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!

Comments

Excellent article! Jill knows her stuff.

You are just the best. Reading this article has taught me about myself. Whyhave doctors? Sure I  am a new person.

Unfortunately, all comments on this post written prior to Feb. 28, 2013 were inadvertently wiped out. Ouch.

Wondering how much licorice root to take?

Jill Grunewald's picture

Hi Jen, it's difficult to say how much to take. I typically tell people to take what's recommended on the product. Licorice can be great for the adrenals, but it can be stimulating for some. I've actually started leaning more toward recommending adaptogenic herbs, like ashwagandha or holy basil.

I was wondering about green tea. What effects do drinking it have on this condition?

My naturopath also said the bed-before-midnight thing, but I couldn't get a straight answer as to WHY. I don't have to work till noon, so unless we are going with Chinese peak times here, I cannot comprehend how the body would tell the difference between 11pm and 1 am.
Insight?
Thanks...

Also, how does the sensitive to others suffering (except the added stress) play in?

Jill Grunewald's picture

Green tea is very healthy -- chock full of polyphenols (antioxidants). But if someone has advanced adrenal issues, I don't recommend any caffeine, as it can make adrenal dysfunction worse.

Jill Grunewald's picture

The body very much knows the difference between 11pm and 1am and it's based on our circadian rhythms, of which cortisol (an adrenal hormone) largely regulates. Cortisol has a 24-hour cycle. Every hour of sleep before midnight is like two hours after. Many people feel more rested sleeping from 10pm 'til 6am than those who go to bed at midnight and sleep 'til 8am.

Jill Grunewald's picture

I can't tell you exactly why people who have adrenal dysfunction are overly sensitive to others' suffering, but it is a sign of adrenal dysfunction. Many people who have adrenal issues cry at TV commercials and sob at sad movies. The overproduction of adrenaline and cortisol can make people sensitive and overreactive -- but the overreaction isn't always anger. It can be an overreaction to emotional situations -- and not just your own personal situation. Overproduction of stress hormones makes people hyper sensitive and reactive to a lot of things.

I could answer yes to all the questions, but I've been working very calmly on myself since listening to all the summits, I'm enjoying epsom salt baths ,doing pottery and African drumming and a bit of fast excercise (few minutes each day) on top of my yoga and meditation and enjoying very healthy green vegi and fruity meals ( not together) and although I'm  way too skinny I am finding that I'm gaining a bit of muscle back and getting much better sleep, but I still cry if I watch the news

 

 

 

 

Very good for you. After finding this page I will start to do these samethings!! I hope that this works...

My naturopath warned me that he believed I have adrenal fatigue. But it sort of went by me, because of everything else going on with my body at the time, about 7 years ago. But in reading this, I feel like you know me personally and are describing me. It's a little unsettling in a way.  However this knowledge also makes me feel less alone and drives home the importance of changes I need to make. I only wish I had stopped caffeine and sugar 20 years ago, because my addiction to them is really strong.  I am 40, but have been on a slippery slope since my late teens and early 20s. Being overly empathetic and crying at the drop of a hat seemed like just a part of my personality for years.  I went from crying every day in my late 20s to once a week, and now about once a month or less, which is a big difference. But the past ten years have brought many negative physical symptoms which plague me.  Including low energy, adult acne, the big belly issue, very thin hair in the front of my scalp, all of the sleep issues you mentioned, and being easily irritated, frequent headaches, digestion problems, aches and pains.  Some of these symptoms are starting to seem a little better.  But I feel like I am trying to undo 30 years of stress.  I do dance, needle felt, write, paint, meditate, yoga, and exercise (not excessive or difficult). But I still have a sugar addiction and a sleep issue, and most of the symptoms you mentioned. Do you think it's too late for me to turn this ship around?

Jill Grunewald's picture

It’s definitely not too late. 

I feel you...I have the sane symptoms for years now. I hope I'll regain my usual energy and I promise I will not over tax my body again and will learn to slow down and relax.. How's yours doing?

Wow! I kind of thought I had adrenal fatigue about a year ago, so I took it easy and it seemed to repair itself. I was chalking my recent symptoms to possible hypothyroidism. Which a conventional doctor would diagnose me with as it runs in my family. I'm going to try these tips and see if it helps. THanks.

