Don’t Let Adrenal Fatigue Impact Your Life.
The term “Adrenal Fatigue” was formulated in 1998 by naturopathic doctor, James Wilson, PhD. This syndrome was explained as a collection of related symptoms caused by insufficient adrenal gland function.
In other words, when the adrenal glands operate inadequately, complications arise and Adrenal Fatigue syndrome can develop. Usually the onset of adrenal fatigue is attributed to prolonged stress and chronic infections due to hormonal changes, immune response, and metabolic changes.
Those suffering may not present any physical signs of illness but will still feel generally fatigued, have trouble cognitively, and experience strong food cravings. Sleep does not solve this exhaustion, so it is common to see an increase in the intake of coffee, sugar, and other stimulants to sustain energy throughout the day. Unfortunately, this is counterproductive for adrenal fatigue.
We will be going over more detail on how these habits affect this complicated phenomenon throughout this presentation.
But first… What do the adrenals even do?
The adrenal glands are two glands located above the kidneys and are made of two different parts. Both are responsible for hormone production, but differ greatly.
The Adrenal Cortex
The adrenal cortex produces hormones (such as cortisol and aldosterone) that are
essential for life. Cortisol works to regulate our metabolism, immunity, and stress
response, while aldosterone helps control blood pressure and proper cardiovascular
The Adrenal Medulla
The adrenal medulla produces non-essential hormones, or ones that are not vital for life. This does not mean that this component of the adrenals is not important, however. In fact, the adrenal medulla is incredibly valuable for dealing with physical and emotional stress and contributes to our fight-or-flight response of our parasympathetic nervous system. The most notable chemical messenger produced in this part of the adrenals is adrenaline.
The adrenal glands also produce the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone as well as various neurotransmitters such as dopamine.
When the proper production of these hormones are disrupted, adrenal fatigue can develop.
Because of the multitude of responsibilities these little glands have, adrenal fatigue
can manifest very differently depending on the individual.
Some signs of adrenal insufficiency and fatigue include:
- Persistent and nonspecific fatigue
- Struggle waking up in the morning
- Imbalanced energy levels throughout the day
- Difficulty handling stress
- Food cravings (particularly for salt)
- Weakened immunity
- Unexplained body aches and joint pain
- Depression and anxiety
- Dark circles under eyes
- Impaired recovery after physical activity
- Low blood pressure
- Poor circulation and numbness
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Weight gain and fluid retention
- Decreased libido
Do you suffer from any of these symptoms?
Contrary to popular belief, stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) are a good thing. When released appropriately, they provide mental clarity, physical strength, and overall brain and muscle efficiency that can be seen even as “super human.”
Have you ever heard of the term “adrenaline rush?”
This term refers to your body appropriately responding to stress by activating it’s fight-or-flight mechanism. It can be used to propel you out of danger, help someone in a pressing situation, or conquer a fearful situation.
However, when our body unloads adrenaline when we are not in a tasking situation, such as just sitting at a desk working on your computer, then our body is not using it’s stress hormones correctly.
On the other hand, chronic stress suppresses adrenal function as the adrenal glands become unable to continue producing the cortisol needed to recover from stress.
Stress can be caused by a number of things, such as:
- Unresolved biomedical dysfunctions (infections, hormonal imbalances, etc.)
- Nutrient-poor diet
- Lack of sleep
- Stimulants (such as caffeine)
- Work-life imbalance
- Over training physically
- Emotional trauma
The body’s response to stress includes a surge of cortisol, a boost of energy, an increase in blood sugar, lagged immune function, and the breakdown of stored protein and carbohydrates.
As you can tell, this is not ideal when not in an immediate damage as it leaves us susceptible to complications like insulin resistance, decreased immunity, muscle wasting, and thyroid complications.
The rise and inevitable drop of stress hormones impacts the thyroid by slowing thyroid production and the conversion of thyroid hormones to their active, and usable, forms.
If the thyroid does not operate properly, many of the common symptoms of adrenal fatigue are present, such as:
- Weight gain
- Muscle aches
- Brain fog
- Low libido
Unfortunately, due to the similarities in symptoms of both hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue, the two conditions can be easily confused.
These glands are seen to work together due to their collective roles in supplying essential hormones throughout the body. In fact, it is not uncommon for those suffering with thyroid dysfunction to also have weakened adrenals.
Thyroid deficiency is incredibly common and goes undetected by many of the standard thyroid tests (by approximately 80%)! Learn more from Dr. Axe watch his video and recommendations.
Most endocrinologists examine a patient solely on their TSH levels, but ignore other important markers of imbalance. This misunderstanding leads to skewed lab results and the failure to diagnosis accurately.
