What is adrenal fatigue? Is it real? Is it made up? Why don’t Western-medicine doctors recognize the term ‘adrenal fatigue?’ What are the symptoms?
If you listened to the latest Inside Out Podcast, we answered many of these questions in episode 2. But as promised, I wanted to get in to a bit more detail about what the condition entails.
Adrenal Fatigue is defined as ‘a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a syndrome, when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level.’
Your adrenal glands are part of your endocrine system and sit on top of your kidneys (‘ad’ and ‘renal’ = over the kidneys). These tiny glands are no bigger than a grape. Though they may be tiny, these glands are POWERFUL!
In order to save you from a long scientific explanation, I will simplify by saying that the adrenals are responsible for making and secreting 2 distinctive types of hormones: 1) hormones that are vital for life: cortisol (our stress hormone), aldosterone (helps control blood pressure) and sex hormones: androgen and estrogen. 2) Hormones not necessary for life: adrenaline and noradrenaline.
So lets talk for a minute about the hormone you hear the most about: cortisol. Cortisol is essential for your body to maintain homeostasis and does it’s job by regulating stress in your body as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent among other vital metabolic functions (more on this later). A normally functioning adrenal system would secrete cortisol in response to a stressor (a tight deadline, a normal workout, running late, etc.) and return to normal once the stressful activity is complete thus rebalancing hormones.
The problem? In our constantly stressed world, most people live in a high-stress environment day in and day out by way of career stress, family stress, relationship stress, financial stress, scheduling stress and many others. There is also internal stress the body is fighting based on proper food intake and exercise such as: lack of nutrients causing stress on the body, inflammation inside the body by consuming toxins and chemicals in processed foods, inflammation from alcohol consumption, stress on the digestive system from under eating, stress on the digestive system and cells from under eating, over-exercise and much more.
When we are in a constant state of stress, our cortisol levels are chronically elevated. When there is too much cortisol circulating in the body for extending periods of time, the adrenals will, over time, become fatigued. This is visible by adrenal saliva tests (ASI’s) showing your adrenal function high in multiple tests followed by consistent dropping of cortisol levels over time to below the normal, circadian rhythm that cortisol levels follow.
Signs of Chronically Elevated Cortisol:
Impaired cognitive function (attention span, memory, focus – all affected)
Severe digestive issues
Inability to shut mind off at night/fall asleep
Low functioning thyroid
Blood sugar imbalances (noted by cravings and low feelings)
Decreased muscle mass (working out hard but seemingly losing muscle? Noticing more body fat/less muscle despite vigorous workouts?)
Elevated blood pressure
Heart palpitations or higher than normal heart rate
Slow wound healing
Now, back to the adrenal gland metabolic tie-in. Cortisol regulates the utilization of carbohydrates and fats by the body, the conversion of proteins and fats into energy, the distribution of stored fats, normal blood sugar regulation and digestive function. Repeated elevation of cortisol levels can lead to weight gain.
Wait – stress really does make me gain weight? Yes.
Cortisol and blood sugar: As mentioned above, cortisol is involved in normal blood sugar levels regulation. When the body is ‘stressed’, cortisol provides the body with glucose because this can help fight off the stressor. However, elevated cortisol for extended periods of time leads to increased blood sugar levels thus leading to ‘insulin-resistant’ cells. Excess glucose in the body is then stored as fat, causing weight gain among other health issues.
Cortisol and digestion: When the stress levels are elevated, the body is flooded with cortisol and food is consumed – digestion and absorption are compromised. The body will develop indigestion thus inflaming the gut and will not be able to adequately process or convert the food intake in to energy.
Cortisol and thyroid: Chronically elevated cortisol decreases the level of T4 to T3 and increases levels of reverse thyroid (rT3) – together this equals lower thyroid function and hypothyroid.
Can you see how cortisol greatly affects metabolic function? Not only this, but elevated cortisol hormone also means elevated cravings and inability to be satiated.
