Adrenal fatigue is a pretty popular topic in the holistic health community right now, and for good reason. People are feeling “off”, know something is wrong, and looking for answers. They are going to their family doctors, are lucky if their doctor is willing to do some blood work, only to be told that everything is “in the normal range” and to “eat less junk, exercise more, and get more sleep,” and sent home. If this is you, I challenge you not to accept this. You know your body better than anyone! You are more powerful than you know. I also understand that knowing where to begin is hard. That’s why I wrote this blog post. Today we are going to dive into what adrenal fatigue is, how to get properly tested for it, I will show you what is in your control to help reverse it, and get you started on the path to feeling good again.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue tend to brushed off as stress, lack of a good nights sleep, or many other reasons, but they happen for so long that those reasons just don’t work anymore. Your body is trying to tell you something is wrong. Pay attention! As time goes on they will go from mild and manageable to too much too ignore. Symptoms include:
- Low energy through the day and trouble getting out of bed
- Sleep issues
- Low thyroid function (hypothyroid)
- Inability to lose weight and weight gain
- Low or no sex drive
- Low blood pressure (dizzy when standing up is a sign of low blood pressure)
- Intense salt cravings
- Inability to cope with stress. Easily irritated, annoyed, and overwhelmed.
- Anxiety, mental exhaustion, depression and/or apathy
- Reduced immunity (you get every cold that goes around)
- Get cold easily
- Low stomach acid
- Muscle tightness, stiffness, soreness
- And more (1)
You can see why it can be difficult for allopathic doctors (your regular primary care physician) to give attention to, or even pin down the reason behind these symptoms. They seem to mimic so many other problems or thought to be normal parts of aging. I ask you to not ignore them! Listen to your body and start taking care of it today. (I’ll tell you how to take care of your body further down.)
What do the adrenal glands do?
First, we need to discuss what the adrenal glands are and what they do. The adrenals glands sit on top of your kidneys. If we even remember learning about them in anatomy and physiology from school, they are usually associated with being responsible for cortisol production (the fight or flight response) only. However, they do so much more than that! They are responsible for many of the functions necessary to stay alive and healthy including:
- Fight-or-flight response – needed to respond to life-threatening situations (as we already know)
- Energy production – carbohydrate, protein and fat conversion to blood glucose for energy
- Fluid and electrolyte balance
- Thyroid function (and thus helping regulate our metabolism, sex hormones, and sleep)
- Normalizing our blood sugar levels
- Regulating blood pressure
- Controlling the strength of our immune system
You can see why adrenal fatigue can cause the long list of symptoms above, and why it is actually a big deal.
So what is adrenal fatigue and what lifestyle factors cause it?
Adrenal fatigue is what happens when the stress of your life is too high for too long and your adrenal glands can no longer keep up with the demands you place on them. Occasional stress happens and does not harm adrenal function. It is that chronic, long term stress that depletes adrenal function. This stress comes in a variety of forms including:
We all know that chronic stress isn’t good for us. We are stress from work, unhealthy relationships, lack of boundaries with family, not getting enough exercise (sitting all day is stressful to the body!), family demands, college, demands schools place on our kids, loss of loved ones, and more. Life is just plain stressful these days and we don’t build in enough negative space in our lives for rest and rejuvenation.
Highly Processed Diet
On average Americans consume less that 2 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, take in 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and depend on boxed/frozen/fast foods for most, if not all, meals. This is called The Standard American Diet (abbreviated SAD), and is the root cause of most of the diseases on the rise today, and a contributing factor to adrenal fatigue. It is low in nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and causes inflammation in the body. By not incorporating the foods our bodies need to function, our bodies will be stressed out and depleted, basically like an engine running on fumes barely chugging along.
A little over one-third of adults in American do not get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Then there are more who do not get quality sleep in those 7-8 hours. They snore, they wake up to go to the bathroom during the night, they get hot flashes, have kids that need them, and the list goes on (source). Sleep deprivation causes extreme stress to the body and is linked to impaired brain activity, depression, weakened immune system, weight gain, raising cortisol levels (stressing the adrenals), and more. (source)
Chronic diseases are long-term stressors to the body. Not only do they causes us mental anguish, the demands they place on the body are far above the norm. The body doesn’t like being out of balance and is constantly working hard to be back to normal. This effort will stress the adrenals and can lead to adrenal fatigue.
4 stages of adrenal fatigue
Your body always tries to communicate with you when things are out of whack. Adrenals don’t go from fine to no longer functioning. It happens slowly and each stage has its own set of symptoms, going from mild to severe. We are going to dive into the 4 stages now.