Comprehensive thyroid testing includes measurements of the following hormones:
- Free T4
- Free T3
- Reverse T3
- SHGB (sex hormone binding globulin)
- Tissues levels
- And the basal metabolic rate
Without looking at all of these factors in thyroid function, the prescribed treatment may be unfit for the patient. For example, if a patient is advised to take synthetic hormones for hypothyroidism and are still experiencing fatigue, they may want to revisit testing, including their adrenal function.
In today’s conventional medical model, there is no formal adrenal fatigue testing. This is where functional medicine becomes crucial for an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis.
In short, functional medicine is a systems-oriented approach that employs a personalized medicine approach to identify, understand, and treat the underlying cause of a disease.
Therefore, functional medicine practitioners take the signs of adrenal fatigue very
seriously being that this disorder can be both a cause and a result from imbalance
within the body.
Some of the many signs practitioners will look for include:
- Thyroid imbalances
- Unexplained weight changes
- Low blood pressure
- Unstable blood sugar
- Hair loss
- Blurred vision
The most common diagnostic tool for adrenal testing is a cortisol saliva test, however there are plenty of other ways to test for adrenal fatigue, such as:
- Cortisol testing (via saliva, blood, or urine test)
- ACTH (adrenal corticotropic hormone) challenge testing
- Comprehensive thyroid testing
- Cortisol/DHEA ratio
- 17-HP/Cortisol ratio
- Neurotransmitter testing
- Postural blood pressure testing
- Iris contraction testing
To obtain an accurate diagnosis, it is important to have information from various tests, sometimes conducted multiple times, and to make tracking all of your symptoms a priority.
Adrenal fatigue progresses through four different stages of advancement. Symptoms increase in frequency and severity throughout these stages.
The phases of adrenal fatigue go as follows:
Stage 1: Alarm Reaction
Stage 2: Resistance Response
Stage 3: Adrenal Exhaustion
Stage 4: Adrenal Failure
Up next, we will be discussing each phase in detail.
The first stage of adrenal fatigue is often called the alarm reaction or the “fight-or-flight response,” and is characterized by high cortisol levels.
This stage describes the body’s immediate reaction to a stressor. The body initiates a anti-stress response to overpower the stressor and begin the production and release of cortisol.
At this time, there is very little physical or physiological dysfunction noticeable. Fatigue is considered mild and may not sustain throughout the entire day. Sleep patterns are disturbed and an uptake of caffeine, sugar, and carbohydrates is usually present.
This stage is often categorized with the feeling of being “wired, but tired.” In fact, most people enter this stage of adrenal fatigue many times in their lifetimes!
If you were to get lab testing during this stage an elevation of adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, DHEA, and insulin would be present.
Stage 2, the resistance response, is where the adrenals begin to lose their ability to keep up with the body’s demand for cortisol.
During this stage, fatigue becomes more noticeable and extends beyond the morning/early afternoon into the evening. The body will need more rest than usual to recover and will very rarely feel refreshed from sleeping. Infections, insomnia,
anxiety, and irritability also become more common.
This is where people begin to recognize their symptoms and seek medical attention. There are substantial drops in important hormones, such as DHEA and testosterone, in exchange for the continual cortisol production.
This phase can last a couple months up to several years.
As the adrenal glands are becoming continually less effective, the body’s ever- increasing need for adrenal hormones remains unchanged while the stress is still present.
Stage 3 is where the the body recognizes the decline in cortisol output and focuses on the conserving its energy for survival. To do this, the body begins to slow down and break down existing muscle tissue for energy.
Chronic fatigue is common, as well as:
- Reduced exercise tolerance
- Longer recovery time
- Brain fog
- Increased infections
- Weight gain
- Lack of sex drive
- Less productive during the day
- Increased need to rest
If not treated, the body further loses homeostasis, or the ability to maintain stable and function through changes. Luckily, it is uncommon for people to progress beyond this “burn out” to the fourth stage of Adrenal Fatigue progression.
At this point, much of the body’s stress hormones, sex hormones, and neurotransmitters are very low representing the crash after suffering from stress for a long period of time.
As mentioned, it is uncommon to enter this stage of adrenal failure, but it is possible, dangerous, and important to recognize.
Eventually, the adrenals become completely exhausted. This severe advancement of Adrenal Fatigue can manifest very similarly to the clinical adrenal insufficiency disease, Addison’s disease.
