Do you find yourself or someone you know living with insomnia? Or perhaps you can't get asleep and then late night arrives and you are wired and ready to take on the world? Are you sleepy in the day? Does brain fog have you going through your day in a daze? You might be experiencing adrenal fatigue. In this article, we will learn what adrenal fatigue is, and discover ways to heal and treat adrenal fatigue.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Did you know that your adrenal glands could also be called your survival glands? It's true! Adrenal glands serve as your defenders of stress and hold the responsibility of aiding your body in adapting to stress around you.
Think of your adrenal glands as your knights defending the walls of a castle. But the glands can only defend so long before they begin to fail at defending. When adrenal glands have taken on a combat battle with too many stressors, adrenal fatigue can become a reality.
This is because Adrenal fatigue is a condition in which the adrenal glands fail to consistently produce stable levels of key hormones like cortisol and sex hormones. Caused by prolonged exposure to physical, emotional, and environmental stressors, adrenal fatigue can be debilitating.
Does Adrenal Fatigue Really Exist?
There is a debate on whether or not adrenal fatigue is a true medical condition and if it really exists.
It is because compared to Addison's disease which is diagnosed through a blood test, adrenal fatigue does not have a diagnosable test and is not recognized by the medical community. This lead to a systematic review of the existence of adrenal fatigue. The review came to the conclusion that adrenal fatigue is a myth based on a search of studies in databases on the topic.
Which does not account for real human experiences or the range in which adrenal glands can function.
The Range and Spectrum of Adrenal Gland Functioning
This is because Adrenal gland performance exists on a spectrum:
Normal functioning: The adrenals are producing consistent, healthy levels of hormones.
Abnormal functioning: The adrenals are drastically under-producing hormones, which results in dangerous conditions like Addison's disease (also known as adrenal insufficiency or adrenal burnout).
Borderline functioning: Adrenal fatigue exists in between those two extremes. Hormone production is not at healthy levels, but not quite low enough to be considered full-blown Addison's. People experience significant symptoms and may struggle to function in daily life, but are not in the life-threatening danger that comes with Addison's disease.
Traditionally, doctors believed that only adrenal hormone levels low enough to meet the criteria for Addison's disease represented a problem. However, in the last few decades, this perspective has begun to shift. Many doctors today recognize that lower-functioning adrenal glands can cause problems well before they reach the level of Addison's.
Naturopathic, integrative and functional medicine physicians, in particular, have spearheaded this more nuanced view of adrenal functioning. They often specialize in working with adrenal issues and are a good choice to consult if you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Some more traditional doctors may not be able to help you with adrenal fatigue.
The 5 Step Process of How the Adrenal Glands Defend Against Stress.
The adrenal glands are part of the system that regulates how your body responds to stress and are located on top of the kidneys. There is a five-step process to how the adrenal glands help your body deal with stress:
1. A stressful event is experienced no matter how small or large
2. The adrenal glands are activated
3. Cortisol and other hormones are released into the bloodstream
4. Some systems in your body are shut off including digestion and areas of the brain
5. Resources are then redirected to other areas of your body
This response is often referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
The stress response is only meant to last for a short period of time. Ideally, the stressful situation passes, and your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your body relax, kicks in, bringing everything back to normal. However, many people find themselves experiencing constant stress, brought on by the intense nature of modern life. Everything from work to social media to your diet can contribute to keeping your fight, flight, or freeze response locked on. You never feel stress-free, so your body never gets to relax and rejuvenate.
Having your stress response activated continuously for an extended period of time can cause damage to your adrenal glands. In short, they get worn out and no longer work properly. This typically results in your levels of adrenal hormones dropping below what your body needs to function, although conversely, the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream can also actually spike too high at times.
"The stress hormone cortisol is a good thing in the right amount, at the right time. If you secrete cortisol in the morning, you can do all you need to do during the day and sleep well at night," explains Dr. Burns. "But if the adrenals over-secrete cortisol in response to stress lasting months or even years, you may experience disrupted sleep, deep fatigue, irritation, anger, inflammatory illness, and sometimes autoimmune disease. It can be very severe."
