Are you tired all the time, despite the amount of sleep you get each night? When you lie down in bed, do you toss and turn, worrying about insignificant details? Are you snappy or irritable toward your loved ones for no real reason?
If so, you likely have the signs of adrenal fatigue. And the simple truth of the matter is there’s actually a good chance you may have it.
People who have signs of adrenal fatigue often describe themselves as feeling “overwhelmed.” Does this sound familiar? You feel that the demands placed on you by your daily responsibilities are great, but your ability to handle it all has diminished. If you’re someone who used to get everything done with a smile, you may suddenly find yourself struggling to gather the energy to simply get up in the morning.
This feeling is depressing. After all, you used to be fun and enjoy every aspect of your life. And now you just feel stuck, like you’re running in a hamster wheel with no positive change in your mood, weight, or overall health.
What Does Adrenal Fatigue Feel Like?
Have you experienced a trip to your doctor’s office where you spilled out all of your symptoms only to be told that you are healthy and this is simply a part of aging? Or perhaps your doctor just handed you a prescription designed to suppress the symptoms you described. Even worse, did you receive a referral for a psychological consult?
It’s frustrating! You know you don’t feel well, yet no one seems to know why. As a result, you’re left wondering what’s wrong and spend time on the Internet and find many other people who feel just like you do. You begin to suspect that maybe your thyroid is the problem, or that perhaps you are experiencing low hormone levels. Yet your doctor says these symptoms are age appropriate and don’t warrant treatment.
But that simply isn’t true. In 2001, James L. Wilson, ND, reported that approximately 80 percent of Americans have suffered from adrenal fatigue at some point in their lives. But even though it’s such a common syndrome, it remains one of the most under-diagnosed conditions in our country, as proven in a 2010 study.
The study found that less than 30 percent of women and 50 percent of men with adrenal insufficiency (“AI,” also known as late-stage adrenal fatigue) were diagnosed within the first six months after the onset of symptoms. And 20 percent of patients suffered for more than five years before being diagnosed.
In addition, the researchers found that almost 70 percent of the patients had consulted at least three different physicians, and 68 percent of those patients were given a false diagnosis. These inaccurate diagnoses proved to have a substantial impact on the patients’ health, as those who were diagnosed correctly within three months of the onset of symptoms were in much better health than those who were diagnosed later.
The researchers concluded that “Because of the unspecific symptoms, diagnosis is often delayed, not recognized by physicians, or diagnosed falsely. An early diagnosis is necessary and might positively influence overall health status in patients with AI.”
I’ve written this article for those who’ve had these experiences or signs of adrenal fatigue. For those who have been told that they are healthy when they know that they are not. For those who have been prescribed medications to simply suppress a symptom. For those whose symptoms are typically the signs of adrenal fatigue.
Just know, this condition can be treated with natural therapies, and you can feel like yourself again!
What Is Adrenal Fatigue? Is It Real?
So you know how you’re feeling, but what is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome, or a collection of signs and symptoms, that appears when your adrenal glands are doing a poor job managing hormones in response to chronic stress. It results in a fatigue that is not improved with sleep and is accompanied by a variety of other hormone-mediated symptoms, such as insomnia, menstrual cycle changes, lack of libido, hair loss, depression, anxiety, pain, poor immune health, and poor thyroid function (such as subclinical hypothyroidism—an early, mild form where the body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones).
Adrenal fatigue is at the root of most disease development because your adrenal glands control your entire body. Think of your adrenal glands as your body’s control center; their function is connected to almost every one of your organs. They regulate digestion, cardiovascular health, neurological balance, inflammatory response, sleep and wake cycles, production of sex hormones, electrolyte balance, and blood sugar usage.
They also give you the energy to adapt and respond to acute stress quickly. After all, we are creatures of adaptation. This means that when your body has been exposed to chronic stress, it will have an impact on all of these biological functions, ultimately resulting in progressing symptoms and the development of disease.
This adaptation to stress is controlled solely by your adrenal glands and results in changes to your individual biochemistry. These changes in chemistry cause symptoms that can range from a mild headache to the development of severe cancer. Take a glance at the adrenal fatigue symptoms list below for more on the top signs of adrenal gland problems.
