What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal Fatigue - a by-product of the ever increasing stress of modern day life or just a #holistichealth term for exhaustion?
Tired but wired, exhausted, excessive fatigue, increased irritability, food cravings, waking up abruptly mid-morning and struggling to fall asleep in bed at night…
Ever experience one, or many, of these symptoms? It could be the result of that big night out you had last night, but if these symptoms are occurring more often than they are not (and you’re not hitting the tequila slammers daily), your body may be indicating to you that it is on the path to complete burnout, by way of Adrenal Fatigue.
Stress seems to be an inevitable part of modern daily life nowadays, but what happens when your body becomes so exhausted from coping, or trying to at least, with the mounting pressure of deadlines, commuting, to-do lists and commitments?
For many, they experience an exhaustion of the adrenal system, increasingly commonly known now in holistic health practices, as Adrenal Fatigue.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal Fatigue is the name given to a collection of symptoms and related signs that results when the Adrenal glands function below the necessary level for optimal health.
As our society, driven by the force of wellness, fitness and health industry, begins to understand that stress is making us sick, there is a growing awareness of the phenomenon of Adrenal Fatigue.
Characterized by a disruption of your adrenal glands' ability to make cortisol in the right amounts, at the right times, in response to stress, this burnout is the result when the adrenal glands can no longer withstand the demands of stress placed on the body.
What are the Adrenal Glands?
The adrenal glands are two small, grape sized glands, which sit just over the kidneys. The main purpose of these glands is to enable the body to deal with stress – in every sense, be it physical, emotional or psychological. They are largely in control of determining the energy output of the body’s response to every change in its internal and external environment. In a primal sense, they work on the fight or flight response of the body, signalling whether to attack, retreat or surrender in the face of a threat (the stress).
The role of the Adrenals
As the optimally functioning human body thrives in a state of constant homestasis, when this fragile balance is thrown off, the adrenal glands will mobilize your body’s response to every kind of stress through the production and release of hormones. This release of hormones regulates the processes such as energy production, immune function, heart rate and muscular activity, which enables you to cope with the stress faced. If the response is inadequate, you are like to experience a varying degree of adrenal fatigue.
Due to the nature of the Adrenal glands and their role in the endocrine system, Adrenal Fatigue is most commonly associated as the result of prolonged durations of stress. During adrenal fatigue, your adrenal glands do function, but not well enough to maintain optimal homeostasis, as their output of the necessary regulatory hormones has been depleted.
With every increment of reduction in adrenal function, the other organs and systems of the body are profoundly affected in order to compensate. This can lead to signifcant changes to your metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, cardiovascular system and sex drive.
In the body’s primal attempt to maintain homeostasis, once the adrenal system is shot, it will exhaust all other avenues to try and bring itself back to balance.
For women, this can also negatively affect many aspects of their monthly hormonal cycle, including menstruation, PMS, perimenopause and menopause.
The causes of Adrenal Fatigue
According to Dr James Wilson, researcher of Adrenal Fatigue and author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome , at the root of the issue is generally one of four common sources which overwhelm the adrenal glands and their resulting functions:
· Severe or recurrent infection or illnesses which lead to body to a disease state
· Physical stress such as poor nutrition, injury, exhaustion, over-training, addiction or surgery
· Emotional/Psychological stress such as from relationships, work or other unavoidable situations
· Continual or severe environmental stress from toxic chemicals and pollutants.
Over stimulation of your adrenals may be caused by either one singular very intense stress - such as a trauma, or repeated stress which has a culumulative effect.
Unfortunately for many of us – in particular the millennial generation who is growing up on a motto of #hustleharder – many of these root causes are prevalent and common in our everyday lives, making us increasingly succeptible to the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue.
The signs + symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
As Adrenal Fatigue is not readily identifiable, and largely characterized as a collection of symptoms and experiences, symptoms can vary greatly for individuals. It is entirely possible to look and act relatively “normal”, with no outward signs of a physical iullness, yet live with an overall sense of being unwell, experience excessive tiredness or just feeling ‘low’.
For some people, you may just feel a little dimmed – as though you cannot operate at full ‘brightness’. For others, they may struggle to summon the energy to be out of bed for more than a few hours at a time.
