Fatigue is an extremely common symptom, but adrenal fatigue is something entirely different. People may feel irritable and “hangry” for salty or sugary foods, or they may incapable of losing weight, despite dieting and exercise, and have little to no sex drive. Their energy levels deplete in the afternoon, but they often get reenergized before bed. Then they have trouble winding down in the evening, which can lead to nights of restless sleep. Sadly, many people consider this the natural flow of their everyday lives. Just because something is common doesn’t make it normal. This is not normal — this is the epidemic of adrenal fatigue.
What Are The Adrenal Glands?
Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys. They regulate many hormonal jobs in your body, including the release of your main stress hormone, cortisol. Our bodies are built for stressful events, and they have adapted to handle various situation over time. We are here today because the human species can handle stressful events. In a stressful situation, the body goes into fight or flight mode and releases cortisol, ramping up blood pressure and blood sugar, which are needed to cope with the stressful event. When things calm down, cortisol secretion decreases, along with your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
So What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
In a healthy individual, cortisol is typically higher in the morning and slowly flows lower throughout the day. Melatonin, your “sleepy time” hormone, is inversely proportional to cortisol. So when cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa. Adrenal fatigue happens when there’s an imbalance in this cortisol rhythm: Cortisol is high when it should be low, low when it should be high, or always high or always low.
The secret to understanding adrenal fatigue is understanding its origin: your brain. Your brain tells your adrenal glands what to do via a complex web of communications called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA Axis), or simply the brain-adrenal axis. Your hypothalamus releases a corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which tells the pituitary gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then tells your adrenal cortex to release cortisol. Adrenal fatigue is really a dysfunction of your brain’s communication with your adrenals, not the adrenal glands themselves.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
The many stressors in modern society can turn on your stress response and throw away the key. Unlike acute stress, for which we’re biologically hardwired, chronic stress turns on the fight-or-flight response without any rest.
If the stress response doesn’t leave, those cortisol triggers never stop. Some chronic stressors that can lead to adrenal fatigue include:
- autoimmune conditions
- emotional stress
- excessive exercise
- food intolerances
- microbiome dysfunctions
If you’re struggling with adrenal fatigue, you’re likely experiencing most of the following symptoms:
- You’re slow to start in the morning
- You crave salty or sugary foods
- You have a low libido
- You’re fatigued in the afternoon
- You get a “second wind” in the evening
- You can’t stay asleep
- You experience dizziness when standing up quickly
- You get afternoon headaches
- You have blood sugar issues
- You have chronic inflammation
- Your nails are weak
- You’re often moody
- You have difficulty losing weight
So, what’s next? If you think you might have adrenal fatigue, we recommend the following tips.
1. Consider Having Labs Done:
One of the labs you can get is a 24-hour adrenal stress index — a salivary test that tracks your cortisol levels, HPA axis quality, and other hormone levels throughout the day — to get a comprehensive view of what’s going on in your particular case. Because adrenal fatigue is mainly a brain-based issue, it’s also important to rule out brain inflammation.
2. Improve Your Chronic Stressors:
Working on the stressors listed above — such as testing for food intolerances and removing toxins — will be essential to breaking the chronic stress cycle, regaining your health, and feeling like yourself again.
3. Eat Calming Food:
The foods you eat can either perpetuate stress in our body or naturally decrease it. Magnesium rich foods like avocado, banana, spinach, Brazil nuts, and almonds are great foods to help de-stress the brain and hormonal system.
4. Practice Breathing Exercises:
It sounds simple, but breathing is a major factor in reducing stress. Take time throughout the day to become aware of your breath — it’s a great way to diffuse stressful situations and calm your brain-adrenal axis. You can practice mindfulness meditation or present moment awareness to help remedy adrenal fatigue.
5. Start Yoga or Tai Chi:
Bring practices of intense alertness and stillness into your life. Yoga and Tai Chi are two great ways for people to naturally regulate stress levels.
6. Try Natural Medicines:
Rehabbing the brain-adrenal connection can take time. What works for one person may not necessarily work for you, so it’s important to discuss this with your health practitioner. Here are some natural medicines that may help:
- Adaptogenic herbs: Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, Holy Basil, and Eleuthero Ginseng can have a regulating effect on cortisol rhythm.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is the original chill pill. It helps support the adrenal glands, relaxes stressed muscles and nerves, and promotes quality sleep.
- Methylation support: Taking activated forms of B12 and folate are effective ways to support healthy methylation pathways, which help balance the melatonin-cortisol rhythm.
- GABA support: Your calming, inhibitory neurotransmitter is GABA. Herbs like passion flower and amino acids such as theanine, glycine, and taurine can help calm you down by acting on the gabaminergic pathways in your brain.
7. Get Enough Sleep:
Make sure you’re not staying up too late — you need to allow your brain and adrenals time to recuperate overnight. Promote quality sleep by turning off the TV and putting away your smartphone a few hours before bed and try reading a book instead.