Adrenal fatigue occurs in the body after a period of stress. This can be any stress – either physical or emotional. Stress activates our flight or fight response – a primitive system in our bodies which creates increased stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) in the body to make us faster, stronger, and quicker-thinking. This is fantastic news if we’re living in a cave and faced with a tiger or a bear. This burst of hormones will help us to either run away, or fight for our lives.
EXCEPT WE DON’T LIVE IN CAVES ANYMORE.
Stress these days occurs more in the form of traffic jams, long queues at the supermarket, demands by our bosses, phone calls from the mother-in-law, sick kids, bills, distressing stories on social media… you name it – there’s stress around every corner.
And here’s the clincher: Being busy, day in, day out, is seen by the body as a form of stress.
Unfortunately, our adrenals can’t tell the difference, so they pump out these stress hormones anyway. They’re just trying to help.
At first, the increase in cortisol makes us feel good. We seem to go through the day with a higher degree of accuracy and attentiveness. We get shit done and we feel good – often really good.
But it can’t last.
After a while our adrenals become dysfunctional from pumping out all that “good” stuff. It was only ever meant to be a stop-gap. (I mean – how often would you come face to face with a tiger or a bear anyway?) The fluctuations in cortisol start to affect the other organs and systems in the body.
This is what we call “adrenal fatigue.” But the more accurate term is adrenal dysfunction, or HPA axis dysfunction.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF ADRENAL FATIGUE INCLUDE:
- Mood swings
- Inability to handle stress
- Insomnia or poor sleep
- Waking feeling unrefreshed
- Poor digestion
- Blood sugar fluctuations
- Thyroid problems
- Poor immunity/ frequent infections
- Low blood pressure
- Poor circulation
- Low sex drive
- Caffeine either leaves you jittery or doesn’t work anymore
- Low back pain
- Weight gain that’s hard to shift
BUT WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE SIGNS?
It’s important to understand that everyone is different. You may have some of these symptoms but not others. In the same way that one person who has a cold may have a runny nose and blocked ears, but another may have a cough and a sore throat, adrenal fatigue can manifest in different ways for different people.
But if you can identify with at least a third of the above points or more, it would be worth investigating further.
SO YOU’RE TICKING THE BOXES FOR ADRENAL FATIGUE. WHAT NEXT?
You may want to consider pathology testing to see where things are really at. I often recommend a saliva test called a Cortisol Awakening Response for my clients. It measures the levels of cortisol at six different points – upon waking, waking + 30min, waking + 90min, midday, 3pm and 9pm. This way we can see what stage of adrenal dysfunction you’re dealing with, and how it fluctuates throughout the day.
HEALING WITH HERBS AND SUPPLEMENTS
There are loads of wonderful herbs and supplements you can use to support the body and mind. Many are adrenal tonics and restoratives, but it’s also important to also consider using remedies that support the nervous system, immune system, thyroid, female hormones, and other parts of the body that are under stress. Remember – everything is connected!
When it comes to nutritional supplements, B vitamins (especially B6), vitamin C and magnesium are staples in most of my adrenal fatigue prescriptions. I also consider zinc, a mineral that becomes depleted during times of stress, and L-tyrosine, an amino acid that helps with adrenal hormone production. It’s also worth getting iron levels tested, as anaemia (and even low ferritin – your stored iron) can contribute heavily to fatigue symptoms.
When energy levels are depleted, adaptogen herbs like Withania (Ashwaghanda), Rhodiola, Rehmannia and Holy Basil are often used in herb mixes, along with Siberian ginseng. Astragalus and medicinal mushrooms (like reishi and cordyceps) may be used if there’s severe fatigue, chronic fatigue, a virus present, or poor immunity. Other ginsengs might also be considered, but it’s important not to overstimulate the system, especially when cortisol levels are high.
Licorice is also a staple in many adrenal formulas, however, larger doses are known to increase the amount of circulating cortisol in the body, so be careful, and only use it if cortisol is low!
If cortisol is high or anxiety is present, calming herbs like Passionflower, Oats, Lavender and Skullcap are some of the most commonly prescribed herbs.
A separate formula may be used at night time to help with winding down and sleep.
The most important thing to remember is that the perfect combination of herbs and supplements is going to be different for each person – what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. It should always be taken on a case by case basis rather than employing set protocols, or taking a remedy because it worked for someone else.
HOW TO EAT TO ENERGISE YOUR BODY
Eating a nourishing diet is a MUST if you want to give your adrenals the best possible chance to heal. It’s crucial to make sure you’re getting good nutrition into the body, while avoiding any foods that are going to make your problems worse.
When choosing what to eat, it’s important to consider the following goals:
REDUCE INFLAMMATION Avoid all foods that you know you’re sensitive to. Not sure? Cut out the gluten and dairy, and consider food allergy and intolerance testing.
MAXIMISE NUTRIENTS Include a wide variety of colourful foods with each meal and eat the rainbow. Skip the white foods in favour of green, red and orange veggies. Eat wholefoods rather than processed. Opt for nutrient dense foods like nuts, seeds, berries, dark, leafy greens, and cruciferous veggies.
BALANCE BLOOD SUGAR This is super important! If you are having energy slumps or brain fog at about 10:30am or 3:30pm, listen up – it could be due to your blood sugar. When too many fast-burning carbohydrates or sugars are eaten with a meal, or an inadequate amount of protein, insulin is produced in higher amounts. This can then lead to an energy slump less than 2 hours later (sometimes as fast as 45 minutes). The carbs and sugars may be stored as fat around the belly area, you are highly likely to experience sugar or carb cravings, which places more stress on the adrenals.
To keep blood sugar stable, each meal should contain:
- A palm-sized portion of protein – so about 200-250g of meat, fish, chicken, or legumes, 2 eggs, or a scoop of dairy free protein powder. This should make up 1/3 of your plate.
- The other 2/3 of your plate should be slow burning carbs – think salads, greens, colourful veggies, sweet potato, or a mix of veggies and a small amount of gluten free wholegrains/pseudo-grains (like brown rice or quinoa).
Balance your blood sugar and you will feel more energised and ready to face whatever challenges your day has to offer.