Hi! Great article, and it's truly opened my eyes. Now, one question I have, is: We only use organic, raw sugar in our house, but we also have organic, raw, and Manuka honey. Can the honey be used as a replacement for the organic sugar, or is it a complete "no sweet" thing? Cheers!

Interesting reading. I feel like I have been dealing with all those issues listed. I am taking thyroid med now - 25 mg but I don't sleep well when I take it. I want to try everything you list here - do you think I should stop the thyroid med while I try out your ideas?

I wldnt stop your meds cause if your being checked regularly the dr will reduce it if needed. I have hashimotos n i get blood drawn every 8 wks n for past yr hes increased my snthroid everytime until i changed my diet..i first illiminated sodas processed foods then as i educated myself gluten free n replaced with lots of protein in seeds nuts n quinoa n veggies n milk free n since then my thyroids been to high so hes been decreasing my meds every time i go so my diet has made a diff...big time.. my dr told me to take my synthroid first thing in morning n dont eat or drink anything but water for an hour.. im determined to reverse this hashimotos but i need also work on this adrenal fatigue ..

Hi!
Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
I had low to none adrenaline for years until I became a ginea pig in a research and got better. I think the cause was tons of cortisone given to me because of my terrible asthma. It helped but not cured.
Years later a genious doctor cured me - yes, cured completely and for the last 17 years I had no asthmatic incident.
But all this left a mark and now I have Hashimoto.I am determined to cure myself naturally and refuse to take drugs.
I am 75 yrs old and I dare say NO to my doctor who insists on statins, tyroxine, phosalan and G-d knows what other poisons.
It will happen, especially with the help of people like you who share thier wisdom.
Thank you!

Thanks for your comment, Linda. Thyroid drugs are not "one size fits all." As Dr. Sara Gottfried says, finding the right thyroid drug is like trying on shoes -- you have to find what fits for you. Talk to your doctor (or find a new one if your current one isn't willing to listen to your concerns) before you go cold turkey off of your thyroid meds. There are countless dietary and lifestyle changes that can go hand-in-hand with drug therapies, or can even replace them over time. Go to our "Contact" page if you would like to discuss this with me in more detail.

Thank you,very thorough. Most remedies cover just the physical aspect of healing and skip the spiritual. Very much appreciated.

Jill Grunewald's picture

Hi Brenda, I'm sorry for the tardy reply to your question. The answer is...it depends. The "no sweet" thing applies more to people who have more advanced or severe adrenal dysfunction. But this doesn't mean they can never eat sweets again. You really want to stay away from sugar and caffeine during an adrenal recovery phase. If your adrenals are mildly or moderately fatigued, I say a little natural sweetener is fine. I love honey and local honey from local bees is best. For sugar substitutes, I prefer date sugar or coconut sugar, in moderation. At least these sweeteners are giving you some nutrition in the form of minerals and enzymes and they're lower on the glycemic index, meaning that they have less of an effect of your blood sugar.

How long should an adrenal recovery phase last? 

Jill Grunewald's picture

Hi Ruthy, thanks for sharing your experience. Good for you for not taking your doctor's prescriptions as gospel!

Jill, to reply to one of your earlier responses, The reason we are sensitive to other things when our adrenals is because they are not just our shock absorbers for our immune system, they are also our shock absorbers for our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. So when our adrenal glands are depleted we can find ourselves unduly susceptible to all manner of sensitivities.

Hello there,

I have been suffering some kind of exhaustion or fatigue for the past few years. I take synthroid (.88)cannot seem to get my head above water everything is a struggle for me. I am going to try some of this stuff, but do you have any other advice? Hard on the nerves. Thanks M

Mary K. Tomback's picture

Hi Marilyn,

Thyroid medications are not one-size-fits-all, and given the various types on the market, and the other dietary and lifestyle components that are vital to nourish the thyroid and adrenals, there are several routes to restoring your energy. Feel free to schedule an Intro Session with Jill on our Contact page, our consider Jill's Fire Your Thyroid e-book or homestudy course, both of which clients have found very helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions!

Fantastic article!! I have suffered from adrenal fatigue for the last few years. Acupuncture and simple yoga can be a big help. I have recently started taking ashwagandha. I also have Hashimoto's and hypothyroidism and work with a Naturopathic Doctor to help treat holistically. A natural approach is life changing!!!

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