The 2 reasons Why Adrenal Fatigue Should Not be Ignored
Oftentimes people stick to routines and keep going to get through the day. Physical, and emotional challenges as overlooked for the sake of surviving to the next day. Because let's face it, who has time to stop in hustle and bustle of everyday life to care for what is ailing them? That's what tomorrow is for right?
Wrong. Here are two reasons why adrenal fatigue should not be ignored:
1. It affects your overall health
2. It is a precursor to further disease
In other words, adrenal fatigue is an indicator that your body is struggling, and a warning sign to change course before you develop an even more serious condition. If you're consistently stressed and have difficulty functioning, but can't point to any specific disease as the cause, adrenal fatigue may be part of what's going on.
Adrenal Fatigue and its Impact on Your Overall Health
Adrenal fatigue can have a profound impact on your health. You may feel tired or exhausted almost all the time, have trouble thinking clearly or remembering, inexplicably gain weight, and struggle with daily life. Adrenal fatigue can also lead to even more serious conditions like Addison's disease.
Annina Burns, Ph.D., who works with a lot of clients with adrenal fatigue in her functional medicine nutrition practice says, "Many people don't see it coming, you think you're a little tired. But adrenals are like a fuse. There's an end to the fuse. It's best to catch the downward trend early and correct it before you're lying flat on your back."
Wondering what the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue are?
What are the symptoms of adrenal fatigue?
There are many signs that you may be experiencing adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is responsible for a range of symptoms, most of which can interfere with your quality of life. Many people with adrenal fatigue find it difficult or impossible to function normally. Some of the major signs of adrenal fatigue include:
- Chronic exhaustion or fatigue
- Weight gain
- Trouble sleeping and sudden bursts of energy late at night
- Irritability, anger, and mood changes
- Brain fog or difficulty thinking clearly
- Autoimmune disorders
- Loss of interest in sex
- Hormone Imbalances
- Needing stimulants like caffeine in order to function
- Sugar or salt cravings
- Inability to handle stress
- Hair loss
- Digestive problems or constipation
Some people with adrenal fatigue may experience many or most of these symptoms, others only some.
Now that you know what signs and symptoms to look for when it comes to adrenal fatigue, let's what causes it...
What are the Causes of Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is believed to be primarily the result of stress. However, you probably won't get adrenal fatigue just because you had a bad day. Adrenal fatigue is caused by long-term exposure to stressors from a variety of sources.
Think of it this way, when most people talk about stress, they're referring to emotional stress: the feelings of tension, anxiety, and exhaustion that can result from uncomfortable experiences. It's common to try and dismiss those feelings as... only feelings. However, emotional stress, which can be caused by anything from trauma, grief, or anger to a difficult or unpleasant job, money troubles, or a lack of supportive relationships, doesn't just make you feel bad. It can have serious consequences on your health and quality of life.
When people are exposed to emotional stress, it often triggers the fight, flight, or freezes response the same way that being in physical danger does. Your stress response doesn't see a difference between a bus speeding towards you and a stack of bills arriving in the mail or an argument with your spouse?it activates either way. When emotional stress is chronic, it can become a leading cause of adrenal fatigue, because it overburdens the adrenal glands just like any other stressor.
Specific factors that can contribute to adrenal fatigue include:
- Chronic stress
- Lack of emotional support
- Trauma or intense acute stress
- Toxic relationships
- Overwork, overburden
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Heavy use of stimulants like caffeine
- Allergies or food sensitivities
- Chronic pain
- Consistently not getting enough sleep
All of these factors stress your body in different ways and can contribute to your body's stress response being constantly activated.
Why are Chronic Pain and Caffeine Causes of Adrenal Fatigue?
Are you wondering why chronic pain and caffeine consumption are causes of adrenal fatigue? Let's take a closer look at those causes:
Chronic Pain: If your body is continually in pain, you are likely to feel continually stressed about the pain - it's difficult not to. Likewise, milder forms of tension can also be both a cause and result of the stress response.
