For some people, fatigue may be very short-lived, whilst for others, months of very high stress levels can actually lead to adrenal fatigue. This isn’t a made-up term for someone feeling a little sleepy, it is a physical state in which the adrenal glands (which sit just above the kidneys), responsible for producing stress hormones, begin to struggle. Individuals with chronic fatigue actually have a reduction in hormone production by the adrenal glands (1), and hence feel the effects. Adrenal fatigue is simply a term used to explain that a part of your body is not functioning as well as it could or should. Finding out that you have adrenal fatigue, however, is not the same as being diagnosed with a disease such as Addison’s disease, which is a state of extreme adrenal insufficiency.
What are stress hormones, and how do they affect my energy levels?
Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin are actually a good thing, in most cases. If you have an important talk to deliver, a bit of the stress hormone adrenaline released can help to wire your brain ready for delivering information by increasing alertness. There are countless great rescue stories of ‘super man’ types who suddenly gain the muscle power to lift something which, in a normal situation, would be deemed impossible. Think of the adrenaline rush supplying the brain and muscles to work far more effectively than usual. Unfortunately, most of the time we get a flood of adrenaline, we are just sitting down, not getting ready to call on super-human strength, so we’re really not using our stress hormones to our benefit.
The opposite effect occurs when the adrenal glands are fatigued, and with chronic low levels of these stress hormones, the body slumps into a state of fatigue. Before we start blaming those possibly sluggish adrenal glands for your fatigue, it is worth being aware that there are several causes for fatigue. Lack of sleep in general, physically and mentally overworking, deficiencies in vitamins and minerals possibly leading to anaemia, and much more may lead to feelings of fatigue.
If you suspect that your fatigue is linked to your adrenal glands, the easiest way to find out is to have an adrenal stress test, which measures stress hormone levels at different times of the day from saliva samples.
The early stages of stressed adrenal glands
On high alert, the adrenal glands are working in overdrive in order to keep your body ready for anything, perhaps while you are sitting at your desk stressing out over your impossibly large work load.
Stress can include anything in life really, from being overwhelmed with work, or financial troubles to relationship issues; basically stress is stress.
In these initial stages of stress, the adrenal glands are not fatigued and they may actually be working very well, as hard as they possibly can to help you deal with stress properly. Elevated job-related stress, for example, has been shown to correlate with higher cortisol levels. (2) During this stage you will most likely feel wired, perhaps so much so that you can’t switch off in the evening. Our bodies naturally produce high levels of cortisol in the morning to get us up and about, and then levels gradually taper off to prepare us for a drowsy late evening before bed-time. When the adrenal glands are working in overdrive, cortisol levels may still be high in the evening, making it very difficult to fall asleep, and sometimes even waking you throughout the night.
How to deal with stressful situations
Although some events in life are undoubtedly and unavoidably stressful, there are many occasions when events are too insignificant to justify our raised stress hormones. Let’s consider the stressful events in life which we do have control over.
Do the smallest things, such as missing a bus, stress you out beyond belief, when that totally chilled out person next to you is completely unfazed? If your levels of cortisol are already constantly high, even the smallest peak in cortisol on top of this can easily send you over the edge.
If you know that you are already a very stressed person, perhaps because you have a lot going on in your life, there are certainly ways of changing your mental approach to certain situations in life. Your outlook on small events that happen throughout the day can have a huge impact on whether you let something affect your stress levels, or whether you can train yourself to avoid it. Here’s an example:
Person A runs for the bus, misses it and then stresses out at the thought of not being able to make it to the supermarket before it shuts to buy parsley for the fish dish they are cooking that evening for their dinner party. They start to breath heavily, their blood pressure increases, their heart rate is elevated. They text their friends to explain the catastrophic event, and apologise in advance for the dinner, which is now ruined. Person A is very stressed over a very small and insignificant event.
Person B runs for the bus, misses it and calmly looks at the timetable board to see that there is another bus in 10 minutes. They will now not have time to get to the shops to buy parsley, but they have a think about what they could do about this situation and they decide that the coriander in the fridge at home will make do. They calmly wait for the bus listening to their music and looking forward to their delicious dinner. Person B is very relaxed.
The next time you start to get stressed about something petty, take a few seconds to think about the world in general, and then realise the insignificance of your reason for stressing out. Think about something or someone that relaxes you and let your mind drift elsewhere.
Find it hard to get out of bed in the morning? The adrenal fatigue stage
Have you become a night owl with age? Finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning does not necessarily mean that you have adrenal fatigue as some of us just seem to tend that way, but it may certainly be a sign.
