Ah, the (not-so) good old days. I remember them well.
I’d wake up – barely – after hitting the snooze button as many times as I could get away with. My eyes wouldn’t really focus properly until I’d had my shower and first cup of coffee. Bright sunlight completely blinded me so I never left home without sunglasses and standing up quickly was sure to give me a crazy case of the spins. If I worked out too hard, I’d be down with a migraine and no matter what temperature it was outside or the rest of my body temperature, my pits would be sweaty. I would be exhausted when it was time to go to bed, and yet I’d be totally wired and couldn’t sleep.
I didn’t know this at the time but every single one of these seemingly unrelated annoyances was an indication of adrenal fatigue, the informal term for a dysfunction in a core chain of command in our endocrine system between the hypothalamus, the pituitary and our stress handling glands, the adrenals.
What are your adrenals? (and who cares?)
Your adrenals are two little walnut-sized organs that sit atop your kidneys and are responsible for your body’s stress response. That adrenaline rush? It comes from your adrenals. The hormone cortisol that gets such a bad rap? Another adrenal hormone.
Your adrenals’ job is to ensure your body can respond appropriately to stress of any kind: from the life-threatening to the emotional to simply getting annoyed at your loud neighbor. Any and every stress to your body or mind will trigger a response from your adrenals. They are also intimately involved with:
- Sex hormone production
- Your overall energy and vitality
- Blood sugar regulation
- Your body’s immunity
- Tissue repair and rebuilding the body
So yeah, they’re kinda important, to say the least.
Our modern medical establishment only formally recognizes two issues with the adrenals, one at each end of the functional spectrum: Addison’s disease (severe adrenal insufficiency) and Cushing’s disease (extreme excess adrenal secretion). Anything in between these two extremes – and there is a lot – is simply ignored.
The thing is, adrenal function is vital to your overall ability to feel well and any dysfunction that occurs – that gray area between the two pathologies – is going to affect your health significantly. In fact, if your adrenals aren’t working properly, then most other healing efforts are done in vain.
Consider this: your adrenals produce the hormone cortisol, which is so integral to your body’s healing mechanism that many medical conditions are treated with drugs that imitate the act of this very hormone. Think of hydrocortisone, used to control swelling and inflammation, and its many applications. It’s mind-boggling.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Very simply put, adrenal fatigue occurs when your body experiences more stress than it’s able to handle. This disrupts the communication that happens between three core endocrine glands: the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands themselves, and leads to dysfunction in how the adrenals function as a result.
In some cases this means the adrenals over-produce the hormone cortisol. In other cases, this can lead to an under-production of cortisol. Sometimes the pattern of cortisol production, which has a very specific flow over the course of the day – being highest within 30 minutes of waking in the morning, tapering off at noon, and ultimately at its lowest right before bed – can be wonky, with cortisol high when it should be low and low when it should be high. And of course all of this can affect the other hormones produced by the adrenal glands such as DHEA and some sex hormones.
So how do you know if you have adrenal fatigue?
The sad truth is that in our day and age, most people have some level of adrenal dysregulation. Most of the stressors we’re dealing with on a daily basis are brand new (relatively speaking) in the human experience such as unhealthy diet, environmental toxins, chronic stress of daily life, and chronic degenerative disease. Furthermore, these are what we call the “sit and stew” kinds of stressors: long-term chronic stressors where stress hormones are released, but not really used. This is much more damaging to the body than the traditional “fight and flight”: you know, the running from a woolly mammoth kind of thing, where you’d get the adrenaline rush and then USE it by running like hell.
The best way to know if you have adrenal fatigue and at what stage (there are four stages), is to work with a holistic practitioner who can order testing to determine your cortisol levels at various points throughout the day. I do this work, and so do many other functional practitioners. (Here’s a list of practitioners who I’ve personally trained alongside my business partner and fellow practitioner, Anne Fischer Silva.) In the absence of that, here are 10 indicators that you have some degree of adrenal dysregulation:
- You’re a “night person” (you have trouble getting up in the morning and you have trouble falling asleep at night, even when you’re exhausted)
- Your blood pressure is either above 120/80 or below 105/70
- You get a headache after exercising
- You clench or grind your teeth
- You get dizzy when you stand up quickly
- You crave salty foods
- You perspire easily, regardless of the temperature
- You’re always tired
- You need to wear sunglasses outside during the day
- You don’t stay asleep at night
If two or more of these describe you, you most likely have some degree of adrenal dysregulation.
What to do about it:
There are many different things you can do to support your adrenals, many of which are clinical and best done with the guidance of a holistic practitioner experienced in adrenal fatigue. But first and foremost, your job is to identify all of the stressors in your life, and then one-by-one weed them out and/or drastically reduce them. Here are some places to start:
1) What’s on your dinner plate?
Processed and refined foods are very taxing on the body. Sugar, in particular, has an enormous impact on your adrenals (which I’ll be explaining in detail next week) and, as we all know, it’s ubiquitous in processed foods. A great place to start cleaning up your diet is with our 7-day meal plan, which we gift to you when alongside our Eat Naked Kitchen Essentials guide. It’s a first step in getting rid of all processed foods, bring your blood sugar levels back into balance, and take an enormous burden off those poor tired adrenals.
2) What does a day-in-your-life look like?
Are you a Type-A overachiever or a workaholic? Is your life in or out of balance? Are you an exercise addict (there is such a thing as overdoing it) or maybe you’ve yet to get your arse off the couch? How well do you sleep and how much sleep do you get? How much exposure do you get to EMFs (electro-magnetic frequencies), especially when you sleep? Here’s my strategy for building more downtime and balance into your life.
3) What’s your headspace?
Do you obsess over the details? Do you tend to worry a lot? Do you have financial concerns? Do you work long hours? Does your monkey brain get the better of you? Where can you start new thought patterns? Maybe you build in some daily meditation to offset immovable stressors.
4) What’s your emotional state?
Emotional stressors can be big and in-your-face such as the death of a loved one or divorce, or they can be low-lying and chronic, like general loneliness and not feeling heard. Either way, they are adding more stress. What is your general emotional state right now and can you identify emotions that aren’t serving you?
5) What’s going on in your body?
Do you feel healthy and vibrant, or do you have lots of little chronic issues to deal with? Maybe you get sinus infections really easily, or you’re always the first to catch a cold. Maybe you get headaches or feel bloated and uncomfortable after you eat certain foods? All of these things – from the major to the minor – are causing stress on your body.
How do you minimize and manage the stress in your life? Please share in the comments below!
If this is a topic that intrigues you, here are some of my favorite resources:
- Dr. James L. Wilson’s book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.
- Dr. Alan Christianson’s book The Adrenal Reset Diet
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