Hormonal stress and adrenal fatigue: what it is, and how to fix it.
Do you ever feel so tired, you could just sleep all day?
And then, sometimes, maybe you DO sleep all day – but you’re still exhausted?
Put simply: there’s a chance your brain and your body are suffering from adrenal fatigue. That’s a state where chronic stress has placed so many demands on your adrenal glands (two little thumb-sized guys sitting on top of your kidneys), asking it to pump out so much adrenaline, cortisol, and DHEA, that you’ve got no “oomph” to carry out normal tasks, like taking a shower or driving your car. Everyday life seems exhausting, because it is! You don’t have the right fuels to accomplish basic things anymore.
Modern life demands a lot from us on a day-to-day basis: be it answering a constantly dinging smartphone, juggling work and relationships, keeping track of all the tabs on your web browser…our eyes, ears, and minds are processing constantly. If you want to heal your adrenals and by extension, the rest of your hormone system (more on that in a moment), what’s needed isn’t just sleep, but active intervention with the right set of tools.
WHAT IS ADRENAL FATIGUE?
First, let’s look at the physiology and function of your adrenal glands. These oh-so-important tissues pump out adrenaline, but also cortisol and DHEA, to help you deal with stressful episodes. Adrenaline makes your heart pound and pumps blood to your large muscle groups, cortisol gives you a quick jolt of energy, and DHEA helps you recover from these moments of stress. Think of DHEA as the post-op nurse, coming in to supply you with care and calm after surgery.
Now, you’ve probably heard it said that as cave people, saber toothed tigers prompted in us a healthy surge of stress, typically known as “fight or flight.” We evolved to survive those beasts, as our bodies prepared us for battle and made us alert in an instant. But these days, those stress surges come not from tigers, but from someone cutting you off in traffic, getting a mean email, or being asked to work 3 more hours to finish a deadline. The ”tigers” are everywhere, and our adrenal glands are constantly pumping out these expensive chemicals.
“Think of these adrenaline surges as withdrawals from a bank, to help you get through life’s rough spots,” says Dr. Christine Northrup about this distressingly common state. “If you have gotten into the habit of withdrawing adrenaline from your account too often, you’ll eventually be overdrawn and your adrenal glands will be overwhelmed. Then, you’ll have too little adrenaline when you actually need it.”
In other words? Exhaustion. All. The. Time.
In addition to stress surges, adrenal fatigue can arise from other causes, like illness. As Dr. James L. Wilson at AdrenalFatigue.org writes:
“Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, [adrenal fatigue] can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. As the name suggests, its paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep but it is not a readily identifiable entity like measles or a growth on the end of your finger.”
So how do you know if you’ve got adrenal fatigue? Here are the top 4 red flags.
1. YOU’RE TIRED, AND YOU DON’T KNOW WHY
Isn’t it the weirdest thing, when you get plenty of sleep (7-9 hours a night), but still wake up in a daze? Back to Dr. Northrup for a moment:
“You awaken feeling groggy and have difficulty dragging yourself out of bed. You can’t get going without that first cup or two of caffeinated coffee or tea. You not only rely on sugary snacks and caffeine to get through the day but find you actually crave sweets, particularly in the late morning or afternoon. (Perhaps you’ve even been diagnosed with hypoglycemia.) Your thinking is foggy and you have memory problems.”
2. YOU’RE GAINING WEIGHT
While we hate to be the bearer of bad news, stress-related weight gain – the kind that goes to your belly – is some of those most dangerous. Mark Hyman, MD writes:
“Experts have long known a relationship exists between stress, blood sugar and belly fat. In the face of chronic stress, insulin increases. This drives the relentless metabolic dysfunction that leads to weight gain, insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes.
When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that flood your system… increasing belly fat storage and generally wreaking havoc on your body.”
In other words, a cookie here and there isn’t going to kill you; it’s the cookie combined with the free-floating stress chemicals that tax your body. When your hormonal system is already in a state of fight-or-flight, it has far less resources to process the occasional sugar fix in a normal, healthful way.
3. YOUR MENOPAUSE OR PERIMENOPAUSE SYMPTOMS ARE REALLY BAD
When it comes to menopause and perimenopause, some change is expected (and hopefully manageable), but when you’re suddenly sleepless, tired all the time, gaining weight, and irritable for no good reason – it’s probably time to give those adrenals a break.
At the biochemical and cellular levels, alterations are taking place to help compensate for the decrease in adrenal hormones. Your body is trying to make up for under-functioning adrenal glands, but it’s doing so at a cost, and taking the rest of your hormonal system down with it. Adding insult to injury: your sex drive is gone! While sex can (and should) be a great stress reliever, isn’t it so frustrating when that, too, is seemingly robbed? Again: blame adrenal fatigue. DHEA and testosterone work in tandem to supply you with a healthy sex drive, but when those are suppressed, so is your desire.
4. YOU’RE GETTING SICK A LOT
In addition to being a soothing hormone, DHEA helps to neutralize cortisol’s immune-suppressant effect, thereby improving resistance to disease. But again, when it’s totally spent (due to overworked adrenal glands that are now running on empty), it can’t be your protector anymore. The result? A weaker immune system, with more colds, flu, and general yuckiness.
I THINK I’VE GOT ADRENAL FATIGUE! HOW DO I FIX IT?
There are a number of routes for active intervention, and we love Mark Hyman, MD’s article on the subject matter. He’s got 13 lifestyle suggestions for repairing your adrenal glands, and letting them charge back up like a battery. Remember: the answer here isn’t just sleep. It’s a restorative process whereby your hormonal system is healing, and to that end, you aren’t simply trying to ward off stress – you are intaking the nutrients you need to build back up your hormonal system.
Here then is where we come to a larger conversation on hormonal stress, and restoring hormonal balance. Because DHEA is the main ingredient your body uses to make testosterone, and because testosterone works in tandem with estrogen, and because estrogen works in tandem with progesterone…it’s truly the whole system you need to address. When it comes to hormones, it’s tricky (if not impossible) to “fix” them in a modular fashion. That’s why Dr. Hyman (and many hormonal experts) suggests supplementing to ease adrenal fatigue, and to get your whole hormonal system back in line:
“Take a multivitamin and nutrients to help balance the stress response, such as vitamin C; the B-complex vitamins, including B6 and B5 or pantothenic acid; zinc; and most important, magnesium, the relaxation mineral.”
Great suggestions, and of course, we’re big fans of chaste berry, and what it does for progesterone levels (which benefits estrogen levels, and by extension the rest of your hormonal system).
At the end of the day, though, adrenal fatigue is sadly so widespread that we all need all the help we can get. If you suspect you’ve got it, tests are available (remember to be tested at different times of the day, so the test is picking up your full spectrum of hormonal levels), and so are treatments. It IS possible to restore your adrenals and get them back to a healthy, functioning state – as long as you keep in mind that they work together with your whole hormonal system.
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