Adrenal fatigue occurs after months, or possibly even years of being in the overdrive adrenal stage following constant stress. At the point of fatigue, the adrenal glands have been working so hard that they can’t keep up with your stressful demands. The adrenal glands suddenly switch from very high production of cortisol to rock bottom lows. This results in feelings of exhaustion, especially in the morning when cortisol would have normally picked you up. Adrenal fatigue can result in very low energy levels, to the point where a lot of people start to worry about a serious illness due to such extreme feelings of physical exhaustion.
Low levels of cortisol in chronic fatigue is also associated with less sleep (3), highlighting just how important it is to get a good night’s sleep when you are adrenally fatigued.
Should I exercise more, or less, to increase my energy levels?
If you feel too exhausted to even get up in the morning, but someone has told you to get out of bed, push yourself and hit the gym at 6am to kick-start your energy, what do you do? Some people get on very well exercising early, but when you have adrenal fatigue, your body is crying out for you to put your feet up, brew a cup of tea (herbal, of course) and listen to some relaxing music. Relaxing and not exercising too much is one of the very best things you can do for your adrenal glands when they are fatigued, to allow them to recover. Keeping generally active, including yoga classes, gentle swimming and walks in the countryside are brilliant if you can manage this, but otherwise, for a month or two, sometimes longer, your adrenal glands really need a break; listen to your fatigued body and stop pushing through. Exercise, in moderation, actually reduces cortisol production (4), which is great if your adrenal glands are in the early stages of fatigue, but perhaps not if you have hit energy lows. Overtraining can even lead to adrenal fatigue. (5)
If you are trying to lose weight and you have adrenal fatigue, firstly this is not surprising as the early stages of adrenal fatigue can encourage your body to store more fat around your middle, with chronic stress associated with increased abdominal fat. (6) Secondly, if you can allow your adrenal glands time to start recovering for a couple of months, then your weight loss may even be more successful after this period. At this time, it will be much more effective to concentrate on your diet for weight loss, eating nutrient-dense foods and keeping your carbohydrate intake a bit lower than usual. Don’t rely on exercise for weight loss for now, as this will simply be ineffective and possibly counterproductive.
What should I eat to help my adrenal glands recover?
Supporting your adrenal glands in their journey to recovery is actually mostly down to your lifestyle, your ability to deal with stressful situations, and ensuring that you fully relax and get plenty of sleep.
When it comes to your diet, similar rules apply in that you want your body to take it easy. Foods which stress the body, or stimulate it in any way, should therefore be reduced significantly. Sugar, refined foods, caffeine and alcohol are among the worst things for your adrenal glands; ironically, these are the very stimulants we often rely on when feeling overly stressed and need a pick-me-up. When the adrenal glands are fatigued to the point of feeling you have had all energy zapped out of you, a cup of coffee simply isn’t going to do it for you.
The ideal diet to follow would be organic and full of nutrient-dense foods, including brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Eating plenty of healthy fats from foods such as oily fish, nuts, olives and avocados, as well as eating a reasonable amount of protein, is also important.
The adrenal glands love vitamin C, to bump up hormone production (7), and B vitamins are required for energy production, so try to really concentrate on vitamin C-rich foods such as peppers, kiwis, berries, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables. Fish, nuts, seeds, meat, beans, lentils, spinach and cheese are great sources of B vitamins, which not only support the adrenal glands, but also help your body to convert calories from food into usable energy in your body; in short, they are perfect to perk you up!
There is so much that lifestyle and dietary adjustments can do for the adrenal glands, but remember to get your hormone levels checked in order to get a real understanding of what stage your adrenal glands are in, as this may help to tailor some of your choices. Seeing the numbers change for the better after following this advice in a follow-up test is also very rewarding.
In times of stress, our requirements for B vitamins are very high and processed foods are commonly lacking in these vitamins. Keep up a good intake of rich food sources including fish, nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale. B vitamins are required in the body for many functions, including the proper functioning of enzymes to support essential processes such as production of neurotransmitters. Vitamin B5, for example, is required for healthy metabolism of choline, needed for the production of the neurotransmitters melatonin and acetylcholine, which help with sleep quality by regulating circadian rhythms. Supplementing with B vitamin complex, especially one containing the body-ready form of folic acid (folate) such as Super B-Complex, has been shown to significantly lower personal strain and dejected mood; it may therefore help in reducing workplace stress.
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(2) Yan YX, Dong J, Liu YQ, Zhang J, Song MS, He Y, et al. Association of suboptimal health status with psychosocial stress, plasma cortisol and mRNA expression of glucocorticoid receptor alpha/beta in lymphocyte. Stress 2015 Jan;18(1):29-34.
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(4) Alghadir AH, Gabr SA. Physical activity and environmental influences on adrenal fatigue of Saudi adults: biochemical analysis and questionnaire survey. J Phys Ther Sci 2015 Jul;27(7):2045-51.
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(6) Aschbacher K, Kornfeld S, Picard M, Puterman E, Havel PJ, Stanhope K, et al. Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2014 Aug;46:14-22.
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