Adrenal Fatigue and How to Overcome it
Get Back on Your Feet
Nearly every second person seems to be talking about adrenal fatigue today or is suffering extreme tiredness. Adrenal fatigue or ‘wired tired’ is fast becoming a real thing. The “how are you” conversation seems to be peppered with the words ‘adrenal fatigue’ or ‘my adrenals.’
So are we all chronically fatigued with life, and the ways of the modern world? And do many of us suffer silently from this seemingly nebulous thing called ‘adrenal fatigue’? It’s time we got a handle on what it really means to be adrenally fatigued, and how to heal it.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms known as a syndrome that is caused by the adrenal glands functioning below the necessary level. Adrenal fatigue is associated with intense and prolonged stress. Our adrenal glands, the small acorn-sized organs located above the kidneys deal with stress by producing the hormone cortisol.
This hormone reduces the effects of stress. If stress is too prolonged or becomes chronic, then cortisol production drops. When people are facing long-term stress, their adrenal glands cannot keep up with the body’s need for these hormones, leading to adrenal exhaustion, or fatigue.
It was a naturopath, James L Wilson, who coined the term ‘adrenal fatigue’ in 1998, calling it the ‘21st century stress syndrome.’ According to Wilson, people with adrenal fatigue often look and act relatively normal, with no obvious outward signs of physical illness, yet they are unwell and live with a general sense of ‘grey’ feelings and ill health.
Anyone who does not get enough rest and relaxation to enjoy life, who drives him or herself constantly, who is never satisfied or is a perfectionist, who is under constant pressure (especially with few outlets or emotional release) who feels trapped or helpless, who feels overwhelmed by repeated or continuous difficulties, or who has experienced severe or chronic emotional or physical trauma or illness is probably already suffering from some degree of adrenal fatigue. – James L Wilson
In today’s high pressure world, a huge percentage of people suffer from fatigue, stress and generalised illness, yet adrenal fatigue is not officially recognised by the medical profession as a condition. Just as modern medicine was reluctant to embrace fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal fatigue is rejected as a diagnosis.
The Hormone Foundation, the pubic education affiliate of the Endocrine Society, representing thousands of doctors, says adrenal fatigue is not a real medical condition but recognises a condition called ‘adrenal insufficiency’ where the adrenals are not functioning properly:
Symptoms said to be due to adrenal fatigue include tiredness, trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning, salt and sugar craving and needing stimulants like caffeine to get through the day. These symptoms are common and non-specific, meaning they can be found in many diseases. They also can occur as part of a normal, busy life.
Endocrinologists dismiss adrenal fatigue as an internet disease and would have people believe they are being fatigued by a fake disease. Yet thousands of people across the globe are suffering from burn out and what they believe is adrenal fatigue.
What causes Adrenal Fatigue?
Dr Michael Lam is an adrenal fatigue specialist who works with patients who have intractable and advanced adrenal fatigue. He is a medical doctor specialising in nutrition and anti-aging medicine and was the first to scientifically tie in Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) as part of the overall neuroendocrine stress response continuum of the body.
Dr Lam says that the most common cause of adrenal fatigue is emotional and mental stress and distress. He classes adrenal fatigue along with other conditions such as dysautonomia, and POTS, as a new class of conditions in modern medicine linking the mind and the body.
Adrenal Fatigue can be considered a mind-body disorder. A strong mind-body connection is a powerful healing force you can harness for better health. However, on the flip-side, as in Adrenal Fatigue, the mind-body connection can be a devastating negative force capable of ruining your body.
He believes that adrenal fatigue is one of the most prevalent conditions affecting almost every adult in the world today. Adrenal fatigue has a broad spectrum of non-specific yet often debilitating symptoms and the onset is often slow and insidious. Adrenal fatigue is a complex condition.
