Understanding Adrenal Fatigue

Why am I so tired? Adrenal fatigue and you

Our stress response system evolved a million years ago when we were living on the Serengeti plains, being chased by predators, running after our dinner and scavenging for daily food. The major stressors were being eaten, infection or famine, so our stress system evolved to 'fight or flee', to alert the immune response, and to store fat for energy needs during periods of few calories.

It wasn't easy, yet we had plenty of down time to contemplate the sky, the stars, to rest and recuperate, and we were eating only what nature was providing us-- in it's most simple form. This is what allowed our body's to recoup from stress.

Unfortunately, we were not evolved to have the chronic, continuous low grade stress that we have in our culture today - continuous over stimulation, stressful relationships, miserable at our job, sleep deprivation, and poor quality diets, with no downtime. Poor gastrointestinal health is a major source of chronic low grade stress hormones.

All stressors (physical, emotional, nutritional) affect the brain.) The brain then tells the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline causes your immediate "alarm" response increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing and diversion of your blood circulation from the digestive tract to the limbs---so you can be prepared to fight or flee.

Next, Cortisol is produced right behind adrenaline. It is the "vigilance" hormone activating the body's immune system and raising the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Glucose provides the energy needed by the muscles to run or fight. Cortisol drives hunger for more sugar (carbohydrate cravings) and will store consumed sugar as fat if it is not immediately utilized for energy by the muscles—i.e. if you're not fleeing or fighting.

When the body is under any kind of stress both adrenaline and cortisol production is markedly increased. Continuous low grade production of cortisol and adrenaline, combined with very high production during times of intense stress, as well as inadequate amounts of downtime for rest and repair, depletes our ability to appropriately respond and wears out the system.

This continuous stress can lead to adrenal insufficiency or ("adrenal fatigue") in which prolonged periods of elevated cortisol are followed by the inability to produce enough. This is often reflected in low DHEA levels. DHEA is another adrenal hormone which can turn itself into cortisol as well as into testosterone. DHEA has many important immune system and cell building functions.

The production of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal gland is intricately tied to insulin production from the pancreas. These three, adrenaline, cortisol and insulin, are considered the major hormones in the body, without which you cannot survive. The production of adrenaline, cortisol and insulin markedly influence the production and balance of all other minor hormones.

Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid are considered "minor" hormones, because you can actually live a long time without them. You may feel miserable and have health problems related to not having enough, however their deficit won't kill you.

Insulin is utilized to allow glucose (sugar) to pass into individual cells, where it will be burned as a fuel for energy. Production of insulin in turn is related to how much sugar is consumed in the diet, and in what form.

As you can see, all of the hormonal systems are related to one another. Creating balance in the body first requires addressing the health of the major hormones. I begin with measuring both major and minor hormones through a combination of blood and saliva testing.

Diet, adequate rest, nutrients, gently exercise, lifestyle changes and tools for managing stress are the keys to recovery from adrenal fatigue and improving overall hormonal balance, well being, vitality and long term health.

Physical movement plays a key role. Since most of us can't physically fight or flee from an irrational boss, an emotional upset, an unhealthy relationship, an argument with our adolescent kid, or the inevitable bad news coming across our TV screen-- we can make the choice to move our bodies. Walk it off, run, bike, swim, dance etc. Move that stressful energy so it doesn't get stuck and stored as fat!!

Recovery means taking good care of yourself. In addition to consuming high quality foods and taking supplements, you also need to make lifestyle changes. (see optimizing adrenal health and self care).

Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Principles

  • NO alcohol, caffeine, sugar, refined flour products. These are major adrenal stressors. See tips to wean from caffeine, alcohol, and sugar

  • Avoid foods you are sensitive to (particularly wheat and milk products)

  • Take Vitamins daily, pharmaceutical quality multi with minerals, B-Complex, Vitamin E 400-800 units, Vitamin C 3000-5000 units/day (Emergen-C powder an easy way)

  • Go to bed by 10 pm

  • Sleep in late when possible. If you are tired take a nap

  • Laugh

  • No news or negative TV or heavy movies. Only positive, uplifting, funny reading/TV or movies

  • Practice gratitude daily

  • Use daily prayer, meditation, Tai Chi, or gentle Yoga to calm the mind

  • Avoid toxic people and relationships. Learn to set healthy boundaries

  • Breathe deeply

  • Gentle exercise

  • Eat the foods your body needs (i.e. whole foods, minimally processed, straight from nature, organic if possible, whole grains, lots of vegetables of every color, etc.)

  • Combine complex carbohydrates, good proteins, and healthy fats with every meal

  • Between 2-4 pm, have Vitamin C 1000mg (Emergen-C), a B complex, and a protein snack

  • Read the book Adrenal Fatigue: the 21st Century Stress Syndrome, by James Wilson

  • SELF CARE. Schedule down time... rest... take naps... get a manicure, pedicure, or massage...therapy... girlfriends... silence... good books... good music... dance... create...

  • Use appropriate pharmaceutical quality adrenal support nutrients such as Ashwaganda, rhodiola, licorice root and/or extracts (Adrenogen/Adreset/Licorice Plus by Metagenics, or Stress Relief complex by Shaklee)