Adrenal Dysfunction 101
- Do you have a hard time falling asleep at night?
- Do you wake up frequently during the night?
- Do you have a hard time waking up in the morning early or feeling refreshed?
- Do you get an afternoon slump, only to perk up around 6 or 7pm, and then get a second wind around 9:30?
- Are you lacking in energy?
- Do you feel tired yet wired?
- Do bright lights bother you more than they should?
- Do you startle easily due to noise?
- When standing from sitting or from lying down, do you feel lightheaded or dizzy?
- Do you take things too seriously, and are you easily defensive?
- Do you feel you don’t cope well with certain people or events in your life?
- Are you moody or do you have excessive emotions?
- Are you prone to yelling or screaming?
- Are you irritable and accusatory?
- Do you have sharp verbal responses?
- Do you have excessive sensitivity to others’ suffering?
- Do you sigh frequently or have “air hunger?”
- Do you crave fat and salt?
- Do you have a hard time handling foods high in potassium or carbohydrates unless they’re combined with fats and protein?
- Do you have an autoimmune disorder?
Adrenal fatigue is a hormonal disruption due to chronic stress and the overproduction of stress hormones. It’s sometimes called non-Addison’s hypoadrenia, which is not a widely accepted diagnosis in the world of conventional medicine. Adrenal fatigue is not Addison’s disease, a rare condition where the adrenal glands completely fail. It’s a milder syndrome where the adrenals get bogged down and can’t keep up with the demands we place on ourselves.
Most doctors tend to think in black and white and adrenal fatigue is one of those gray areas - either you have Addison’s or you don’t. But an emerging group of functional medicine practitioners is currently doing an amazing job of raising awareness about this epidemic that is estimated to affect 80% of the population to some degree. According to Dr. Frank Lipman, “We in Western medicine don’t know how to recognize a problem until it has manifested as a ‘disease.’ It’s a lot like brake pads - until brake pads have worn down completely, you don’t know that they are wearing down.”
If you’re in the initial stages of adrenal fatigue, where you’re overproducing stress hormones, and then stress continues unaddressed, your body will enter a second phase of adrenal fatigue, where the adrenals simply get exhausted. They can’t maintain cortisol and adrenaline production and people have a really difficult time coping with the simplest of life’s demands.
To the body, stress is stress. It doesn’t matter if your stress is from being chased by a bear or a deadline at work. And in today’s culture, we are subjected to ‘round-the-clock stressors, unlike our ancestors, who had periods of stress from hunting and foraging for food, for example, followed by long periods of relaxation.
Tiny and Mighty
The adrenals are two small glands that sit atop the kidneys. They are responsible for releasing calculated and small amounts of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, that trigger the fight or flight response that helps us deal with life-threatening situations. Because so many of us are living our lives in a stressed-out emergency state, we’re now releasing stress hormones relentlessly.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a stress monger, modern, everyday life, with all of its traffic jams, deadlines, economic stress, overconsumption of caffeine and sugar, being constantly plugged in and on the go, and never-ending negative media chatter can lead to an overproduction of stress hormones. So yes, there is a spectrum of adrenal fatigue that can run from mild adrenal fatigue to total adrenal exhaustion.
As if the symptoms of adrenal fatigue – cravings, sleep disturbances, blood sugar issues, moodiness, overwhelm, achiness, feeling ungrounded, and mental exhaustion – weren’t enough, there is another unwanted byproduct of tired adrenals…belly fat. Cortisol is “the belly fat hormone” and if you’re overproducing cortisol, you probably have some extra padding around the middle.
Love Yourself Up
So how do you address adrenal fatigue? You might be surprised with what I have to tell you. It’s treatable with whole foods nutrition and…lots of self-care. There is no drug for adrenal fatigue, and those over the counter glandulars often further stimulate and fatigue your glands. So yep, making your health, sanity, and wellbeing a priority is what nourished and supports the adrenals. The key is to allay the stress in your life and keep these glands from overproducing stress hormones.
Evaluate what’s going on in your life and don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed. Don’t push yourself and learn to say, “No.” Practice with me here, “NO.”
With adrenal fatigue, pushing ourselves is completely counterproductive to healing, but those stress hormones that amp us up often make us want to push more and do more. You have to learn to slow down. This can seem impossible for some people, especially when we live in a society that overvalues productivity and working ourselves to a frenzy. I’m asking you to be a rebel here and go against this unfounded rule that things have to be this way. Otherwise, you could truly wear yourself out. Then where will that leave you?
The pillars of repairing the adrenals:
- Don’t crash and burn with caffeine, sugar, and refined carbs. This includes alcohol, which is a form of sugar. People with adrenal fatigue fall into that trap of reaching for caffeine and sugar (the terrible twosome) to keep them marching on, but these can further stress your adrenals, so it’s wise to eliminate them from your diet. Just say no to the energy bungee cord.
- Make the focus of your meals and snacks protein and fat, with a lesser focus on carbohydrates. But do not eliminate carbs!
- Balance your blood sugar. Dysglycemia (dysregulated blood sugar) is a serious stressor for the body and can make balancing and nourishing your adrenals nearly impossible.
- Take an adaptogenic herb, like ashwagandha. Adaptogens are a unique class of herbs that have a bi-directional ability to adapt to what your adrenals need.
- Eat breakfast within 45 min. of waking to get your metabolism burning and to help your body regulate your cortisol cycle, which will help with sleep.
- Make sure you’re getting plenty of Vitamins B and C, sometimes needed over and above what’s already in your multivitamin, at least for a time.
- Do restorative exercise, like yoga, or walking. Don’t overtax the body with rigorous exercise. This can cause a stress response, which will make you overproduce cortisol, the belly fat hormone.
- Say NO to more things.
- Breathe. Even five minutes a day of deep breathing will do wonders for your adrenals.
- Sleep like it’s your job. And go to bed early, if you can. Every hour before midnight is like two hours after. Set a quiet alarm for one hour before you turn in so that you can turn off all electronics, drink some herbal tea, maybe take a hot bath. Eight to 9 hours is ideal. For those recovering from severe adrenal exhaustion, 10 hours may be required initially.
- If you’re feeling fried, cancel your appointments for the day, if possible, and recharge your batteries by resting.
- Get quiet time TO YOURSELF. By yourself. Schedule uninterrupted, ALONE time, all for you, and do whatever you want to do…read trashy celebrity magazines, knit, write in a journal, whatever makes you feel good.
- Get creative. Incorporate some creativity into your life. Play an instrument, dance, paint, write, crochet … I’m telling you, this is food for the adrenals.
- Engage with people who you most enjoy and who bring out the best in you. It’s okay to let go of relationships that no longer serve you.
- Play. Let go of what drains you. You don’t have to do it all.
Any approach to correcting adrenal fatigue must address the effects of chronic stress. And as you can see from the list I have provided you, there is a lot of fun involved!