The adrenal glands are the main stress modulation centres of the body. When stressors (either physical or emotional) overwhelm the adrenal’s ability to compensate, Adrenal Fatigue may ensue. This is usually a slow and insidious process that progresses through many years, though some can experience it after an intense episode of acute stress, such as death of a loved one, financial distress, or acute infection. The job of returning the body to its normal function rests with the adrenals. This process is indeed complicated and convoluted, accompanied by many unpleasant symptoms. They are mediated primarily by hormones. The main ones are cortisol, adrenaline, estrogen, and androgen. The adrenals bear the brunt of this responsibility, as it secretes over 50 different hormones in an exact and very precise manner to maintain normal internal homeostasis. – Dr Lam
Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are your most important organs. They regulate the internal ‘chi.’ If you are balanced, strong physically, sound mentally and emotionally, your kidney chi will be abundant. Western chronic conditions of adrenal fatigue like back pain, depression, hypothyroidism, kidney inflammation and sexual dysfunction parallel the conditions of kidney yang deficiency. Traditional Chinese Medicine regards adrenal fatigue as a deficiency in the kidneys. Treatment includes building up the kidney yin with herbs and dietary changes to support health.
Jacinta McEwen is a nurse, herbalist, naturopath and Ayurvedic practitioner who has been working with clients in her busy practice, for over 30 years. She says that adrenal exhaustion is a symptom and that just looking at the symptoms is not enough. It is important to treat the whole system.
You can’t just take adrenal herbs and think it will fix your adrenal exhaustion. For most of us we’re exhausted because we are over-pushing.
Most people say I’m exhausted, let’s get that fixed so I can go back to living how I was before. But we need to get back to living a balanced life and looking at what we need to change in order to do that.
She says that the counseling aspect of treating adrenal exhaustion is as important to her as the herbs. “I ask people: what is your lifestyle? What are you expecting from yourself? How much are you pushing yourself, and why?…You can’t say to people, you need to rest more, as people need to pay the rent and look after their kids. So we need to find a better balance in our lives.”
It is the daily regimes that are the pillar of good health. We need to treat holistically and to treat the individual. As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I would be treating the adrenal exhaustion differently according to the constitution of each client. – Jacinta McEwen
Do you have Adrenal Fatigue?
Some of the major symptoms of adrenal fatigue are
feeling tired all the time
Diminished tolerance to stress and an increase in anxiety
Being easily startled
Low blood sugar
Low blood pressure
Being caffeine dependent
Weight gain (specifically as a layer of belly fat)
Sensitivity to bright light
Getting your best sleep in the morning
Low libido, food cravings
Multiple stress factors in your life
Dark circles under the eyes
Minor cold symptoms
None of the signs or symptoms by themselves can definitively pinpoint adrenal fatigue, it is the combination of these symptoms that forms the picture of adrenal fatigue.
Dr Lam has conducted extensive research into adrenal fatigue and has come up with over 75 signs of adrenal fatigue. You can read more here. If you think you may have adrenal fatigue it is vital to get help early on and not to let it develop into something unmanageable.
So how do you know if you have adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue or are just bone tired? Adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue are conditions that share similar symptoms but have different causes. There is always a relationship between persistent fatigue and adrenal insufficiency.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or CFS/ME seems to come on suddenly. Many people who have adrenal fatigue have extreme stress for some time before the exhaustion. There is growing research into unusual infectious microorganisms that may be the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. These microorganisms are not detected by standard lab tests, but sophisticated lab tests are confirming the link between microorganisms and CFS.
I’ve certainly experienced adrenal fatigue as a mother of 4 children under the age of six, it was almost impossible not to suffer from it!
Elke Zalfen, a mother with a medical health promotion background, has had adrenal fatigue for over 20 years. She first realized she had a problem with exhaustion in 1995:
I had three different jobs, my twins were five years old, I had no family support, a very stressful job and I was pushing myself. We were running a business and living in a caravan park.
