So, there’s a term that’s been floating around for a couple years in the health and wellness sphere, but it’s still not one you’re likely to see plastered on the pages of magazines or even books for that matter. The term is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and if you’re a woman who feels tired, overwhelmed and generally “off” there’s a good chance you’ve got it goin on. Before you panic, though, keep in mind that Adrenal Fatigue is NOT a disease nor is it something sufferers are plagued with for life. Rather, it’s a syndrome, which essentially means it’s a name for a bundle of symptoms that no one can quite put a finger on.
The name Adrenal Fatigue is actually a misnomer, as it implies that your adrenal glands (which sit on top of your kidneys/renals) are tired, which in fact they are not. However, I personally think it does a wonderful job of explaining just how adrenal dysfunction feels, because at the end of the day there is an intense fatigue of both the body and mind. A better, more correct, title is actually HPA-Axis dysregulation which stands for Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and describes the chaos that occurs when those three main organs responsible for your stress response are out-of-balance, overworked and unable to cope with the demands placed upon them.
So, while I’ve talked a lot about adrenal fatigue in posts, I realized that it may not be exactly clear what I’m referring to and wanted to throw together a description to avoid confusion. Before we move on, I’m going to list out the common symptoms of Adrenal dysregulation, but please be aware that stress in the body can take on hundreds of different faces, and this list is by no means exhaustive. If you have several of these symptoms mixed with some others not on this list, I would highly suggest speaking with a practitioner about the possibility of adrenal dysfunction, hormonal imbalance or digestive problems.
Feeling burned out, overly stressed or unable to unwind
Bloating after meals
A burning or gnawing feeling after meals
Excessive hunger or no appetite at all
Any and all digestive issues including heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
Moodiness and irritability
Lightheadedness, particularly when going from sitting to standing
Harsh PMS or menopause
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar swings)
Feeling unmotivated or “lazy”
Brain fog or feeling spacy with an inability to concentrate
Joint pain, muscle aches or sensitive skin
TMJ or jaw clenching
Anxiety and depression
Cravings for sugar or salt
Feeling tired but can’t sleep – Tired and wired
Frequent colds or flus that lasts for weeks
A feeling of shaking or vibrating on the inside
Feeling abnormally cold or hot
Flushing easily, particularly during winter
Dizziness or feeling disconnected from conversations and activities
Intolerance to caffeine or alcohol
Weight loss resistance or “spare tire” despite lots of exercise
Low sex drive or inability to orgasm
So, what causes adrenal fatigue? Well, in a word: Stress. But I’m not just talking about emotional, or perceived, stress. I’m also referring to physical stress which is just as harmful to the body as mental stressors. Essentially, your adrenals are the organs in your body responsible for managing the stress response in your body, whether it comes from external or internal sources. Some of the main external sources of stress I see are food intolerances, over-exercising, environmental toxins, and eating a diet high in sugar. Some internal sources include negative emotional experiences, worrying or apprehension, perception of fear or anxiety and internal inflammation. When your brain registers stress of any kind, it sends a message down to the adrenals to release stress hormones, mainly cortisol and epinephrine. For purposes of this post, we’ll mostly be focusing on cortisol, but it should be noted that the effects of epinephrine take several days to exit the body and is highly stimulating. Not a state we want to be walking around in consistently.
Cortisol gets a bad rap, but it’s really very vital to our survival. Cortisol has several functions, but three of the most notable are to raise blood sugar, raise blood pressure and to work as an anti-inflammatory substance. The first two are key players when we are under stress becausestress is known as expensive. What does this mean? It means that when we are stressed (again physically OR emotionally), our body requires more nutrients than normal to function. This means that we are using up blood sugar faster, which is full of nutrients we get from our food. So, cortisol signals to the body to produce more blood sugar out of stored energy found in our muscle and liver. This is how we continue to produce energy during activities like exercise. Cool, right?
