If you’re someone who needs to take multiple coffee breaks to make it through the day, or are constantly craving that 30 minute mid-day siesta just for a little boost of energy, your chronic fatigue could be due to way more than just an overloaded work schedule.
The answer to your constant feelings of tiredness and weakness could lie in the controversial health issue of adrenal fatigue. Most traditional doctors don’t buy into this idea of overworked adrenals––there’s no official “adrenal fatigue” diagnosis––however many holistic doctors see adrenal fatigue as an epidemic, due to our growing stress levels.
Could this be the issue that is causing your constant fatigue? And what even is it? Read on as I break down the myths and get to the real root of this growing health problem.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Your adrenals are two small glands located just above your kidneys. They are responsible for releasing a variety of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which are both super helpful when it comes to reacting to stressful situations, but can be detrimental to your health they’re produced in excess (read about how stress and high cortisol release can contribute to autoimmune disease here). One of the most common misconceptions about adrenal fatigue is that the adrenals are essentially “stressed” or “tired” from constantly releasing these hormones, and are no longer able to produce them in adequate amounts. Hence the feelings of fatigue, weakness, muscle soreness and so much more.
While this idea does make a lot of sense, it’s not actually the real problem that causes adrenal fatigue.
In order to understand the root of the issue, you have to first understand the HPA axis. The HPA axis, or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is essentially our main stress response system consisting of the pituitary and adrenal glands and the hypothalamus. This system plays a role in so many important functions, from our reactions to stress to our mood and emotions. When the HPA axis is not working correctly (most often due to chronic stress), it can cause some serious imbalances in the system and the body as a whole.
Now here’s the big idea behind adrenal fatigue: it’s all about cortisol timing, or the slope of cortisol release. In people with a properly functioning HPA, cortisol levels will be extremely low or even undetectable at night, and then build up during the night so they’re highest in the morning and gradually lowering again throughout the day, creating an even “slope”. However, when chronic stress comes into play, this slope can be altered so cortisol is released at different points during the day or not at all. It is this dysregulation of the cortisol slope that causes the fatigue, anxiety, brain fog and inflammation that are often associated with adrenal fatigue. Studies have shown that it can have longer term effects, such as disease development and even a shorter life span.
A few ways to heal
The good news is, you can heal your adrenals and adjust the slope of your cortisol levels so they’re completely back to normal. In order to do this this, though, you have the address the root cause. The most common causes tend to be constant stress, emotional trauma and poor health practices.
- Get tests done – Ask your doctor to test your cortisol levels to see if you might have adrenal issues. They can test your blood, saliva or urine, but most doctors will order a saliva test. Get screened for a MTHFR gene mutation. This gene is responsible for methylation, a process that happens in nearly every cell of our bodies. Issues with this gene can lead to adrenal fatigue.
- Lower stress levels – This one seems to be the most obvious solution, but it really can make a world of difference. Acknowledge what is causing you stress in your life and find effective ways to deal with it, even if that means taking a step back from your busy life. Try adding meditation or yoga into your daily routine. Plus, switching out your regular high intensity exercise for a relaxing (but still toning!) yoga class, brisk walk or hike a few times a week can lower some of the stress cause by too intense workouts.
- Adjust your diet – Consider removing processed, high sugar and high carbs from your diet, as these things can cause massive blood sugar spikes and affect your cortisol levels. Also lower your caffeine levels (I know, that’s a hard one). Replace these things with inflammation-lowering and healing foods, like healthy fats, whole grains and fruits and veggies, especially leafy greens. Switch out your regular proteins for more nutrient-dense ones that will help boost your energy and happiness levels, like wild-caught fish, pasture-raised eggs (for choline and B-12), cashews, pumpkins seeds, cocao powder (for their high levels of zinc), or spirulina, wild-caught salmon, sesame seeds, cashews and walnuts (they contain tryptophan, a natural mood-booster and anxiety-reliever). Try including different adaptogens in your daily routine, here’s a list of all my favorites for stress relief, ashwagandha is one of my favorites. Sip on tulsi tea throughout the day to ensure complete calmness in your downtime.
- Eating more than three times per day – It can be tough on the adrenal glands if there is too much time in between meals, because if your blood sugar drops too low in between meals then your adrenals release cortisol which brings your blood sugar back up. So if you frequently go without eating for long stretches, you’re straining your adrenals and not giving them a chance to recuperate. Thus, you can support your adrenals by eating a light, balanced meal every two hours. This helps keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day so that your adrenals don’t have to interfere, giving them a chance to rest and restore themselves.
- Supplement what you might not be getting from your diet – When you’re chronically stressed, your magnesium levels tend to be lower, and by replenishing your body with this much-needed mineral, you can help your adrenals heal. Some studies have shown benefits to supplementing with vitamin D to improve adrenal health. So if you’re not constantly out in the sun, you might want to consider adding vitamin D to your supplement regimen. Also, if you are vegan I would supplement with a liquid B12 to strengthen the central nervous system (methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin are the high quality forms you want to look for).
- Get a good night’s sleep – Your sleep and your cortisol slope are interconnected, so it’s no wonder that not sleeping enough can throw off your cortisol levels. Most doctors recommend getting between 7-9 hours of sleep, so aim for somewhere in there. Make sure you’re setting yourself up for great sleep by turning off your phone at least an hour before and have your room set to a cool temperature.
If you need additional support in healing your adrenals and restoring your body to homeostasis, I would be honored to delve deeper into this with you to create a food, supplement, and lifestyle program that will help you heal. Reach out to me to schedule a consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org