When it comes to adrenal fatigue, have you simply earned your exhaustion (or is it something more)?
Let’s contextualise for a moment. If you were to rise with the sun and your day was spent performing a series of physical tasks – gardening, home tending and other tasks that involve lifting, pushing, squatting etc. – you would expect that by the end of the day your body would be happily tired and you would fall easily to sleep for recovery, waking rested. This is how our ancestors would have lived, and is what our genetics expect of us. Fast forward in time a little and the landscape is vastly different for Melbourne’s inner-city dwellers.
Adrenal Fatigue – What is it?
As the day begins with an alarm (or perhaps a few sneaky but stimulating minutes on Facebook), you then launch into the day to get the kids ready, and out the door, so you can make your 8.45 meeting and then it’s back to back appointments all day. A quick but necessary lunchtime spin class barely leaves you time to eat, but you are relieved that you could fit some exercise in. A hurried drive to collect the kids from care before getting home to get dinner on, a quick glass of vino before folding onto the couch (or alternatively folding yet another load of laundry). You’re so tired now you can barely get to the bathroom to prepare for bed, and the exhaustion falls over you like a sheet that is too heavy to lift. Paradoxically, this is where despite being tired, our brains are still wired, and all too commonly, sleep eludes.
No longer do you drift off peacefully and wake renewed. You wake tired, need caffeine to get going and don’t even mention what happens at 3 pm. So what goes on in the body when your lifestyle does not allow for respite?
Most likely, your hormones will cope for a little while. Then as the perceived threat does not pass, but instead intensifies, you may begin to experience what is known as adrenal fatigue (Technically known as HPA Dysfunction). Here’s what happens…
Your adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and secrete important hormones: cortisol, adrenaline, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These hormones help you to buffer stress and adapt to everyday life demands by determining the stress response.
Under stress, healthy adrenals increase their output of cortisol and DHEA to enable you to preserve health. They also secrete adrenaline, giving you a boost of energy when needed. If this becomes chronic (meetings, deadlines, lack of sleep, too much alcohol, full social calendar), then the body begins to be resistant to these stress hormones, and so their effect starts to reduce. The body produces evermore, and the process continues, in much the same process as insulin resistance does. This is what is commonly called: Adrenal Exhaustion/Fatigue.
Adrenal Fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a “syndrome” that results when the adrenal hormones function below the necessary levels. Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, it can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia.
To compound the situation, the over secretion of adrenaline can cause you to feel anxious and nervous. Someone in this state might complain of insomnia, fatigue, depression, irritability, and digestive difficulties.
Adrenal Fatigue complications
As adrenaline surges during stress, digestive enzymes are simultaneously lowered, and blood sugar levels initially rise. If stress endures over the long term, the impact of high cortisol and adrenaline levels can cause:
- Depletion of cortisol, resulting in low blood sugar (feeling dizzy or ‘hangry’ between meals – also more likely to hold weight around the midsection)
- Poor quality sleep (waking throughout the night)
- Poor insulin sensitivity (with an increased risk of diabetes)
- Reduced immune function (prone to catching whatever bug is going around)
- An inability to produce enough DHEA
- Loss of potassium in cells
- Increased levels of lipids in the blood
- Water retention (looking heavier than your normal weight)
Cortisol is one of the most important steroid hormones in your body. It’s responsible for:
- Stimulating ‘gluconeogenesis’ in the liver: A process that converts amino acids and glycerol to glucose when blood sugar levels are low, to give you energy
- Counteracts inflammation as well as allergies
- Helps to maintain blood pressure
- Your stress response
DHEA is also important, as it’s a master hormone that’s a precursor to testosterone and oestrogen. It also helps improve resistances to bacteria, parasites, viruses, allergies, and cancer; it can prevent osteoporosis, it lowers total and LDL cholesterol, and it increases muscle mass and decreases body fat.
Now that you understand what adrenal fatigue is and the lifestyle that leads you here, what can you do? How can you support your body so that it doesn’t overload the adrenal glands and disrupts the natural allocation of hormones?
- A diet low in (or avoiding) refined sugars, caffeine, and alcohol and should include several small meals containing protein.
- Determine allergic/intolerance foods and avoid them.
- Ginseng and/or licorice tea can be supportive.
- Adequate vitamin C is important. Your best food sources are red capsicum (raw), kale, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
- Get adequate sleep and go to bed by 10 pm.
- Use stress-management techniques like Headspace, 1 Giant Mind, Wim Hof breathing, floatation tanks.
- Deal with emotions as needed with laughter, breathing, and/or professional help.
- Engage in light exercise, particularly when under extreme stress – define the appropriate times to work out intensely and when to move a little more gently. You might choose yoga, barre, swimming over a pump, spin or weights session.
- Get daily outdoor light.
Remember, life is about balance and health is about tuning in and listening to what your body is telling you. As Jung said, if you don’t take life’s little hints, she’ll whack you!