hand, this is something we’re seeing more and more of. Especially as the stressors associated with modern life continue to grow. These stressors consistently activate our “fight or flight” response, which lies at the root of adrenal fatigue.
You see, over the centuries, the human body hasn’t changed much. But our culture has.
Back in the days of our ancient ancestors, this response only kicked in only when faced with a dire threat… say, being chased by a 200-pound mountain lion. It wasn’t something that happened every day.
But that world disappeared a couple of hundred years ago. These days, your body is practically in a non-stop panic mode.
Every day you’re thrown into traffic jams, conflicts and disagreements. You have bills, home repairs, sick relatives and your own health to worry about. You eat foods that don’t always give you the nutrients you need. You might not be getting enough sleep.
This stress blossoms, and there reaches a point where your adrenals just can’t handle it anymore.
These two little cone-shaped glands pump out almost 50 hormones in your body. This includes cortisol, adrenaline, DHEA, progesterone and testosterone. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to metabolize fats, carbs and proteins for energy.
But when these glands become stressed, they can’t produce all these hormones. The more stressed they become, the greater the fatiguing.
The Four Stages of Adrenal Fatigue
If you have adrenal fatigue, you probably noticed it more than usual over the past several weeks.
You know the deal. Holiday shopping. Cooking. Partying. Eating all the wrong foods, not getting enough sleep… and still dealing with all of your day-to-day responsibilities.
Even regular, daily exercise – which we generally think of as a “pick-me-up” – can leave you feeling exhausted.
That’s because all of these activities increase cortisol activity. Eventually, the adrenals can’t keep up with the demand for it. So cortisol levels drop, right along with the other hormones I mentioned above.
The thing is, adrenal fatigue happens over a period of time. In the beginning, you may not even notice it.
First, your body starts releasing small amounts of stress hormones. This actually makes you feel more alert. While your body is in this constant state of high alert, you might start experiencing weight gain.
Eventually, your adrenal glands won’t be able to produce enough of these hormones to meet the demands. You’ll start feeling moodier, more tired and even start getting sick more often.
Next comes a big drop in cortisol production. It’s harder to stay awake, alert and focused. Even after resting, it’s hard to feel refreshed.
Finally, there is the burnout phase, which leads to additional symptoms. Joint and muscle pain, skin issues, insomnia and more. The fatigue becomes unbearable.
Address the Stress
Generally, there are three components to adrenal fatigue; emotional/psychological stress, nutritional stress and physical stress.
Emotional stress. Deep breathing, meditation and getting a good night’s sleep are a few things you can immediately start doing to help reduce your stress levels. Acupuncture and massage therapy are also great stress relievers.
But I find that many of my patients respond best to a structured Hatha yoga program.
This is the type of yoga most practiced here in the U.S. The reason I like it is because it not only promotes physical health, it also includes breathing techniques and meditation to help you de-stress and gain mental clarity.
I also like type of slow breathing, called mindful breathing or “4-7-8 breathing.” It signals your nervous system to reduce cortisol and lower both your heart rate and blood pressure.
Just slowly inhale through your nose for a count of four, and hold it for a count of seven. Then exhale through pursed, rounded lips for a count of eight. Continue breathing this way for about five minutes.
Do this whenever you’re feeling overly stressed and it will immediately trigger parasympathetic nervous system activity so that your cortisol levels drop, your heartbeat slows and your muscles relax.
If you’re having problems sleeping, you can also do it before bedtimes. While the breathing itself doesn’t actually put you to sleep, it does ease tension and promotes relaxation so that it’s easier to fall asleep.
Another thing that will help you sleep better is to go outside and let the sunlight hit your eyes first thing in the morning. This will allow the production of melatonin later in the day when bedtime nears.
Nutritional stress. Grains, refined carbs, processed foods and those that contain a high salt or sugar content are horrible for your adrenal health.
Instead, load your plate with a variety of fresh, organic plant-based foods. Then, fill in the rest of your plate with a small amount of healthy fats and clean-sourced proteins. Do this at least 90% of the time and you’ll automatically be eating your way to better adrenal function.
Physical stress. If you are heavily into exercise and experiencing adrenal fatigue, you need to slow down a little bit. Don’t stop altogether. Just reduce the frequency, intensity and duration until you are feeling better.
And feed the adrenals the sustenance they need for strengthening; specifically vitamin C, a balanced B5 vitamin/B complex and a mixed adaptogenic herbal formulation.
Wilson JL. Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. Adv Integr Med. 2014;1(2):93-96.