Everything You Need to Know About Adrenal Fatigue
Your health is on a continuum. On one end you have optimal health, and on the other, you have a chronic illness. Your adrenal health works in the same way. You can be one step away from healthy and functioning, or you can have full-blown Addison’s disease, also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency. This creates a very large gap, and I find that many people fall somewhere within this spectrum.
To receive an Addison’s diagnosis, you must have lost 90% of your adrenal glands’ function, but you can still have adrenal issues without this diagnosis. Anything between optimal health and Addison’s disease is referred to as adrenal fatigue, a mild form of adrenal insufficiency that occurs when your adrenal glands are over stressed.
The primary role of your adrenal glands is to produce and regulate the stress hormone cortisol. Your adrenal glands also produce sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, and they produce your neurotransmitters, adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, and dopamine. These hormones and neurotransmitters regulate your metabolism and communicate with other organs, like your brain, kidneys, and reproductive system. However, chronic stress can suppress your adrenal glands, causing them to release insufficient amounts of these necessary hormones.
Causes of Stress:
- lack of sleep
- poor diet (processed, junk food)
- stimulants (caffeine, sugar)
- rigorous work schedule
- emotional trauma (unhealthy relationships, death of a loved one)
- over training (marathons, training without rest days)
- lack of fun and excitement
We live in a very stressful world. We work 80-hour weeks, sacrifice our sleep, drink two cups of coffee to stay awake during the day, reach for sugary foods for more energy, and these habits affect us emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
When you engage in stressful activities, your body enters into the fight-or-flight mode, where it believes that you need a surge of energy in order to survive. The primary stress hormone in your body is cortisol. Since its function is to provide you with a burst of energy, cortisol increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system to save energy, and begins breaking down your storage of protein and carbohydrate. Over time, high levels of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, weaken your immune system, and eventually cause muscle wasting, if not properly addressed.
Signs of Adrenal Fatigue:
- unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- body aches and muscle pain
- fatigue (difficulty getting out of bed in the morning)
- low blood pressure
- salt and sugar cravings
- shakiness or lightheadedness after skipping a meal
- dizziness upon standing
- feeling of tired and wired
- sleep disturbance
- low libido
- thyroid imbalances
- hair loss
- blurred vision
- severe allergies
The Adrenal and Thyroid Connection
To recap what we discussed earlier, adrenal glands produce hormones that impact your major metabolic processes, just like your thyroid. Chronic stress puts your adrenals on overdrive for extended periods of time leaving you in a state of adrenal fatigue. The flooding and eventual plummeting of stress hormones has many negative impacts on the thyroid. It slows thyroid production and inhibits your ability to convert thyroid hormones to their active form causing hypothyroid symptoms.
It also increases thyroid hormone resistance. Inflammatory immune cells called cytokines are released in the stress response, which make thyroid receptors less sensitive to thyroid hormones. This means that even if you’re taking thyroid medication and your thyroid hormone levels are normal, you can still be suffering from underactive thyroid symptoms.
Meanwhile, when your body is in stress mode, your immune system is suppressed, partially so that your body can focus fully on overcoming the stressor, and partially because stress causes inflammation. This causes your immune system to slow down to prevent a state of chronic inflammation. When your immune system is stressed, you become more susceptible to viral infections, some of which can trigger autoimmune thyroid disease.
You can read more on how the adrenal glands play a role in thyroid health in my new book, The Thyroid Connection.
How to Test For Adrenal Fatigue:
Since we live in a toxic, high-stress world, I assume that most of my patients have some amount of adrenal fatigue. I listen to the symptoms and lifestyle of my patients in order to assess whether someone has adrenal fatigue.
Functional Medicine Adrenal Stress Profile
In my clinic, I use a saliva test from BioHealth Laboratory to measure stress hormone levels at four different points throughout the day, which provides a more complete picture. You can order your own adrenal profile from My Labs for Life and review your results with a diatitian to help you work on dietary, lifestyle, and supplement changes to support your adrenals.
The Myers Way® Adrenal Fatigue Test
If you are unable to use a saliva test, or do not feel that formal testing is necessary, I have a basic symptoms checklist test in both of my books, The Thyroid Solution and The Autoimmune Solution, that will give you an idea of your degree of adrenal fatigue. You can also download a PDF version in the link below!
How to Treat Adrenal Fatigue:
Establish a Routine
It’s important to remember that your adrenal glands are not the underlying cause; they’re just caught in the crossfire. The best way to treat adrenal fatigue is to address the root cause: stress. I encourage you to think about your personal daily stressors, and take your health back into your own hands. If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, the most important thing you can do is to establish a routine. Below you can find some of my suggestions for establishing your routine.
- Go to bed at the same time every night (preferably before 10 pm) and get 8 hours of sleep.
- Learn to say NO when you have reached your limit.
- Do something relaxing every day (warm bath, walk in the park, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, etc).
- Don’t over-exercise. If you are fatigued after your workout, you might want to scale down.
- Eat a protein-rich breakfast before 10 am.
- Consume fruit with a source of protein (nuts or nut butters).
- Avoid alcohol, sugar, gluten, and dairy (toxic and inflammatory foods).
- Consider supplementation (adaptogenic herbs, B vitamins).
My Favorite Stress-Relief Tools
There are various tools that you can use for stress-relief. In my book, The Thyroid Connection, I go in-depth into some of the tools that I have found most effective, but here are a few of my favorites:
- HeartMath Inner Balance App
I love the Inner Balance app for iPhone. It uses an external sensor on your earlobe to help you synchronize your heart rate, breath, and mind. It’s super easy to use, and convenient since I always have my iPhone with me. Plus, as a very goal-oriented person (yes, even in my stress reduction!), I love that it lets you set goals and track your progress.
- Sensory Deprivation Floatation Session
Floatation tanks provide a light and sound-free environment, with a shallow pool of water containing about 1,000 lbs of dissolved Epsom salt. The high concentration of Epsom salt allows you to float effortlessly, and the temperature is the same as that of your skin so that you can’t even feel the water around you. The effect is a completely dark, quiet, and weightless flotation that reduces your cortisol levels, relieves muscle aches, and allows you to spend 60-90 minutes free from any stimulation whatsoever. You can find a float facility in your area here.
- Audio-Visual Entrainment
I use audio-visual entertainment all the time to help me find deep relaxation and love it! This technique uses visual patterns with sounds to bring you into a hypnotic place of relaxation. Audio-visual entertainment gives you a brain boost and can help with athletic performance, anxiety, depression, ADHD, mood, and senior issues. I highly recommend investing in this device.
- Infrared Sauna Therapy
Spending time in an infrared sauna has many health benefits, including stress relief and detoxification. I personally have one in my home, and you can also receive treatments from natural spas that house their own.
- Adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt and cope with stress. This is my go-to treatment to support the adrenal gland, as we work together to find the root cause of your adrenal fatigue. The one I carry in my store is The Myers Way® Adrenal Support, which is a blend of Rhodiola rosea, Panax ginseng, and a number of other herbal extracts.
- Vitamin B Complex is also ideal for adrenal support. All B vitamins are critical for the chemical processes within the adrenal glands.
- For added adrenal support, you can also take omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and magnesium.
If you are curious about your own adrenal health or would like further assistance in treating your adrenal fatigue, I highly recommend seeking a Functional Medicine practitioner in your area.
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