Perhaps there are some super women who can cope. I wasn’t one of them. Also when you have had a lot of childhood stress, it makes you more susceptible … I suddenly started getting a sensation of anxiety and my cortisol levels were rising. I couldn’t sleep and was waking u at 2am totally wired with nightmares. I just couldn’t shut down. Sleep deprivation is what spiraled me down. I went to my doctor and he put me on Valium. I didn’t want to take it but in the end I had to so I could rest. I took a 6- month break from work but I didn’t recover. I was losing weight, had constant diarrhoea and my system was crashing. I felt so awful I went into hospital. The doctors put me on anti-depressants and I stared feeling better, so I headed back to work. And after two months I was totally dysfunctional and ever since then I’ve just been managing to stay afloat.
Elke says it was only after her children left home that she started to recover and had time for herself and to rest. Long off the anti-depressants she started a new high pressured job and after 2 years the exhaustion hit again. She’s been on Dr Lam’s program for 10 months and says the close individual monitoring of her situation and emphasis on slow recovery, taking the time to rest and rebuild her system, is hugely helpful for her and is the only thing that has made a difference in the 20 years of trying to get better.
She says that the biggest challenge for her has been not to go into overdrive as soon as she feels better, because doing this has set her back hugely.
As soon as I felt a little better, I was off. I had a pathological need to push myself and want to do things like renovate the house, or work. The hardest part is to hold myself back as soon as I feel a little better.
What I have found so beneficial is the adrenal breathing exercises, breathing in through the left nostril and out through the right nostril. For me in all of this journey, the breathing has been the most beneficial along with learning that it is the nervous system that needs to calm down to heal adrenal fatigue.
The very first time I tried the adrenal breathing I felt the effect. I’m more resilient now through practicing the breathing and I can handle a stressful situation now.Also simplifying my life and managing my energy levels, as well as keeping my liver clean and taking the right supplements, have helped me rebuild my system.
How to Heal Adrenal Fatigue
Many people question whether a total and complete recovery from adrenal fatigue is possible. The answer is yes in the vast majority of cases, but only if done right. Adrenal fatigue often takes a decade or more to develop. It is important to allow the body time to recover. A few months of recovery is considered a short time within this time horizon. Time is a great healer when the body is given the proper nutrients along with proper lifestyle and dietary protocols. Those who demand a quick recovery invariably become disappointed because the body is not a light switch that can be turned on and off at will. A systematic and logical approach works the best under professional guidance. – Dr Lam.
Adrenal crash is the body’s strategy of returning the person to homeostasis and balance. It is important not to fall into a cycle of crash and recovery without healing the underlying issues and finding long term balance.
Changing your diet can have a significant impact on reducing the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Eating foods that nurture the kidneys and eating smaller more frequent meals. It’s important to avoid sugar, alcohol and highly salty foods. Jacinta recommends eating meals suited to your ayurvedic dosha, especially warming food and believes that a raw food diet can aggravate adrenal fatigue. She also recommends nourishing exercise like yoga and tai chi and proper supplementation.
Healing practices like Restorative Yoga and meditation, as well as Pranayama, especially alternate nostril breathing and Yoga Nidra, are all highly beneficial to the nervous system which will support the endocrine system.
Adrenal fatigue is very much a Neuro-Endocrine imbalance and the more we can bring the body mind into a calm baseline, the better. It is recommended to go to bed early at the first wave of tiredness and to take nutritionally supplements that are specially prescribed for you, as some supplements may be too heating and will cause burnout instead of treating it.
The Gift of Adrenal Fatigue
For many people, being stopped in their tracks by adrenal exhaustion can in some way be a positive thing, as it is indicating some area of their life that is out of balance. Addressing adrenal fatigue can often be the starting point for a wake up call to a deeper experience of life. It can force you to simplify your life and discover what is really important and valuable in life, such as love, forgiveness, peace, connection, contentment, gratitude, spirituality etc.
Adrenal Fatigue or any serious condition is not to be handled as quickly as possible with a quick fix. If you act this way, you may miss the greatest blessing of your life. – Dr Lam
Words by Azriel Re-Shel
Originally published on Azriel Re-Shel