10 Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms
Here’s a look at some of the most common symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Are you currently experiencing any of these?
- Fatigue and energy surges, such as morning fatigue (difficulty waking up) followed by afternoon lows (feeling sleepy or “foggy”) and surges of energy in the evening
- Cravings for foods high in salt, fat, and sugar
- Increased PMS or menopausal symptoms
- Increased allergies
- Frequent sighing
- IBS and other digestive issues
- Frequent headaches
- Frequent sickness, such as coughs, sore throats, colds, and flu
- Decreased sex drive
- Inability to lose weight
Why Is Adrenal Fatigue So Common?
Imagine you’re sitting in the woods, relaxing and enjoying nature. You hear a sound and turn. Your heart starts to beat a little faster. Suddenly, you hear another sound and focus your eyes on the bushes to try and identify where it’s coming from.
That’s when you spot a bear. He stands about 25 feet away, staring you down.
You experience panic, and your first instinct is to run. Your mind races as you decide in a split second in which direction to head, after taking a quick inventory of your surroundings. It’s do-or-die: Your life depends on the decision you make.
In primal times, we would have avoided or killed the bear, and life would have returned to a calm state. A significant amount of time would likely pass before the next threat. Unfortunately, in today’s society, there is always another bear. Regardless of what you do with the first one, the minute you “get away,” there is another new rustle in the bushes that keeps you on high alert.
We are all surrounded by “bears.” We have our jobs, spouses, children, social status, and more. We worry about the impact of our culture, attacks on our land, our leaders, our legacies. Constantly surrounded by the beeping of our text messages, phones calls, and e-mails, we shove food into our mouths while we drive to and from work to save time during the day just so we can get more done.
We are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, wondering where to run and how to get there as fast as possible, with the goal of completing every task on our never-ending to-do lists. This fight-or-flight reaction is a normal physiological response to increased stress. But because today’s stresses never seem to let up, this continual response now leads to the development of disease.
We have become an incredibly ill nation, spending billions of dollars every year on health care while we continue to live with constant fatigue, insomnia, obesity, and disease. Due to this physiological phenomenon, medical science has begun investigating the effects of chronic stress on society.
In fact, a 2012 study showed that when workers were exposed to repeated stress or perceived themselves to be under stress for extended periods of time at the workplace, they were found to be suffering from burnout syndrome and were the clinical pictures of adrenal fatigue.
Additionally, studies have found that if your exposure to stress is excessive or prolonged, then your body becomes vulnerable to a variety of disorders.
Your Body’s Reaction to Chronic Stress
So, what is the root cause of adrenal fatigue? Consider this: While running from a bear, your body changes its entire biochemistry. How? Your adrenal glands release the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol in response to actual or anticipated stress. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are part of your sympathetic nervous system and give you the feeling of an adrenaline rush. Just the simple release of these hormones begins a cascade of biochemical events.
When released, these hormones cause an increase in your heart rate and help your eyes focus on the target as your body anticipates running. This anticipation also impacts your blood sugar, liver, and blood pressure.
Moreover, your gastrointestinal system slows in response, and you are so focused on your target that you ignore your peripheral vision. In fact, by the time you stop running, you cannot remember how you got to where you are. Sound familiar?
I often hear stories like this from my patients. How many times have you made it home from work, but you don’t remember the drive home? Or you walk into the laundry room and cannot remember why you went in there? This is a sign you may be suffering from extreme stress and adrenal fatigue.
How Does This Affect Your Adrenal Glands?
The source of all of this chaos is your adrenal glands, which are located on top of your kidneys. They are responsible for regulating the hormones in your endocrine system. Your body runs its endocrine system via signaled responses similar to a sophisticated reception telephone.
Think of it this way: A call comes in, it is directed to the appropriate party, and then the call is disconnected. This results in either another phone call (signal) or completion of the task. Your endocrine system works the same way: Your body takes the call, sends the call to your brain, and your brain decides whether that call needs to be sent to another department or handled locally. This system is run by a negative feedback loop, meaning that if there is enough of any particular hormone, your body will stop making it.
