Adrenal fatigue has become the new buzz word and it’s becoming an epidemic in the Western world. It’s actually just a more technical term for ‘burnout’ – when you have been stressed for a period of time and your adrenals are struggling to cope.
What is adrenal fatigue?
As explained by Dr James Wilson in his book ‘Adrenal Fatigue’, when we are stressed, the brain tells our adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenalin. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism – our ‘fight or flight’ stress response that gives us temporary super powers (in the form of increased energy reserves). In caveman days, this would have helped us run away or fight the sabre toothed tiger.
These days, not so many tigers around, but instead we have plenty of psychological stresses such as demanding jobs, relationships, families, traffic jams and juggling our busy lives. On top of that, we have other kinds of stresses to deal with – things that stress us physically, such as illness, infection, trauma, surgery, food intolerances, pollution, chemicals and medications.
Our stress response was designed to be TEMPORARY – switched off when the danger had passed. But our modern day stress doesn’t get switched off. It’s constant and long lasting. And this chronic unrelenting cortisol release is a big problem.
Why is too much stress harmful?
Sustained levels of high cortisol can have a huge impact on your short and long term health.
- Fat around the middle – That spare tyre around your middle – it just won’t go, no matter what diet you try or how much exercise you do? Not only do we have 4 times more cortisol receptors in our abdominal fat than any other fat, but cortisol stimulates appetite – sugar and carbs are vital when you need energy to run from that tiger. But when food is readily available and there is no tiger to run from, the sugar you have eaten doesn’t get used as energy and is stored away as fat. Your blood sugar surge has increased insulin levels (your fat storing hormone), leading to a blood sugar crash, and another uncontrollable craving for a biscuit, pastry or bar of chocolate. And here we go again……
- Tired all the time – Whether your cortisol levels are high or low, it will take a toll on your energy levels. If they are high and you are under chronic stress, it will be hard for your blood sugar to stay in balance and the dips will make you feel tired. This often happens in the afternoon – cravings for sugar, coffee and carbs are especially common at this time. That afternoon cake or chocolate run? Now it makes sense. Your body is low on sugar and is sending you a powerful message. Feed me sugar or I will send you off to sleep!
- High blood pressure – Cortisol increases blood pressure, in order to get oxygen into your muscles and cells quickly. Longlasting high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease.
- Weakened immune system – High cortisol depletes your vitamin C stores, along with your B vitamins and essential minerals. It also reduces the production of immune cells, leaving you more open to picking up that cold or virus that is going around.
- Brain fog or memory loss – this can affect many people when they’re stressed. Think interview situations or exams – how easy is it to forget something important just because you’re under pressure? Cortisol is messing with your neurotransmitters, and if you are peri-menopausal (over 35) this can get a whole lot worse.
- PMS – Cortisol competes with progesterone receptors, so stress can lead to oestrogen dominance and PMS symptoms (heavy, painful periods, breast tenderness, bloating, irritability).
- Digestive issues – You know that sick feeling in your gut when you are stressed or anxious? We have more nerve cells in our gut than in our brain – after all this is where our ‘gut instinct’ comes from. Emotions and stress are felt in this area and this can seriously impair our digestion. Cortisol doesn’t care about digesting food when you’re facing a tiger, so it shuts much of the system down, giving you uncomfortable symptoms and making it much harder to digest your food and absorb your nutrients.
- Low libido and infertility – Cortisol and the sex hormones are all made from the same precursor hormone, pregnenolone. So guess what happens when we are stressed? Pregnenolone gets the message to make more cortisol instead of sex hormones (as we know that our stress response takes priority over our reproductive function when we need to run away). Cortisol also increases another hormone, prolactin, which can stop us ovulating. So our sex hormones take a back seat, our testosterone and libido disappears and forget about getting pregnant. Sensibly the body is trying to protect us. It doesn’t want you bringing a baby into a dangerous world.
We need a good cortisol response to wake us up in the morning and give us the energy and reserves to get us through the day. When you’ve had sustained high cortisol levels, this can put a huge burden on your adrenal glands. After a while they can struggle to maintain the huge demand for cortisol. This is when cortisol output can be too low. If left untreated, this can lead to long term chronic fatigue and other heatlh issues.
(Adrenal fatigue should not be confused with medical conditions such as adrenal failure, adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s itself where the adrenal glands are not functioning).
How do you know you have it?
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include;
- struggling to wake up in the morning
- over-emotional responses
- brain fog, memory loss, poor concentration
- frequent infections/colds
- digestive issues (or IBS)
- sugar or salt cravings
- infertility and low libido
- PMS, mood swings, irritability
Symptoms are a good indication, but an adrenal stress saliva test will confirm it. It measures your levels of cortisol over 4 points during the day – morning cortisol being the highest (to wake you up) and evening the lowest (to wind you down). When your levels are too low, it is an indication that your adrenals are struggling to produce enough cortisol.
As modern women, we are particularly vulnerable to adrenal fatigue. Especially as we get older. Many of us have more responsibility in our late 30’s and 40’s – in our careers, families and communities. And if we haven’t been nourishing ourselves with a healthy diet, this can have a big impact on our ability to deal with the stress.
So what can we do if we have Adrenal Fatigue?
- Put yourself first – as women we don’t do this enough. We give to everyone around us and wonder why we suffer!
- Prioritise rest and relaxation – that means making sure nothing comes in the way of your relax time (and sleep). Have gadget free days or limit the time you check your phone/email.
- Find something you love – yoga, massage, meditation, long bath, whatever floats your boat –just do it!
- Breathe – just the act of deep breathing from your belly switches off your cortisol response. How amazingly easy is that? You can do that in bed!
- Stop feeling guilty – so many women feel guilty when relaxing. WHY? If you don’t relax, everyone around you is going to suffer! Call it giving back…
- Nourish your adrenals – make sure you are supplementing those nutrients that stress is depleting (Vit C, B vits, Magnesium, zinc) with a good quality multivitamin complex.
- Adaptogenic herbs – these can help to balance cortisol levels – including rhodiola, ashwagandha, licorice and Siberian ginseng (always check with a qualified herbalist before using herbs).
- Balance your blood sugar – avoid refined carbs and sugar, and eat low GL foods including wholegrains, organic fruit & veg, nuts, seeds, organic meat, fish and full fat dairy products.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol – both of these increase the burden on your adrenals
- Don’t do strenuous exercise – if you are low on energy, physical activity can deplete your reserves – try gentle walking or yoga instead.
Remember if you don’t have time for any of this, you need it more than anyone! So get some help if you feel like you can’t do this alone. At least get yourself tested.
(The information presented in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your physician or doctor or other health care professional).
Jones DS, Quinn S (eds). Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, Wash.: Institute for Functional Medicine; 2006.
Sher L. Type D personality: The heart, stress, and cortisol. QJM. 2005;98(5):323-329
Wilson, J.L. (2001) Adrenal Fatigue. The 21st Century Stress Syndrome: Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications[/accordion-item]