Generally, those who do experience Adrenal Fatigue will firstly try to manage the increasingly levels of tiredness and fatigue by finding ways to boost or pep themselves up during the day. Most commonly, through the use of stimulants such as caffeine, so than can continue at the pace required by them to lead their busy lives – something to consider the next time your blearly eyes and tired body reaches for your 6th flat white of the day…
Some of the key recognisable symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue include*:
1. Feeling tired for no reason, especially in the early morning and mid-afternoon.
2. Experience trouble getting up and out of bed in the morning, even after a full night’s sleep.
3. Feeling consistently rundown or overwhelmed.
4. Difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness.
5. Cravings for salty and/or sweet foods.
6. Feeling more awake, alert and energetic after 6PM than you do all day.
* Information gained from Dr James Wilson.
The stages of Adrenal Fatigue
It is recognised that Adrenal Fatigue is varying in its severity and we often move through different stages of the condition during different phases of life.
Stage 1: Wired but tired
This stage reflects the body’s immediate response to a stressor and is characterized by high cortisol levels, especially at night. This may lead to insomnia, with a sense of “wired but tired” as altertness and arousal is increased and sleep begins to suffer.
Many of us regularly go into stage 1 multiple times throughout life.
Stage 2: Alarm bells
As the stress continues, so does the body’s reaction to it. The endocrine system is still adequeatly equipped to produce the hormones necessary to carry out the body’s processes, however it may start to ration this production to those that are vital - being cortisol in response to the stress – which diverts resources from the production of hormones not as immediately necessary, such as the sex hormones.
Stage 3: Stressed and tired
In this stage the endocrine system continues to focus on producing cortisol hormones at the expense of sex hormones. Individuals are still able to function, but the lower levels of hormones will begin to affect the quality of life – with symptoms of regular tiredness, lack of enthusiasm, regular infections and/or lowered sex drive reportedly common. Often, many people will find they repeatedly wake up early in the morning (often around 3am) and are unable to fall back asleep, as the cortisol levels have an early peak, then flattens out, with the potential for a secondary rise later in the day.
This phase can last several months to a few years.
Stage 4: Burnout
After some time, the body simply stops being able to manufacture stress hormones and cortisol levels finally begin to drop. Now both the levels of sex hormones and coristol are low. The body reaches a point known as burnout, whereby it finally crashes after prolonged period of stress.
This is where the severity of symptoms are exemplified, with the experience of extreme fatigue, lack of sex drive, irritability, depression, weight loss, apathy and general disinterest.
From this point, the body is at a higher risk of developing autoimmune disorders and is more susceptible to illness, making it important to seek professional help and begin a path of recovery.
A diagnosis of Adrenal Fatigue
In the field of Western, conventional medicine, the diagnosis of Adrenal Fatigue is not widely accepted. Many traditional doctors move away from a diagnosis due to the fact that it can be difficult to establish a conclusive answer from laboratory results.
In Functional Medicine, a diagnosis is generally based on a recounting and experience of symptoms, depicting the depth and severity of the Adrenal Fatigue faced by the individual. These may be backed up with conventional medical testing, where deemed necessary.
These laboratory diagnositics may include hormonal profiling in blood tests and Saliva tests – which examine salivary cortisol rhythms monitoring changes over the morning, afternoon and late afternoon and blood tests to monitor hormonal levels.
However, it is always imperative to discuss all avenues with your practictioner first and foremost.
Where to seek advice
If you are concerned about suffering from Adrenal Fatigue or feel like you’re on the brink of burnout, it is always recommended that you seek qualified, medical advice, before self-diagnosing and experimenting with treatment on your own.
Due to the disparity of belief between convential and holistic medicine, it may be beneficial to seek out a practitioner who converges on the western AND functional spectrum for treatment options. These style of practitioners may include (but are not limited to) Functional Doctors, herbalists, naturopaths, registered dieticians, osteopaths and/or acupuncturists, who will all look for the root cause, offer treatment solutions and help you implement lifestyle and dietary changes.
Often, finding a reputable holistic practitioner who has experience treating the condition can be accessed through some simple research in your local area, such as asking around your yoga/Pilates studio for personal recommendations.
Got any more questions about Adrenal Fatigue, reach out in the comments below or get in touch with us through our social channels.
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