Back to Adrenal Fatigue. All of the above is causing a war inside your body. Besides the attack on your waist line, there are far more health issues related to adrenal fatigue.
Signs of adrenal fatigue/under-functioning adrenals:
You feel tired and lethargic, even after a full nights rest.
Afternoon fatigue (like the kind that makes you want to pass out at your desk, in the car or mid-sentence kind of fatigue)
Your body refuses to release fat stores – despite exercise and eating properly to do so.
Immune function is impaired (ability to fight off sickness/infection)
Low sex drive
Low blood pressure
Who is at Risk?
Years ago – I never believed people that told me ‘I just can’t lose weight no matter WHAT I do’…..until I experienced adrenal fatigue over the last 2 years. But it wasn’t just the weight gain that was plaguing me – it was and is ALL of these symptoms that make a person not feel like themselves.
Call it what you want – but it is common knowledge that profound stress is extremely harmful on the body. If you are a ‘burn the candle at both ends’ kind of person who gets their cookies off by always being busy, always ‘smashing weights’ in the gym, always up before dawn to get in your intense cardio, always running from point A to point B with no down time who don’t believe in meditation and have no time for yourself? Yep you. You are in jeopardy of damaging your adrenals.
Real Life Story: To give it a personal spin: I was that person above. I LOVED that I woke up at 430a, was always at the gym before anyone else, did my 2-3 hour workouts all before going to work in my high-profile, high-stress job only to leave work and attend multiple networking and speaking events, make it home to work on my second job of being a nutritionist and coach – creating plans and speaking to clients, make it to bed late, crash and do it all over again. I was so proud of my weekly food prep, making and freezing ALL of my meals for the week and only eating from a specified meal plan and food list and NEVER deviating. I lived at below 12% body fat as a fitness competitor and refused to allow my body to gain healthy weight.
My body was starving for more nutrients and reeling from nutrition that did not supply my body with what it needed to fight inflammation
I rarely slept and NEVER could shut my brain off from the high intensity, high paced lifestyle I led
I lived with anxiety, heart palpitations and high blood pressure
I NEVER had down time, allowed my body or mind to relax and regenerate and heal
I was too low body fat and this put extreme stress on my body trying to keep me alive.
All of these things caused extreme stress internally and were making me miserable. I had my levels tested multiple times that showed I had chronically elevated cortisol.
I was prescribed rest and less stress. That never happened.
I watched as my levels dropped lower and lower until they were well below normal. I watched as my body continued to gain weight despite keeping up my restrictive lifestyle and excessive workouts. But these were only making matters worse.
What to do?
Once your adrenals are fatigued or ‘impaired’ – no amount of exercise or intensity will get them back on track. Stressing over the fatigue will not make matters any better (and will in fact make them worse). The absolute BEST thing you can do for your body is DE-STRESS!
I know you stress-junkies out there are reeling, hiding in the corner just thinking about morning meditation and ‘days off’. But unfortunately, your current methods wont work to heal low functioning adrenals.
There are 6 EXTREMELY important things to ensure you are doing when trying to heal from adrenal fatigue:
See a Doctor of Naturopathic medicine to have your adrenals tested and get on some great herbal supplements.
Get 8-10 hours of sleep a NIGHT! No exceptions
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet to get rid of the ‘agressors’ (aka: the real foods diet – EAT REAL FOOD and plenty of it)
Cut back on workouts and workout intensity (i.e.: less crossfit and more heavy lifting with looooonnnnggg breaks)
Enter restorative practices in to your day (i.e.: restorative yoga, long restorative walks, daily meditation and even just sitting outside in nature doing absolutely nothing).
Walk away from stress: people that stress you out, social media if it stresses you out, negative self-talk (YES! Even speaking to yourself or your body negatively has an impact on your stress!)
Stay tuned for more upcoming information on the anti-inflammatory/real foods diet and tips for how to restore and relax! It is VITAL to your health and healing.
And above all – be kind to yourself. You are the only you that you get from now until the end of your life. Be kind to your mind, body, soul and spirit.