So, if your thyroid function is slowing down, your brain will increase the signal, asking for more. The “call” is disconnected once the levels are perfect. When one signal is off, it affects all the other signals and hormones released. Any stress, whether it is simply a cell phone ringing or something more extreme, such as a divorce or the death of a family member, will signal a response (or call) from the adrenal glands to the brain for an answer.
While the primary hormones released from these glands are norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol, aldosterone, and dopamine, the adrenal glands are also responsible for the production of the sex hormones progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA. Each gland contains two parts, and each part releases different hormones designed to keep your body in balance.
Your adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol during times of stress (this is one reason why I call it the “havoc hormone”—your body releases it to deal with havoc), and it has a significant impact on how your body converts fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy. It also regulates blood pressure and cardiovascular function. But its main job is to regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
Your cortisol levels should be highest in the morning and slowly decrease throughout the day, eventually rising right before you wake from sleep. It is responsible for assisting you when you need energy from glucose.
Returning to the bear scenario, consider this: Exhausted from running, you are finally safe from the bear and decide to sit down behind a tree to nap. As you close your eyes, you think you hear another noise and you startle. You don’t see anything, but you anticipate another foe. As a result, your sleep is interrupted and worry begins. Just the anticipation of the bear sends your body into a reaction response that results in panic.
Because the constant need to respond ultimately wears out your adrenal glands, they no longer function as intended and constantly release cortisol, resulting in adrenal fatigue and unleashing utter havoc on your body.
Adrenal Fatigue Treatment: 4 Steps to Adrenal Health
By now, you’re probably wondering: How do you fix adrenal fatigue? Here are the four steps you need to take to begin healing your adrenal glands and regain control of your health.
Step 1: Eat a whole-food diet that supports your adrenal glands.
Foods to eat:
- Water. When you’re fighting adrenal fatigue, it’s crucial to remain hydrated. Why? Adrenal fatigue tends to cause dehydration. Aim to consume half of your body weight in ounces daily. So if you weigh 170 pounds, drink 85 ounces of water each day.
- Vegetables. You’ll want to eat a variety of vegetables to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you’ll need to replenish. Some great options include broccoli, bok choy, dark green leafy vegetables (especially spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and kale), squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, carrots, and more.
- Fruits. Again, nutrient replenishment is key, so make sure you’re consuming a variety. Choose any fruit, such as apples, bananas, berries, kiwis, rhubarb, pears, apricots, lemons, mangoes, oranges, and more.
- Healthy fats. Omega-3s and omega-9s are excellent sources of fats to focus on consuming. Your options include avocados, flax seeds, chia seeds, pecans, hazelnuts walnuts, beans, cashews, almonds, peanuts, olives, olive oil, and more.
- Gluten-free or ancient grains. Your diet should be more focused on alternative grains such as brown or wild rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, amaranth, and spelt because they have a higher nutritional and mineral content.
- Lean proteins. GMO-free fermented soy (tofu), beans, lentils, nuts, hemp seeds, chickpeas, wild-caught Pacific fish, organic eggs, organic chicken, and wild game meats are some great protein options to help provide some much-needed energy when you’re looking to support your adrenal glands.
Foods to avoid:
- Processed and prepackaged foods. You’ll find that by eliminating processed foods, you will also eliminate a lot of the empty calories in your day. This supports your weight loss goals and helps to restore normal adrenal function. The beauty of aligning your diet in this way is that it allows you to eat more food while having a positive impact on your waistline.
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners. “Diet” foods are not an option because artificial sweeteners, dyes, and additives cause more stress on your body, thereby worsening your adrenal fatigue.
- Dairy products. Most people jump directly to dairy products as a primary and “essential” source of calcium and vitamin D. But we tend to overconsume cow’s milk, which is highly inflammatory and actually puts more stress on your adrenal glands.
Step 2: Take herbs and supplements that support adrenal health.
- L-Theanine: This amino acid is found in green tea and in some mushrooms. When used in conjunction with other therapies, L-theanine has a significant impact on sleep, mood, and anxiety.
- Lavender: Due to its amazing synergistic effects, lavender is fantastic for treating adrenal fatigue because it calms you, induces rest, reduces nervousness, improves headaches, reduces gastrointestinal bloating, and infection, reduces nausea and loss of appetite, and smells heavenly.