Stage 1: Acute
This first stage is usually related to a life event, such as a death, birth, move, and the like. There are no major changes that happen in the body and your body is most likely to go back to normal once the dust settles in your life. Symptoms in stage 1 are feelings of being alert, having a ton of energy but tired by the end of the day. You don’t need to do anything beyond self-care.
Stage 2: Resistance
Stage 2 is where most people in American fall today. The stress is becoming chronic and the adrenals begin to be unable to keep up with body’s demand for cortisol. In this stage you may experience symptoms including:
- Daytime anxiety and/or irritability
- Caffeine, salt, and/or sugar cravings
- Trouble falling asleep, insomnia, and/or nighttime awakening
- Catching every single virus that comes along
- Weight gain (metabolism becomes sluggish)
- And lowered sex drive.
This stage is when you’re going to really need some extra TLC and can take a few months to recover from.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
At this stage, your body is completely unable to keep up with cortisol requirements. It tries to compensate but just can’t keep up. You’ll start to experience
- Abnormal blood sugar level,
- Unstable blood pressure,
- Anxiety, irritability, and/or depression
- Muscle pain, stiffness, and/or soreness
- Excessive and chronic fatigue and exhaustion
- Chronic Fatigue
- Waking in the middle of the night
- Intense salt cravings
- Sensitivity to light
- Easily tired out during workouts
- Slowed recovery from…everything
- Brain fog
- Poor digestion (gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and everything in between)
- Constantly coming down with a cold and/or virus
- Intense PMS symptoms
- Intense menopause symptoms
- Sensitivity to cold
- Severe allergies
- Extremely low sex drive and interest in sex
- Apathy towards life and/or food
- And more.
At this stage, it could take a year or more to recover from. It won’t be a quick fix, will require you to make self-care your number one priority, and I highly recommend partnering with a naturopathic or functional medicine practitioner well versed in adrenal fatigue to guide you to the herbs and supplements that will support your body and help you feel better faster.
Stage 4: Failure (the only one your regular doctor might recognize as legit)
Stage 4 is the only stage your regular family doctor will recognize. At this stage, you have become “clinical.” Once you have become clinical it is very difficult to recover from. Your adrenals are no longer able to make hormones. If it is repairable, it can take up to two years and maybe require hormone replacement. At this stage is will experience symptoms worsening of all symptoms listed above. Let’s never reach this stage! You have the power to take care of yourself now.
How to test for adrenal fatigue properly
There are two different tests out there; a blood draw and a cortisol saliva test. A blood draw is very unlikely to detect adrenal fatigue. Cortisol rises and falls throughout the day and looking at one window cannot tell you what is going on in your body. The best type of test is what I call “the spit test,” more properly known as cortisol saliva test. I highly recommend getting the test through a natural health practitioner (you can find my favorite practitioners here) instead of doing the test on your own through the mail. This test gives us the full picture of what is going on inside your body throughout the day. For this test, you will spit into tubes at very specific times throughout the day, then send them to a lab. The results are then sent to your practitioner, they will interpret the results, and help you get on the best course of action for your body.
Natural ways to recover from adrenal fatigue
Obviously, we want to feel better. We want to wake up energized, have the energy to get through the day, have stable blood sugar, and a healthy sex drive. To get back to feeling amazing every single day, you’re going to have to make some changes (for the better).
This diet eliminates all the highly inflammatory foods which stress the adrenals; grains, legumes, vegetable oils and refined sugar. You can heal the adrenals with a vegetarian with careful planning but impossible to do on a vegan diet.
Eat within 30 minutes of waking
Eating within 30 minutes of waking helps to balance cortisol levels. I’ve had clients really struggle with this but it’s really important for your recovery. If you just can’t choke food down, try starting with a handful of sunflower or shelled pumpkin seeds for a couple days, then start incorporating more protein rich foods. Slowly work your way up to the 40g of protein I recommend next.
Consume 40g of protein for breakfast
Expert Chris Kesser recommends a very high protein breakfast to promote stable blood sugar throughout the day. Your carbohydrate digesting enzymes peak in the evening (which is why we crave sweets at night!), so for the sake of your digestion and hormones, enjoy your favorite starchy veggies with dinner instead of breakfast. If you just can’t get 40g of protein down, aim for at least 25g. I recommend foods like eggs, meat, and non-starchy vegetables for breakfast.
Add sea salt to your meals
Adrenal fatigue reduces the hormone aldosterone, the salt-monitoring hormone and thus, salt levels are depleted. Having adequate salt levels is essential for maintaining healthy blood pressure and if it is too low, will cause dizzy spells. This is why you are craving salty foods! I recommend liberally salting the meals you cook with sea salt (it’ll make your food taste great too), and adding a pinch of water to your water throughout the day.
