What is Adrenal Fatigue?

We live in a fast-paced, high energy, stressful environment and we do our best to keep up. But it wasn’t always like that. Historically, most of the short term stressors humans faced were life-threatening and long-term stressors were around the scarcity of food or some type of natural or man-made disaster like famine or wars. In the present day however, many of us experience psychological (non-life-threatening) long-term stressors that can take a serious toll on our health.

Adrenal fatigue, which is also known as burn out occurs if someone’s stress response mechanism is constantly turned on and they’ve had high levels of cortisol in their blood for prolonged periods, usually years. This can take a toll on the adrenal glands eventually causing it to crash and burn.

Please note that the term Adrenal fatigue is not medically recognized. Why? because conventional medical professionals argue that there is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that stressors deplete the adrenal glands and cause the set of symptoms. Some argue otherwise.

Stress hormones

The body’s primary stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol are released by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. Adrenaline is the body’s short term hormone designed to get us out of immediate danger and cortisol is the long-term stress hormone. The adrenal glands also make other hormones like aldosterone, DHEA and androgens and several other hormones.

According to Johnshopkinshealth.org, cortisol helps control the body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates; suppresses inflammation; regulates blood pressure; increases blood sugar, and can also decrease bone formation. This hormone also controls the sleep/wake cycle. It is released during times of stress to help your body get an energy boost and better handle an emergency situation.

Some symptoms related to adrenal fatigue include:

  • Extreme feelings of fatigue
  • Digestive issues like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or acid reflux.
  • Difficulty falling asleep (especially after 10 pm) and waking up in the morning.
  • Craving for sugar and caffeine during the day
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Brain fog
  • Low energy
  • Hair loss
  • Fluid retention

The stages of adrenal fatigue

  1. High adrenaline levels that activate the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response.
  2. High cortisol levels causes a decrease in the body’s metabolism. This is usually accompanied by weight gain.
  3. Low cortisol levels which are the culprit behind the extreme feelings of fatigue.

How the stress response mechanism works:

The body has no way of distinguishing between real danger and perceived danger. As a result, it treats psychological stressors like finances, work pressures, family issues, etc., as real danger.

The thing is if you’re sitting at home on your couch stressing about finances or the kids’ activities, fretting about your boss’s horrible attitude or drinking many cups of coffee so you can push through the day, you’re not in real danger. But the body perceives it as real danger and pumps adrenaline into the blood. The adrenals also release cortisol to deal long term stress.

This constant production of adrenaline and cortisol means that the system is constantly switched on. Over time, the adrenal gland burns out or crashes and cannot produce enough cortisol to do its work. It is this prolonged stress that causes adrenal fatigue.

How to manage Adrenal Fatigue

  • Consult with your primary caregiver or doctor and ask for an adrenal saliva and cortisol test. Basically, you’ll be asked to spit in a vial four times per day and your levels can be measured. Though the above symptoms can mean Adrenal Fatigue, they can also be an indication of other illnesses like cushing syndrome, overactive adrenal, adrenal hyperplasia, hyperaldosteronism. It’s important that you get an accurate diagnosis.
  • Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. And the last thing you want is to be sitting at your desk or couch guzzling coffee and producing unnecessary adrenaline.
  • Quality supplements: There are a number of supplements you can take like vitamin C, vitamin B and adaptogenic herbs ( ashwagandha, astralagus, panax ginseng, holy basil, cordycep mushrooms, dandalion leaves, licorice root, Rhodiola). Always take with the guidance of a herbalist or naturopath.
  • Manage stressors. Find ways to cope with stressors as they arise. Consider counseling, whether it’s for your relationships or finances. Is your job too stressful? Find a new job. Don’t ignore your symptoms.
  • Restorative practices. This is key. Consider restorative yoga, qi gong, conscious diaphragmatic breathing, and meditation. All of which will keep the body form unnecessarily activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the flight or fight response, and instead, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, repair, digestion and reproduction.

Everyone is different. So individuals can stay in stage one or they can progress to stage two and eventually three depending on how they manage stressors in their lives.

Though conventional medicine argues that this is a fake disease, it’s clear that when the many ways to manage psychological stressors are put into practice, people feel better.

My two cents. Conventional medicine tends to disregard anything that’s not scientifically evidence-based because they’ve been taught to do so. How can one argue with patients who experience the symptoms above, visit a doctor to have tests run for other possible illness and are told there’s nothing wrong. That same patient then implements protocols for adrenal fatigue and begin to feel better and eventually regain their vitality.

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