What is Adrenal Fatigue?
27 May 2020
By Sarah Nankervis, Naturopath & Nutritionist
1. What are adrenals? And what systems of the body do they control?
The adrenal glands sit on our Kidneys and produce cortisol in response to stress and they play an important protective role against stressors and surviving ‘fight or flight’ situations such as running away from a tiger or in modern society getting from one job, meeting, social occasion, appointment and repeat. It does this by increasing blood volume and pressure, reducing inflammation, suppressing immune activation and by ensuring we have an abundant energy supply to cope during this period of stress.
2. What is the affect of chronic-stress on the adrenals and how do we know if our Adrenals are fatigued?
With our constant “go go go” society, chronically elevated cortisol is detrimental to our health and wellbeing, reducing bone and collagen (think wrinkles), causing muscle wasting and body composition change.
Low cortisol is associated with fatigue, low blood pressure/dizziness, chronic pain, weight gain and hormonal imbalances.
Low cortisol is caused by the adrenal glands under functioning or “adrenal fatigue”, due to the demands of lots of different stressors building up over time without allowing the adrenals to rest and restore. I usually describe this to my clients as your energy battery is empty and if the stressors continue your battery won’t have the ability to completely recharge.
3. Is it true that caffeine puts more load on the adrenals? How much is acceptable to drink?
Caffeine can be helpful but also put extra strain on our poor adrenal glands particularly if you are living in Melbourne with our coffee obsession (e.g. strong coffees and lots of them!).
Caffeine will increase the production of cortisol from the adrenal glands and also its other major hormone adrenaline which will give you a great burst of energy and mental clarity but once you start to have too much caffeine this starts to have a negative impact on your adrenals by adding extra stress to its function and can lead to lowering your “adrenal battery” further.
One coffee a day in the morning is fine but if you are starting to rely on caffeine for energy and to “get through the day” it is already affecting your adrenals and you need to have a break. Generally if you cut caffeine out of your diet and have a period of time where you feel exhausted without it this is a good indication your adrenals need a rest and you may already be suffering a level of Adrenal fatigue.
4. Can you permanently damage your adrenals? Is it possible to revive them?
When we are talking about “Adrenal fatigue” this is not a medically diagnosed disease state but rather a decrease in function due to chronic stressors. There is no evidence that Adrenal fatigue will lead to permanent damage to the adrenal glands BUT if adrenal fatigue isn’t addressed it can take a very long time to recover from and can lead to other disease states such as anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and gut disorders due to the increase in inflammation and stress on your body and digestive system.
5. What are ways to cope if you have a high-stress job or are experiencing a difficult phase in your life? Are there natural supplements/diets that can help support the adrenals?
Most of my clients who present with Adrenal fatigue symptoms are in high stress jobs or are working too hard!! We have such high expectations of employees in Australia and the “work harder to achieve” attitude is not great for our health! Addressing lifestyle factors is the most important way to cope with a high-stress job;
a) Are you doing the wrong type of exercise for your adrenals to recover? High intensity exercise in someone with adrenal fatigue can make things worse so we need to change exercise routines to a more gentle restorative exercise such as Yin yoga, pilates, walking, gentle jog or swim. Also looking at mindfulness and meditation to help encourage our “rest and restore” nervous system to kick in and give our adrenals a break – even sitting for a few minutes to take some deep breaths is really helpful.
b) Sleep is super important in adrenal fatigue and getting good quality sleep is really important in allowing our adrenals to rest. Heading to bed before 10pm and addressing sleep issues with a health practitioner is helpful. Try not to exercise too late in the evening as this can increase your cortisol levels and you won’t sleep as deeply. If you have a bath take a warm bath with 1 cup epson/magnesium salts before bed to help with better quality sleep.
C) Diet – making sure you are eating a whole food diet with plenty of complex carbohydrates to support your adrenal glands such as fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains – quinoa, brown rice, oats, barley, millet
D) Avoiding processed foods, too much caffeine (limit to one cup before 10am), decreasing alcohol and having 3 alcohol free days a week, increasing your water intake to 1.5 – 2 litres per day and eating regularly throughout the day to support consistent energy levels. Don’t skip meals as this will make your stress levels worse!
E) Supplements can be really helpful to support the adrenals and there are some great herbs which a Naturopath can prescribe to help support your stress levels but some simple things to introduce can be a good quality B vitamin complex with your breakfast and a magnesium oil/spray around your neck and shoulders before bed. Seek professional advice before taking supplements though as everyone has different needs.
6. What are your top 5 tips for someone feeling run down and might be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue?
- See a Naturopath who will take a comprehensive case history to see if you have adrenal fatigue and might also recommend testing your cortisol levels to see if you have low or high levels through out the day so we can then prescribe appropriate supplement and dietary support.
- Reassess your lifestyle – do you need to do everything on your list? Can you skip the third late night in a row and replace it with an early night and a bath? Prioritise what needs to be done and what isn’t necessary!
- See your GP to rule out other causes such as a vitamin deficiency which could be causing your fatigue
- Take a break from coffee and caffeine, maybe set a goal of no coffee for a month and if you buy a coffee every day save what you would have been spending on coffee and at the end of the month treat yourself to a massage
- Start meditating – mindfulness is so important in allowing our body to rest and restore – there are some great apps, courses and workshops on mindfulness and so many of them are free and a great start to learning how to stop and rest
Do you need more guidance on your wellness journey?
Book an appointment with Sarah here