Adrenal fatigue doesn’t sound very glamorous. That’s because it’s not. It may not sound very common either, but it’s more common than you might think. Adrenal fatigue is the result of a stressful 21st century lifestyle, that doesn’t take underlying ongoing stress seriously. Let’s take a look at what it’s all about, what the symptoms are, and what you can do to help.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
The term adrenal fatigue refers to the exhaustion of the adrenal glands from chronic over-activation. When the adrenals become fatigued, they are not able to produce adequate levels of hormones, particularly cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. A lack of these vital hormones reduces your ability to cope with stress and makes you much less capable to respond appropriately to further stressors that arise. Poor adrenal function negatively impacts a large number of body functions. If ignored, it can lead to physical ‘burn out’ and other serious health conditions.
Adrenal fatigue is a condition that is becoming more common in modern society; especially for those that are trying to juggle careers, family, over-commitment and financial burden. Being emotionally or physically stressed is a common complaint in the 21st century, and high stress levels are often tolerated or left unattended because we just don’t have the time to treat stress seriously. We assume that everyone suffers from a similar level of stress, and that it is merely a lifestyle problem; not a source of illness. But the assumption that everyday, underlying stress and anxiety with their resultant health issues are normal and acceptable is a troublesome assumption.
While adrenal fatigue may not be recognised as an “illness” by the majority of the medical community, some doctors are beginning to consider adrenal fatigue to be a serious problem that needs to be treated like any other illness. The lack of recognition of adrenal fatigue may be due to the fact that it is often a slow and insidious condition, for which the symptoms could be attributed to a number of causes. Before looking at symptoms and solutions, it’s important to understand the function of the adrenal glands in the body.
What are the Adrenal Glands and what do they do?
Your adrenals are small, pyramid-like glands that sit atop each kidney like a hat. They are part of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which governs hormonal balance in the body. Playing an important role in the body’s hormone production and balance, the adrenal glands secrete numerous hormones, including: aldosterone, the sex hormones, adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and dopamine into the blood stream. All of these are extremely important for your health and wellbeing, as well as your ability to effectively respond to stress.
Three hormones produced by the adrenal glands are fundamentally responsible for setting off and suppressing the fight or flight response (a protective mechanism to rapidly mobilise you out of immediate danger). These hormones are:
Cortisol, which helps with blood-sugar regulation. When cortisol levels are high, the amount of glucose in the blood is increased and the use of glucose by the body is reduced. This is to ensure there is enough fuel to get you outta there, fast!
Adrenaline, regulates fat, carbohydrate and protein metabolism, as well as the heart rate, the force of heart contraction, blood flow and oxygen levels. When adrenaline is high, these processes are enhanced, while at the same time resources are shunted away from non-essential functions like digestion. Think of the movie Bourne Identity to imagine what very high levels of adrenaline will do.
Noradrenaline maintains blood pressure and stimulates vaso-constriction of the blood vessels.
What are the common signs and symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?
While adrenal fatigue often occurs over a long period of time—from unaddressed, underlying stress, illness or overwork—it can also occur in a much shorter time frame, due to sudden or traumatic events. The symptoms will vary, depending on whether the onset is accumulative or more immediate. The many symptoms can include:
Poor or disturbed sleep patterns and/or insomnia
Waking tired and un-refreshed despite having plenty of sleep
General fatigue and afternoon energy slumps
Poor immune function, feeling rundown
Prone to catching respiratory illnesses and flu’s, which often last longer than usual
Salt, fat or sugar cravings
Hormonal imbalances, resulting in symptoms of PMS, low libido, infertility, unexplained hair loss
Irregular blood sugar levels, better right after meals
Anxiety, depression or fearfulness
Easily stressed and overwhelmed
Difficulty getting moving in the morning without caffeine
Poor weight management particularly around the mid section
Low thyroid function and low body temperature
Poor digestion, resulting in symptoms of constipation and/or diarrhea, nausea and lack of appetite
Chest pain, heart palpitations, racing heartbeat, irregular blood pressure and light-headedness when rising too quickly
What can I do if I think I have Adrenal Fatigue?
Discuss testing and treatment options with your Doctor or Natural Health Practitioner, as they can help determine whether your symptoms are due to adrenal fatigue and/or an imbalance in communication within the HPA axis, or another cause.
Here are some tips to support healthy adrenal function:
Identify stressors and implement stress management techniques. You may wish to seek the support of someone who specialises in stress management
Establish appropriate work/life balance to avoid work taking over most of your time – Try scheduling time for each area of your life; work, family, leisure etc
Practice daily relaxation or meditation techniques
Support your body with optimum nutrition (and supplements when necessary)
Eat meals at regular times each day
Maintain a balanced exercise regime – choose an activity which you enjoy doing
Establish regular sleep patterns and get sufficient hours of sleep each night
MAKE TIME to have fun, laugh and be joyous
Here are some nutrients which can help support healthy adrenal function. Talk to your Healthcare Practitioner to work out which would be most beneficial for you.
Vitamin B complex
Adaptogenic herbs. These are herbs that can enhance your body’s resistance to stressors. Examples include: Ginseng, Withania, Rhodiola, Licorice, Schisandra, Gotu Kola and Rhemania
Ongoing, underlying stress and anxiety can seriously damage your health and wellbeing. Aside from affecting your relationships, productivity, happiness and mental health, it can put unsustainable pressure on your adrenal glands, which are a vital part of your make up.
Most of all, don’t assume that ongoing stress is part and parcel of 21st century living. That’s simply not the case.