I know firsthand the stress that comes from constantly being on the go. I wear many hats – physician, wife, mother, CEO, and New York Times best-selling author. Unfortunately, stress has become a regular part of life from long hours at work, traffic, raising children, financial worries, and health issues.
Some stress is necessary to keep your immune system sharp and keep you alive in dangerous situations. Historically, this was more important. Today, we aren’t running away from animals trying to eat us as our ancestors did. However, our modern lifestyles can still cause your stress response to be constantly on. Prolonged, relentless stress can contribute to adrenal fatigue and heart disease, leaky gut, anxiety, and a plethora of autoimmune diseases.
You cannot avoid stress entirely. Yet the key to minimizing its impact on your health is to learn how to relieve stress to prevent adrenal fatigue. I’m going to tell you what adrenal fatigue is, what causes it, and how you can treat adrenal fatigue.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
The health of your adrenal glands is on a continuum. On the one end, they’re functioning optimally and provide a healthy stress response. On the other end is chronic adrenal insufficiency, or Addison’s disease. It creates a big gap. I find that most of my patients fell somewhere in between this spectrum, many with adrenal fatigue.
To be diagnosed with Addison’s disease, your adrenal glands must be functioning at 10% or lower. Anything between the optimal function of your adrenal glands and Addison’s disease is known as adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is a mild form of adrenal insufficiency when your adrenal glands face too much stress.
Your adrenal glands are tiny, triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They produce hormones that help your body regulate various functions such as a stress response, your metabolism, your immune system’s response to foreign invaders, and your blood pressure.
As I mentioned, the stress our ancestors faced was getting chased by a bear. Our adrenal glands are very good at helping us respond to this type of stress by releasing a rush of hormones called cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol and Stress
The primary function of cortisol is to respond to stress. When faced with danger, the adrenal glands boost cortisol production, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and inflammation. Nearly all of your cells have cortisol receptors so that cortisol can shut down processes such as digestion in times of high alert.
While cortisol’s job is to respond to danger, this only happens in short bursts under ideal conditions. If you are under continued stress over a long period, your body will continue to produce cortisol. Chronic stress can lead to many issues, including ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, increased cholesterol levels, and autoimmune disease. Learning to manage stress through various techniques such as meditation, exercise, or socializing is a great way to help control cortisol levels.
Adrenaline and Stress
Adrenaline, like cortisol, is produced in the adrenal gland. It is derived from the amino acid tyrosine and helps you react quickly to dangerous situations by sending extra blood to your heart and large muscles.
Chronic stress keeps your adrenal glands in overdrive, leading to adrenal fatigue. While adrenal fatigue is not a diagnosable condition, the symptoms are genuine. Over time, high cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance, weaken your immune system, and eventually cause muscle wasting if not addressed. So, how do you know if you have adrenal fatigue?
What Are the Signs of Adrenal Fatigue?
As you’ve likely figured out, the optimal function of your adrenal glands is essential for a healthy stress response. Yet, your adrenal glands do so much more because they produce so many different hormones. Here are symptoms 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
- A feeling of tired and wired
- Sleep disturbance
- Low libido
- Thyroid imbalances
- Hair loss
- Blurred vision
- Seasonal allergies
If you need caffeine or reach for sugary snacks for energy, that’s a good indicator that you might have adrenal fatigue. Don’t worry; there are ways to treat adrenal fatigue and get your adrenal glands functioning optimally. You have to get to the root cause to do that, and you guessed it – the root cause is stress.
What Causes Adrenal Insufficiency?
If you’ve ever run a marathon or any distance, you have experienced fatigue. Your muscles are sore, you’re short of breath, and you’re tired. Adrenal fatigue is basically the same process. 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.
Unfortunately, your body isn’t made to be in this fight-or-flight mode all the time. When it is, your adrenal glands become tired and stop working optimally.
Causes of Stress
Stress comes from many places such as work, finances, home life, friendships, and family. However, there are likely a few contributors to your stress that you haven’t thought of, such as:
- Not getting optimal sleep
- A diet of processed foods and sugar
- Caffeine and alcohol
- A rigorous work schedule
- Emotional trauma such as unhealthy relationships or the death of a loved one
- Working out without giving your body enough time to recover
- Lack of fun and excitement
When you’re stressed, your hypothalamus is the part of your brain that recognizes it and starts the process of releasing cortisol. The hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to warm up like a relief pitcher in baseball getting ready in the bullpen. Then they both signal your adrenals to produce and release stress hormones. This communication process is known as the HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. When your pituitary gland stops communicating to your adrenal glands to make cortisol, you have secondary adrenal insufficiency.
Talk to your functional medicine doctor if you think you have adrenal insufficiency. You can also test your cortisol levels with a cortisol test from LetsGetChecked, and the results are delivered online so that you can share them with your doctor.
If you discover that you have adrenal fatigue, you can treat it. The first step is to address your stress and manage it.
Treatment for Adrenal Fatigue
The underlying cause of adrenal fatigue is stress. Your adrenal glands get caught in the crossfire. The first step is to figure out where your stress is coming from and learn ways to reduce it. One of the best ways to do that is to establish a routine. Here are my suggestions for supporting a healthy stress response:
- Create a bedtime routine: Go to bed at the same time every night and aim to get 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night.
- Say no: If you feel stressed and feel there is a high demand on your time, learn to say no. Make time for yourself a priority.
- Find a relaxing activity and do it every day: Some of my favorite ways to relax are to get in my Sunlighten infrared sauna, take a walk with my family, do yoga, go swimming with my daughter, Elle, or take a hot bath with homemade bath salts.
- Move your body: Set aside time for exercise. It doesn’t have to be high-intensity every day. Just 30 minutes of movement can help reduce stress.
- Optimize your diet: Eliminate caffeine, alcohol, processed sugar, gluten, and dairy from your diet.
Nutrients for Adrenal Fatigue
Chronic stress causes your body to go through essential micronutrients quicker, which could leave not enough for crucial body processes. Vitamin C, magnesium and B vitamins, antioxidants, and more are all involved in producing stress hormones. Many adults already have suboptimal or insufficient levels of these micronutrients needed to produce stress hormones.
By giving your body the support it needs, you can treat the symptoms of adrenal fatigue and promote a healthy stress response.
Adrenal Support is my No. 1 tool for adrenal fatigue. It contains a blend of adaptogenic herbs such as Rhodiola Rosea, Panax ginseng, Eleuthero, and ashwagandha) that facilitate a stress response and support healthy cortisol levels. I’ve also included the amino acid L-Tyrosine in Adrenal Support to support catecholamine production, essential for an optimal stress response.
For added support, I recommend The Myers Way® Multivitamin. It contains optimal levels of B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C needed for producing stress hormones.
No one can avoid stress altogether, so learning to manage it is a vital part of treating adrenal fatigue. It is equally important to give your body the support it needs to promote a healthy stress response. With the tools I just gave you, you can treat adrenal fatigue and get them functioning optimally.