Do you wake up tired every morning and hit the alarm for 5 more minutes of sleep, then drag yourself into the shower and don’t fully wake up until that first strong coffee? Do you find yourself experiencing a brain drain around 4pm which temporarily eases after a snack and another coffee before going to bed exhausted, falling into a dead sleep and repeating the same thing over again the next day? Does this sound familiar? If so, you could be experiencing some degree of Adrenal Fatigue.
So what is Adrenal Fatigue? It is a collection of signs and symptoms that occur when our adrenal glands don’t function to their full capacity. It usually occurs after periods of intense or prolonged stress but may also occur after an acute or chronic infection such as the flu or bronchitis. The main symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by rest or adequate sleep. You look normal without any obvious signs of illness but you just ‘don’t feel well’ or always feel tired. In really serious cases where the adrenal glands are exhausted, you may only be able to get out of bed for a few hours at a time. Adrenal fatigue is known as the ’21st century syndrome’ due to the pace of our hectic lives this century. Although there are no current statistic on its prevalence, it is believed to affect most people at some time in their lives.
Our Adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of our kidneys. They produce steroid hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone and adrenaline and are also known as our stress glands as they produce hormones in response to stress. When we encounter a stress, our body goes into the ‘fight or flight mode’ regardless of the stress. Adrenaline and cortisol are released to help you cope with the stress. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases, blood is diverted from your digestive system to go to your brain and muscles and your blood glucose levels increase to give you more energy. In the short term, this is a wonderful response because it helps your body cope with the demands of the stress. However it is when this response becomes prolonged, that we run into problems.
Cortisol will continue to be produced to maintain your need for glucose, your heart rate and blood pressure will remain elevated and your adrenal function will become depleted and start to slow down. We can have a major stress that exhausts us or a cumulation of small stresses that build up over time but if we don’t give our adrenal glands a chance to recover, adrenal fatigue will result, along with the risk of more serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and chronic fatigue.
The adrenal glands affect the functioning of every tissue, organ and gland in our body and also have an important influence on the way we think and feel. We cannot live without them and the very quality of our life depends on how well they are working.
Apart from exhaustion, other signs of adrenal fatigue may include:
- You feel tired when waking up in the morning even after a long sleep.
- Have trouble getting to sleep even if you go to bed early.
- Feel overwhelmed and ‘on edge’.
- Have difficulty recovering from stress or an illness.
- Crave salty and sweet snacks.
- Are depressed, anxious, easily irritated and you find it difficult to concentrate.
- Have weight gain, inability to lose weight.
- Increased effort to do everyday tasks.
- Decreased sex drive. Worsening of PMS or menopausal symptoms.
- Decreased ability to handle stress.
- Light headed when standing up. Low blood pressure.
- Low body temperature. Decreased tolerance to cold, cold extremities.
- More prone to colds, flu and infections. Take longer to recover from infections.
- Increased allergies
- Skin problems
You may recognise some of these symptoms and many may not apply to you. But if you are feeling constantly tired you can do something about it. Firstly know that most doctors DO NOT recognise adrenal fatigue. They believe that the adrenal glands either work or they are compromised by some known medical condition. They often think that adrenal fatigue is psychological. However if the adrenal glands are exhausted, the whole energy system of the body is exhausted and the whole body’s chemistry needs to be rebalanced and toxins removed. If you are experiencing any continued fatigue, you should always see your doctor first to eliminate any other causes. Naturopaths and doctors working in integrative or functional medicine will definitely support and guide you. They can do specific tests such as a saliva test or hair mineral analysis to check your Cortisol and DHEA levels to see whether you have adrenal fatigue and the extent to which your adrenal glands are fatigued.
Treatment is effective though it can take a number of years to fully recover.
- It involves a combination of a nutritional diet filled with lots of vegetables and animal protein (unless vegetarian), supplements to support your adrenal glands and lifestyle changes.
- Include gentle exercise as tolerated, (avoid heavy workouts at first and increase gently as your energy levels increase).
- Sleep and regular early nights (be in bed by 10pm) at least to start with.
- Afternoon naps (1/2 hour rest in the afternoon is great for recharging the batteries).
- Regular Reflexology treatments to calm your mind, relieve the stress and gently balance the adrenal glands.
- Meditation to calm that anxious mind and reduce that stress.
- Develop boundaries around your time. Don’t be available for everyone. If you are too busy looking after everyone else, you will never fully recover.
- Recognise the energy vampires in your life. By this I mean the people or things that suck up all your energy. You know the ones that I mean – the friends or relatives that talk for hours on the phone, the people that always ask for just one more favour, the things that make you angry or cause you to react. Stay AWAY from them all or at least limit your time with them. You don’t need to be rude, just explain politely that you are busy or have something else to do….and yes you have! You are busy looking after yourself!
- Spend time in nature enjoying the sun and outdoors. See friends whose company you enjoy but limit your lunches or dinners so they don’t exhaust you.
- Ask for help! Don’t feel that you have to do everything. All women work, if not outside the house, then definitely in it! Don’t feel that you have to be in control. Ask your partner to share the chores and ask the children. It helps them to be more responsible and it helps take some of that pressure off you.
Metaphysically, problems with the adrenal glands mean you are not caring for yourself, are anxious, fearful, bored with your life or frustrated at the life you are living. Take steps to look at your fears, are they realistic, can you change your job, what can you do to make your life more meaningful? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I, myself was ‘running on empty’ for a long time before I realised it and sought assistance. Adrenal fatigue is not disastrous. It can be treated and can be resolved. Often it is a timely reminder to have a good look at the way we are living and to learn to really care for ourselves.
We all experience fatigue at some point in our lives but if we really listen to our body, we can avoid it becoming more serious or sustained.
Disclaimer: Please note that all information in this article is the opinion of the author and obtained through her knowledge and the following references. It is not meant to replace medical advice and a medical opinion should always be obtained for any health condition.