Caffeine: Consuming lots of caffeine (or other stimulants like amphetamines, ADHD medication, or cocaine) can also play a role. Stimulants temporarily give you a boost of energy, but this comes at the cost of taxing your adrenal glands in order to create that boost. This probably isn't a big deal if you're drinking one or two cups of coffee in the morning, but heavy use of stimulants can exhaust your adrenal glands by constantly over-stimulating them.
5 Changes to Help Heal Adrenal Fatigue
Treating adrenal fatigue is all about lowering your stress. If you are experiencing adrenal fatigue, it is likely because you are experiencing stress in several areas of your life. Helping your adrenal glands begin to function more normally again often requires a willingness to significantly adjust how you live in order to reduce your stress levels. This can include changing the following five aspects of your life:
1. What you eat
2. If or how you exercise
3. Your level of exposure to stress through your job
4. The developing supportive relationships
5. Start taking supplements.
"Treating adrenal fatigue is not about medicating. The problem is stress-related, so the solution is rebalancing your life: adjusting diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management; what we call the 4 pillars of wellness," says Dr. Burns. People often do best if they take some real time off and rest deeply to get back to a higher level of functioning. The little breaks don't work when you have full-on adrenal fatigue.
Beyond these five changes, there are other lifestyle changes that can also aid in treating and healing adrenal fatigue. Let's find out what they are. . .
Adrenal Fatigue and 5 Other Lifestyle Changes
Lifestyle changes are a critical part of healing from adrenal fatigue. Because the circumstances of your life are perhaps the biggest single cause of adrenal fatigue, treatment involves changing how you live. This can include:
1. Getting enough sleep
Getting enough sleep is critical for someone with adrenal fatigue. Lack of sleep taxes the body - it interferes with the natural healing and rejuvenating qualities of sleep, as well as places additional strain on your tired body systems the next day. The effects of sleep loss also compound over time.
How much sleep do you need? Some people feel good about 8 hours of sleep a night, others may need at least 9 or 10. Explore how much sleep you need, and do your best to get it. Use good screen hygiene, turning off all electronics at least an hour before bedtime. Sleep a little later in the morning. Take naps as needed. Rest to get your system into working order.
Meditation and similar mind-body techniques like yoga or tai chi help regulate cortisol levels in your bloodstream and calm your adrenal glands. A regular meditation practice can also help change the way your brain responds to stress, shrinking the parts of the brain that are responsible for feeling fear and expanding the parts that help you stay calm under pressure. Try meditating for ten minutes every morning or at night. It will probably take time for you to notice any effects but stick with it. The benefits can be profound.
3. Conscious relaxation
Experts often suggest that people with adrenal fatigue make conscious or active relaxation a priority. This means not just stepping back from situations or choices that raise your stress but actively choosing to relax. Conscious relaxation techniques can include massage, a warm Epson salt bath, unplugging from technology, or spending time in nature. Find what works for you.
4. Laughing more
It may seem simple or even silly, but laughter can be tremendously healing for the body. If you're laughing, you can't help but relax - your body intuitively releases tension, and any emotional stress you might be feeling starts to melt away. Putting yourself in situations that make you laugh, whether watching a funny movie, going to a stand-up performance, or just spending time with lighthearted friends, can help your body understand that everything is okay.
5. Being kind to yourself
People are often very hard on themselves. That's not pleasant for anyone, but can be especially rough if you've got adrenal fatigue because negative self-talk just causes more stress. Do your best to be kind to yourself, whether you think you deserve it or not. It will give your adrenal glands a break.
It is important for someone with adrenal fatigue to eat regularly and consistently, as hunger triggers the stress response. Also what we put into our bodies plays a big role in developing adrenal fatigue.
Dr. Burns says, "Your body's been reacting not just to the physical stress of working too much, but to the munching on potato chips and starchy snacks which further stress the body and cause an inflammatory reaction." Fortunately, we can change what we eat. Switching to a healthier diet and nutritional supplements can reduce strain on your body and give it what it needs to heal.
So let's look at diet changes that can help with treating adrenal fatigue. . .
