Adrenal Fatigue: Wired but Tired
Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a “syndrome,” that results when the adrenal glands function, but not at their optimal level. 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 (Pick 2011). As the name suggests, its paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep. You may look and act relatively normal while experiencing adrenal fatigue and may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, yet you live with a general sense of unwellness, tiredness or “gray” feelings. People whose adrenals are fatigued often have to use coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day (Brazier 2007).
Simply put, stress is anything that causes strain on the body. It can be positive like training for a marathon or planning a wedding or negative such as job related, financial, marital or family problems. Mental or physical, regardless of the origin, stress, affects us in some way. Our body can adapt to stress for a certain amount of time but if the stress is prolonged, the adrenal glands become worn out and no longer function at optimal levels.
Our adrenal glands are located on top of our kidneys and play a large role in our body’s response to stress. During times of stress, our adrenal glands secret the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” because its release is triggered by stress. When cortisol is first released, we gain energy, strength and improved reaction time to deal with the perceived stressor with a “fight or flight” response. This reaction is an innate response drawing back to our primal roots where when our bodies were stressed there was immediate danger that needed to be dealt with or escaped from. In this day and age, we are under greater amounts of stress for longer periods of time. When the adrenals have to respond to numerous or prolonged stressors, the mechanism that prompts the release of cortisol becomes overworked and the adrenal become fatigued and no longer respond to the stressor adequately.
If stress, and therefore cortisol, remains elevated, several problems arise to hamper the body’s smooth functioning. Stress can cause a hormone imbalance by a process called the “pregnenolone steal” where the body’s other hormones including sex hormones production is ceased in order to produce more cortisol. This will cause estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels to become out of balance. Thyroid hormones are also affected during these times of stress so symptoms can indicate thyroid issues when it is actually adrenal insufficiency that is causing the problem. Proper assessment and testing will ferret out the true cause of the dysfunction.
There are 3 stages to the stress response: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. In the alarm stage the adrenal medulla secrets adrenaline and other stress-related hormones to mount the “fight or flight” response. This is a very short lived stage. The resistance stage is longer lasting and is where the adrenal cortex secrets corticosteroids to continue to fight against the perceived stressors. While this is necessary to deal with stressors, prolonged time spent in the resistance phase will increase risk of significant disease and results in the final stage of exhaustion. During the exhaustion phase, the body can have a complete collapse in functioning or collapse of a specific organ or organ system including the heart, blood vessels, adrenals, and immune system resulting in many diseases like asthma, autoimmune disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cold/flu, depression, headaches, immune suppression, PMS, and food allergies/sensitivities (Murray 1996).
Common Symptoms include:
•excessive fatigue and exhaustion
•non-refreshing sleep (you get sufficient hours of sleep, but wake fatigued)
•overwhelmed by or unable to cope with stressors
•feeling rundown or overwhelmed
•craving salty and sweet foods
•you feel most energetic in the evening
•a feeling of not being restored after a full night’s sleep or having sleep disturbances
•low stamina, slow to recover from exercise
•slow to recover from injury, illness or stress
•difficulty concentrating, brain fog
•low immune function
•food or environmental allergies
•premenstrual syndrome or difficulties that develop during menopause
•consistent low blood pressure
•extreme sensitivity to cold
While reducing or eliminating external stress is the best way to avoid adrenal overload, many of those stressor are out of our immediate control. There are, however, other factors within our control that greatly affect a person’s ability to reduce internal stress.
Removing as many environmental toxins as possible from your home and food will reduce amount of stress the body has to deal with.
Eating an organic, whole foods diet will reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides consumed and therefore reduce your toxic load.
Making lifestyle changes, such as getting regular moderate exercise, practicing yoga or meditating and practicing good sleep hygiene are other ways to reduce your stress.
The best way to reduce your overall stress is to eat a healthy and nutrient dense diet rich in protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients while reducing intake of refined and processed foods, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, artificial color, additives and preservatives, sweetened/carbonated beverages, and medications including OTC and recreational drugs and known allergens.
In my next post, I will discuss specific dietary recommendations for improving adrenal function and overall wellness.
Bauman, E. and Friedlander, J. (2011). Therapeutic Nutrition-Part One. Penngrove, CA Bauman College
Brazier, Brendan. (2007). Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life
Murray, M. (1996). The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. Roseville, CA Prima
Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., and Pizzorno, l. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria Books
Perkins, Cynthia. (2011) Adrenal Fatigue or Adrenal Exhaustion. Retrieved fromhttp://www.holistichelp.net/adrenal-fatigue.html
Pick, Marcelle. (2011)Adrenal Health in Women Retrieved fromhttp://www.womentowomen.com/adrenalhealth/default.aspx
Ross, Julia. (1999). The Diet Cure. New York: Penguin Books
Shomon, Mary (2003). Adrenal Fatigue/Adrenal Exhaustion. Retrieved fromhttp://thyroid.about.com/cs/endocrinology/a/adrenalfatigue.htm