- Sudden pain in the lower back, legs, and abdomen
- Digestive distress such as vomiting and diarrhea
- Severe dehydration
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- High risk of cardiovascular collapse
Although these symptoms are much more obvious, there is still the chance of misdiagnosis. It is incredibly important to recognize the signs and see a trusted physician. Once Adrenal Fatigue enters this stage, the chance of it becoming fatal is a very serious and relevant concern.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to reverse Adrenal Fatigue.
- Dietary Changes
- Adrenal-Supporting Supplementation
- Reduce Adrenal Stress
- Minimize Exercise/Increase Rest
- A Regular Sleep Schedule
- Adequate Hydration
- Heal Existing Infections
- Practice Meditation
A diet full of processed grains, vegetable oils, and sugars, much like the Standard American Diet (SAD), is known to stress the adrenals. Conversely, a nutrient-rich diet including healthy fats and fiber, helps support adrenal health and can aid in Adrenal Fatigue recovery.
In particular, these foods are especially impactful in the fight against Adrenal
- Healthy fats such as coconut oil, coconut milk, avocado, olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds,
grass-fed butter, fatty fish, and grass fed meats.
- * These are incredible tool in stabilizing blood sugar!
- Vegetables to provide a variety of nutrients to nourish the whole body, including the adrenals.
- Fermented foods for their pro-biotics.
- Protein, specifically in the morning. It is recommended to consume approximately 40g of protein in the morning to provide support to the adrenal throughout the day.
- Sugar and sweeteners
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Processed foods (particularly processed meats)
- Hydrogenated oils
The increased levels of cortisol that result from the early stages of Adrenal Fatigue also raises our blood sugar very quickly.
This upsets our body’s balancing act resulting in a dump of insulin. This insulin orders our cells to take in as much sugar as possible to regain safe blood-glucose levels. Insulin also signals our bodies to store extra glucose for later use.
However, if our diets continue to provide more sugar than our body ever needs to use, weight gain, inflammation, and health complications can develop.
It is important to address blood sugar stability when healing Adrenal Fatigue due to its pivotal role in energy production.
Vitamins are necessary for most of the body’s natural processes and minerals are
essential for hormone production and utilization.
A few of the most important vitamins and minerals to supplement include:
Sodium –Natural salt (such as Himalayan pink sea salt) is needed for adrenal recovery.
Aldosterone is a hormone responsible for salt regulation and is reduced by Adrenal
Vitamin C –Not only is it a powerful antioxidant that works to protect the body against free radicals, Vitamin C is also an essential building block for adrenal gland recovery.
Vitamin B- B5, B6, and B12 are specifically involved in cell metabolism, energy production, and fatigue reduction.
Vitamin D – This vitamin is especially important for adrenal fatigue as it is increases the enzyme needed for the production of adrenal hormones. When the body is in a stressed state, the body must choose between replenished the lost vitamin D or producing cortisol. Cortisol is chosen for survival, furthering adrenal fatigue that the cycle continues.
Magnesium – Energy levels are maintained by magnesium and deficiency results in fatigue, depression, and many other Adrenal Fatigue symptoms.
Probiotics – Probiotics improve digestion, immunity, aids in vitamin absorption, and hormone production. It is MOST important to follow a professional’s guidelines specific for you for proper supplementation due to the deficiencies, severity, and stage of your Adrenal Fatigue.
Adrenal Fatigue and sleep dysfunction are closely related. Due to the body’s natural schedule of cortisol secretion, cortisol levels naturally rise and fall throughout the entire day.
Adrenaline and cortisol both increase alertness and affect sleep schedules in a
number of ways. You may experience trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.
The best recommendations (other than stress relief) for regaining a proper sleep
- Creating a sleep schedule for going to sleep and waking.
- Resting when you feel tired as much as you can.
- Aiming to sleep between 8-10 hours a day.
- Avoiding staying up too late or being stimulated close to bedtime.
The obvious problem around Adrenal Fatigue is stress, so it is no surprise that stress relief is one of the most important factors in an optimal recovery.
Some recommendations to manage stress include:
- Use Essential Oils
- Frankincense – support immune system over thyroid
- Thyme – balancing hormones in men and women (phytoprogestorines)
- Sandalwood – helps men balance testosterone
- Helichrism –
- Chamomile & Vetiver – detox bath with epsom salt (10 drops of each to one cup of salt in a soating bath. 3x per week)
- Vetiver – calms the nerves
- Ylang Ylang – to calm and relax
- Oils that support and reduce intestinal inflammation and support immune system.
- Practice Mindfulness Meditation. (https://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-how-to-do-it/)
Begin a Yoga Practice
- Spend Time With People You Care About
- Listen to Enjoyable Music
- Relax With a Good Book
- Drink Some Herbal Tea
- Go Outdoors
- Get a Massage
How do YOU combat stress?
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