- Passiflora: This is another sedative herb that can reduce anxiety, decrease pain, improve nervousness, reduce palpitations due to anxiety, and more. I call it the “anti-worry” herb.
- Rhodiola: This herb is fantastic for repair and reversal. In either liquid or capsule form, rhodiola can increase energy and mental capacity. As an adaptogen, it assists your body in adapting to and resisting stress, whether that stress is physical, emotional, or chemical.
- Schisandra Berry: I love this berry because it has properties that aid in mental clarity but does not contain the stimulatory effect found in other herbs that support the adrenal glands. Schisandra is a fantastic herb for those with adrenal fatigue because it increases focus yet has the ability to calm the strong output of your adrenal glands.
- Phosphatidylserine: Scientists have investigated the impact of this nutrient on stress response for many years. One study showed that people given 300 mg of phosphatidylserine reported feeling less stressed and having better moods.
- Valerian: Commonly used for insomnia, anxiety-related restlessness, mood disorders, and more, valerian is known to promote calmness. Research shows that taking valerian orally will reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by 14 to 17 minutes and will double your chances of improved sleep quality. The optimal dose to reap these benefits is 400 to 900 mg of valerian extract up to two hours before bedtime.
- Ginseng: In a double-blind study, scientists added ginseng root extract to a multivitamin and noted improved parameters in subjects exposed to the stress of a high amount of physical and mental activity. This suggests that the combination of ginseng and multivitamins conveys an anti-stress effect.
- Glycyrrhiza: This herb strongly benefits your gastrointestinal system, with research showing a positive effect on its ability to heal stress-induced ulcers. Glycyrrhiza can address both GI healing and adrenal support.
- Ashwagandha: This well-rounded herb treats not only your adrenal glands, but also the symptoms arising from adrenal fatigue. Ashwagandha is a gentle herbal tonic and can calm an overactive nervous system, lower blood pressure, calm anxiety, and more. It can also suppress stress-induced increases of dopamine receptors and the output of cortisol.
Step 3: Incorporate exercises that help heal adrenal fatigue.
The following exercises can help decrease stress and may be beneficial for treating adrenal fatigue:
- Boot camps and HIIT
- Endurance walking
- Interval walking
- Mindful walking
- Tai chi
Step 4: Embrace the mind-body connection.
Most conventional doctors overlook the emotional aspect of healing, and this is a big mistake. Recovery is not simply about taking supplements and making dietary changes. To properly heal adrenal fatigue, you must deal with your stress.
Here are my top three favorite mind-body exercises to help relieve stress.
- Practice meditation. A good way to prepare for meditation is to find a quiet spot and focus on your breathing. Remember, your goal is to have full, well-filled lungs. Focus on making your rib cage expand with each breath and letting every bit of air out when you exhale. If your mind wanders, focus it back on your breath. Try to meditate for five minutes every day.
- Start journaling. Daily journaling will serve as a reminder to love yourself and commit to your new lifestyle. There is no right or wrong way to complete this task but it should always remind you of your goals and focus. Your journal entries should always end on a positive note, making you feel peaceful and instilling motivation to continue your journey to total health.
- Practice self-love. This step is critical. Ask yourself why you don’t think you are worthy of a healthy life. Consider placing notes around the house to remind yourself of your strengths. Remind yourself why you fell in love with your spouse and why he or she fell in love with you. Look at yourself through the eyes of your children, who adore you. It is your time to heal—your time to recover—so take it.
- Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome, or a collection of signs and symptoms, that appears when your adrenal glands are doing a poor job managing hormones in response to chronic stress. It results in fatigue and a variety of other hormone-mediated symptoms.
- Because we tend to live in a state of chronic stress, adrenal fatigue is more common than most people realize, estimated to affect approximately 80 percent of Americans.
- Your adrenal glands are responsible for regulating the hormones in your endocrine system and function as your body’s control center. They influence almost every one of your organs and regulate digestion, cardiovascular health, neurological balance, inflammatory response, and more.
- Fortunately, you can treat adrenal fatigue with natural therapies, such as eating a whole-foods based diet, taking adrenal-supporting herbs, participating in certain exercises shown to decrease stress, and fighting stress by practicing emotional self-care.
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