Don’t go below 100g carbs per day
Now is not the time to go keto. You’ll feel worse and won’t get the results you’re seeking! No one needs that. Enjoy fruit and carb-rich vegetables in the afternoons and evenings.
Eat lots of healthy fats
I preach it all the time. Fat doesn’t make you fat and it’s necessary for vibrant health. Going paleo/primal means you are cutting out major calorie sources. Protein, veggies, and fruit won’t sustain you, promise. Healthy fats include ghee, lard from pastured animals, virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and avocados. Also, include some nuts and seeds but be careful not to overeat them. You need anywhere from 40-70% of your calories from healthy fats. Avoid all vegetable oils including corn, soy, canola, sunflower, safflower, and grapeseed oil.
Eliminate all caffeine and alcohol (for the recovery period)
Caffeine and alcohol only stress the adrenals more. So for a time I recommend you abstain from both (or limit as much as possible). Switch to herbal teas and mocktails instead.
Get plenty of sleep
I know sleep hasn’t been high on the priority list. There is just too much to do! I fell into this trap too. If you want to feel better, sleep has to become your number one priority. Go to bed and wake up within a 30-minute window every single day, including the weekends, and get between 7-9 hours.
Avoid strenuous exercise for one month
Now is not the time to do intense cardio sessions or train for a fitness competition. Instead take up yoga, tai chi, or pilates, walk around your neighborhood, and garden. After one month you can start working out more intensely and see how you feel. Honor what your body is telling you!
Lighten your load
We tend to overbook ourselves, with very little negative space in our lives for rest or even for life to happen. Now is the time to learn to say no, ask for help, and leave time for rest.
Adaptogenic herbs are these amazing herbs that have the ability to adapt to the needs our bodies have. (source) This means they help increase energy, improve the quality of our sleep, and decrease stress. (source) Really amazing stuff! I like Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health Daily Support.
Not only is vitamin C great for the immune system, it is essential for your adrenal function. Your adrenals use vitamin C producing hormones, especially cortisol. When vitamin C is low, they freak out and actually produce more cortisol which increases anxiety, impacts blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and leads to weight gain. However, DON’T reach for Emergen-C, or run to Costco for some cheap vitamin C. They synthetic stuff isn’t easily used by the body, made from GMO corn, and destroys the bacteria in our gut causing other issues. Instead, reach for food based vitamin C such as Camu Camu or Acerola powder.
I know, I know. It’s gross to think about, but liver is seriously amazing for our health. Liver is the most nutrient-dense food on the planet and provides us the most bio-available form of vitamin A. Unfortunately only about 10% of plant carotenoids can be converted into a usable form of vitamin A for the body. Low levels of vitamin A have been linked to thyroid issues, and the adrenals are a big part of thyroid health. You can consume liver by eating pate, blending it up and adding to meatballs (I’ll add my recipe soon!), or by taking desiccated liver capsules.
Consuming small amounts of animal glands is a traditional treatment practiced around the globe. I have done this treatment and it really helped. Your naturopathic practitioner will let you know if this is a good treatment for you.
Hormones and Pre-Hormones
I recommend talking to your naturopathic doctor to discuss this therapy.
Always talk to a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor about which supplements and the dosages will work best for you. Check out my preferred practitioner here.
My Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Story
As much as I’m a health coach, I’m also human. 4 years ago I had my second child, went through a custody battle, had my entire support system move out of state, was new to business, and life was just plain hard. It didn’t get easier for about 3 years and I got adrenal fatigue. I gained 20 pounds, developed cystic acne, was taking naps anytime I could, was constantly tired, became apathetic, cried often, and just felt like a chicken running around with my head cut off every single day.
Luckily I have people in my life who are knowledgeable, willing to help and hold me accountable. They straight up told me something was wrong and it was time to take care of it. I had the diet down, but I had neglected taking care of my emotional well-being. I wasn’t going out with friends, I wasn’t relaxing at the end of the day, sleep was out of my control since I had a young child, I wasn’t asking for help, I was “on” 24/7 trying to do it all.
Well that all changed. Self-care became my number one priority. I started asking for help, I set very specific times and days to work and did not work outside of those times, I visited my parents for a month, and I started taking supplements to support my adrenals. It took about a year to recover and feel normal again. I lost 14 of the 20 pounds gained, no longer suffer from acne, wake up before my alarm most days full of energy, have great work-life balance (most of the time), and no longer feel the need (or have the ability!) to nap during the day. I can tell you it was well worth the effort. I created good habits and continue to reap the benefits of them.
If you feel you are suffering from adrenal fatigue and wanted guided help incorporating the changes necessary to start feeling good again, contact me for your free consult. I would be honored to help you during this time.