The modern life has a lot of advantages, things that were once laborious and complicated have become quick and easy. But there is a cost, everyday we are bombarded with information, everyday we are encouraged to work longer and harder, we are taught to always want more without thinking. But this kind of lifestyle can end up driving you into the ground if you let it. If you don’t take proper rest then you may wear out your adrenal glands and end up with adrenal fatigue, the number one symptom being continually tired.
(Photo by Maxikt)
The adrenal glands
Now to explain the basics of the adrenal glands so you can understand the consequences of their breakdown. The adrenal glands are thumb sized endocrine glands which sit above the kidneys and are responsible for secreting a multitude of hormones which influence just about every function within the body, some of which you can’t live without. As part of the endocrine (hormonal) system they are involved in a very precise balancing act performed by the body to keep everything functioning just right. To be specific they are part of a hormonal axis involving the thyroid glands and ovaries in females (ovarian-adrenal-thyroidal axis) and just thyroid glands in males (thyroidal-adrenal axis).
There are four basic types of hormones which the Adrenals secrete. The first type is glucocorticoids (includes hydrocortisone and corticosterone) which regulate energy levels, immune response, heart function and also help to suppress inflammation. The second type is mineralcorticoids (aldosterone) which controls your blood pressure, the excretion of salts and hydration levels. The third are sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen) but are secreted in relatively small quantities compared to the sex organs.
The last type is Adrenalin which is probably the most well known. This hormone is responsible for your ‘fight or flight’ response which occurs in response to any perceived threat. Adrenalin works by increasing blood flow to the heart, muscles and brain, boosting energy (glucose) and slowing down functions not necessary for immediate survival (digestion and immunity).
How it happens (Basics)
Just like anything within the human body, if put under a healthy workload the adrenals will function without complaint. But when they are overworked then they will require time to recover before they are 100% again.
Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands are pushed beyond their ability to cope. This is usually caused by either prolonged periods of stress or one big, devastating event such as the loss of a loved one. Prolonged periods of stress can be caused by many things and aren’t limited to psychological stress. Causes include environments which cause you to feel negative emotions, lack of sleep, not eating right or exercising enough, or exposure to environmental toxins.
Another factor that comes in to play is that just like one person may have strong muscles, and another has amazing memory, some people have tough adrenal glands and some are weaker. This means that while one person might be able to bounce back from a stress fairly easily, another person might take a considerable period of time to fully recover.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue will vary depending on the severity of adrenal exhaustion and also on how the individual’s body balances the rest of the bodies functions in order to compensate for the lack of adrenal hormones.
(Photo by Gerd Atlmann)
– Morning fatigue or trouble waking up
– Decreased libido
– Muscle weakness
– Poor focus
– Bone loss
– Increased allergies
– Difficulty sleeping
– Cravings for sugar
– Hair loss
– Weight gain
– Muscle tension
– Inability to tolerate high-carb/potassium foods unless paired with fat and protein
A closer look at the process
Alarm Reaction: at first the body increases anti-stress hormones like cortisol in order to cope with stress, it is able to handle the stress-load at this stage.
Resistance response: the adrenals become unable to produce enough hormones to fully cope so an inescapable fatigue sets in. The thyroid is usually affected at this time too leading to symptoms consisting of central weight gain, and feeling sluggish and cold.
Adrenal Exhaustion: at this stage the production of cortisol starts to gradually fall to levels which severely limit the bodies ability to function. What separates this stage from the others is that no matter how hard a person tries, they will be unable to keep up with a normal workload. The bodies main goal is to conserve energy so it starts to break-down muscle tissue which leads to fibromyalgia. The low energy state causes the bodies detox system to fail and so toxins accumulate within the body, many of which build up in the brain leading to brain fog, insomnia and depression. By this point the condition has become well and truly chronic.
The next part of adrenal exhaustion begins to really affect other organ systems, especially those involved in the ovarian- adrenal-axis for women and the thyroidal-adrenal axis for men. If it continues to progress it will cause the whole body to lose its ability to regulate itself almost completely, and because of this it takes more desperate measures to balance itself. Examples of these are adrenaline rushes, hypoglycemic episodes, fluctuating blood pressure and anxiety attacks. At this point if the body still does not receive the proper care then it will go into full shut-down mode. People will be bedridden and only have enough energy to be active a few hours per day.
How to Recover
In order to beat adrenal fatigue and get back to living life to the fullest there are three categories you should pay attention to. Food, supplements and stress relief.
There are two purposes to a diet which focuses on healing adrenal fatigue. One is that you want to eat foods which encourage healing of the adrenal glands and the other is that you want to avoid foods which will stress the adrenal glands. The foods to avoid are foods containing caffeine, sugar/artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated oils, you will also want to avoid processed and microwaved foods. If you must have caffeine containing foods, limit them to the morning and if you want something sweet, then try using raw honey or green leaf stevia.
(Photo by cattalin)
The foods you want to put into your diet are healthy fats (coconut oil, avocado, olive oil), olives, fresh-caught fatty fish (Alaskan salmon), cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, etc), Celtic or himalayan sea salt and kelp / seaweed. These are great because they are nutrient dense, low in sugar and have decent amounts of fiber and fat.
It is always much better to get what you need from your everyday foods if you can, but because soils have been depleted of their nutrients, supplements can fill the gap and give you the best chance at recovery. Two great supplements are Ashwagandha and Holy Basil which belong to a class of herbs called Adaptogens. These basically reduce your bodies response to stress, allowing your adrenals to get a much needed rest. Other great supplements for adrenal fatigue include fish oil (EPA/DHA), magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B5, B12, C and D3.
(Photo by markusspike)
Now that we have addressed what we put into our bodies it is now time to think about what we expose our minds to. After all, if we only take care of the body then we aren’t dealing with the whole picture.
Firstly it is important to rest when you feel tired as much as possible and get 8-10 hours of sleep a night, also getting to sleep before 10 pm is the best for your bodies rhythm. Secondly designing your life to reduce stress from the activities that you do everyday is fundamental, which can be hard because everyone has obligations but every bit counts. Along the same line of thought, it is important to laugh or do something fun everyday and also to find time to just wind down and relax.
Physical activity is also very important, even if it is only moderate, movement is crucial to life. Avoiding negative thoughts or self talk is also important as every thought you think will solidify in your mind, eventually shaping your beliefs and the way which you perceive the world, which definitely plays a huge role in how susceptible a person is to stress. Furthermore if you have gone through any emotional traumatic incidents in the past, it can be very beneficial to see a counselor or psychologist to help you work through them.
Finally developing awareness of your body is paramount. Learning to judge energy levels and pace yourself while keeping a positive mind set is key to getting things done as smoothly as possible on the road to recovery. And also don’t worry, because worrying won’t get you anywhere good.
One last thing to note, adrenal fatigue doesn’t happen overnight, so it isn’t something that can be fixed overnight either (just like posture). So be patient with yourself. Minor adrenal fatigue typically recovers within 6 – 9 months, moderate takes 12 – 18 months and severe adrenal fatigue can take up to 24 months.
All the best,
Dr Yanto Kusuma