Adopting an adrenal-supportive diet means cutting out some foods, especially anything that causes inflammation, and replacing them with foods that support your body. Foods to avoid include:
- Processed foods: This means food that comes in a box, a package, or a can. Processed carbohydrates, meats and cheeses all negatively affect your adrenals.
- Gluten: Many people with adrenal fatigue find that they benefit from adopting a gluten-free diet. Carbohydrates containing gluten typically provoke your body's inflammatory response. This puts additional strain on the adrenal glands.
- Carbohydrates: Even carbohydrates without gluten typically cause some inflammation, and should be avoided when possible.
- Sugar or artificial sweeteners: Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and any artificial sweeteners are always bad for your body, and are especially damaging for someone already dealing with a health condition.
- Caffeine or other stimulants: Caffeine and other stimulants trigger the release of cortisol from your adrenal glands, taxing them even further.
- Vegetable oils. Vegetable oils like canola, safflower, soybean, or corn oil trigger your body's inflammatory response.
Fortunately, there is also a lot that you can eat. The healthiest diets are rich in unprocessed, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense whole foods that are cooked at home (the Mediterranean diet is an example). Some foods that can are easy on your adrenals and can help nurture your body include.
- Greens of any kind: Packed with vital nutrients, greens help give your body the resources it needs. Kale, arugula, broccoli, spinach, chard, collard greens, broccoli rabe, and seaweed are among your options.
- Wild-caught fish: These are rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids and protein.
- Good fats: Getting enough good fat in your diet is critical to your health. Good fats include olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and nuts (especially almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts).
- Berries: Berries contain high levels of polyphenols, which have antioxidant and other health-boosting properties.
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso contain probiotics and can help heal your digestive system, which is often damaged in people with adrenal fatigue.
- Free-range meats: Unlike processed meats, free-range meats can be a healthy source of protein for your body.
- Herbs: Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, rosemary, allspice, and other anti-inflammatory herbs can help calm your body.
A nutritionist who specializes in working with adrenal fatigue can help you come up with a more specific, custom eating plan. Or if you would like ideas on meal planning for adrenal fatigue, check out our guide here.
10 Supplements to Help with Adrenal Fatigue
Some doctors also recommend nutritional supplements for people with adrenal fatigue. Here is a list of 10 supplements that are often recommended:
1. B vitamins
2. Vitamin C
3. Vitamin D
4. Lavender oil
6. Cordyceps mushrooms
9. Omega-3 oils
3 Things to do to Help Answer the question: Do I have Adrenal Fatigue?
If you think you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue, what should you do? A good place to start would be working with a naturopathic, integrative, or functional medicine doctor to assess whether you have adrenal fatigue, or whether some other health condition could be causing your symptoms.
1. Go through your symptoms and health history with your physician
2. Explore the level of stress that you are experiencing
3. Testing the levels of cortisol in your saliva
If you do have adrenal fatigue, your doctor can help you develop a treatment plan in order to heal from it.
Healing modalities: who should I go see?
If you are experiencing symptoms of adrenal fatigue, where should you start when seeking treatment and who should you see? Each person is different as to what works best for them, however, here is a list of three types of doctors you could choose to start with:
They can assess you and determine whether or not you are likely suffering from adrenal fatigue, as well as develop a treatment plan.
Here is a list of other practitioners that can help treat adrenal fatigue:
Nutritionist: Because healing adrenal fatigue usually involves changing what you eat, a nutritionist or nutrition counselor can be a great resource. They can help guide you through the process of figuring out exactly what foods your body needs, and how you can incorporate them into your diet.
Therapist: Because emotional stress and what's going on in your life are often major causes of adrenal fatigue, addressing that stress is a key part of treatment. A therapist can help you begin to identify and explore and resolve emotional stress or trauma.
Other health professionals who specialize in working with stress include:
The following expert reviewed and contributed to this article:
Annina Burns PhD RDN, Functional Medicine Nutritionist.
Cadegiani FA, Kater CE. Adrenal fatigue does not exist: a systematic review. BMC Endocr Disord. 2016;16(1):48. Published 2016 Aug 24. doi:10.1186/s12902-016-0128-4