Well, yes and no. If we only triggered this response every once in a while, things would be great. Cortisol would do its job and then a negative feedback loop would turn production off body allowing us to come back to center. Unfortunately, we are being bombarded by stressors these days, particularly environmental and food stressors, and are triggering this response almost all day long. From traffic accidents to sugar donuts for breakfast and fights with our boss or spouse we are under constant attack. Chronic elevated cortisol leads to raised blood sugar and raised blood pressure – for a while. And here is where adrenal fatigue sets in…
Eventually, in the presence of all this sugar in the blood from cortisol doing its job, the cells become resistant because they’re packed to the brim and don’t need anymore. Basically, they push the plate away and tell us they’re full. At this point, we may have plenty of circulating cortisol, but it’s messages are not being received and we actually see blood sugar begin to decline and blood pressure as well. It’s like someone put a cement wall up between cortisol and the cells and no communication can take place. This is in the later stages of adrenal dysfunction and what contributes to symptoms of fatigue, lightheadedness, feelings of insatiable hunger or weakness and hypoglycemic episodes. Now, we have a cycle where we are stressed to the max and still pumping out cortisol but not feeling it’s effects because the cells won’t let it in. So, we continue to pump out more and more essentially “exhausting” or fatiguing the adrenal organs and the entire stress response.
As with any syndrome, disease or condition, these details are more nuanced then we can describe in one measly blog post. But hopefully it gives you an idea of how Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is essentially a stress syndrome of the 21st century. Never before in history have we been bombarded by so many external and environmental stressors or been able to explore our emotions beyond survival. While this has afforded us many opportunities and growth, it’s also opened up a whole new can of worms when it comes to our tolerance levels for stress. So, what are some of the biggest ways we can make a dent in our stress cup?
Here are the ones I see most in practice that are really putting a burden on people’s bodies:
1. Food intolerances and poor digestion. Eating something your body can’t process every single day is stressful. Period. It will be nearly impossible to clear up imbalanced cortisol without also addressing digestive function and food choices because every cell in your body is dependent upon those nutrients, so I highly suggest taking on some sort of elimination protocol or hooking up with a practitioner who can guide you through the process.
2. Over-exercising and training. You remember how we mentioned that cortisol raises blood sugar and pressure? Well, it’s main job is to do this during intense activity, which also includes exercise. Assuming you have no other stressors, this would be fine. But pile it on top of everything else going on in your life and it’s a recipe for disaster. Try cutting down on intensity, duration or frequency to give your adrenals the rest they’re craving or add in some gentle exercise in place of your regular routine.
3. Lack of sleep. The body repairs and detoxifies while sleeping. If we aren’t giving it the rest it needs to do these jobs, it will become congested and backed up which leads to things like recycled chemicals and hormones. This is stressful for the body as your toxic load builds up. Sleeping does more than just make us feel good and it’s important to respect the processes of repair just as much as the others. Hacking your sleep will be on the best decisions you can make for your health.
4. A negative emotional outlook or self-loathing and perfectionism. Ok, so this one is really much larger than one sentence can sum up, but taking a serious approach to shifting your mindset is the most important key to clearing up adrenal fatigue. Sadly, this piece is missing in most protocols because we get so caught up in the nitty-gritty physical aspects of healing and miss out on all the juiciness that comes with the spiritual, energetic growth. Many people say that they were never able to shift out the adrenal fatigue cycle until they finally began some sort of emotional stress reducing practices.
5. Not making any time for connection and fun. Bluntly put, I know this can be hard when you feel like shit. You may not feel like connected with friends and family or you may not have a whole lot of interest in activities that used to bring you joy. That’s ok. Do them anyway or find some new ones that agree with your symptoms more. Eventually, when you are feeling better, you will be amazed at the growth and strength of your relationships for having weathered the storm together. Writing in a gratitude journal can very soothing to the body as it releases feel good hormones and allows us to step outside of our mind’s chatter for a moment. Even if you only find a moment’s worth of peace, cultivating authentic, vulnerable relationships will go a long way in making the healing process easier and more enjoyable. And if you’re worried, try having a conversation and letting those around you know that you may not be fully yourself right now and could just use a little support. Most people are very willing, loving and accommodating if you give them the chance to be. Remember, they love you too.
So there you have it. A generalized look at what this thing called Adrenal Fatigue actually is and some ways to help mitigate the nasty symptoms that come with it. Again, if you are reading this blog and feel like you might be experiencing this condition, never hesitate to reach out to a practitioner or do some research. There are so many valuable resources online and some great practitioners who are aware of stress’ harmful effects on the body. It is very real and very important so don’t let anyone tell you it’s all in your head or that you just need to “try harder” to feel good. Until next time.