Your health is on a continuum. On one end you have optimal health, and on the other, you have chronic illness. Your adrenal health works in the same way. You can be one step away from healthy and functioning, or you can have full-blown Addison’s disease, also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency. This creates a very large gap, and I find that many people fall somewhere within this spectrum.
To receive an Addison’s diagnosis, you must have lost 90% of your adrenal glands’ function, but you can still have adrenal issues without this diagnosis. Anything between optimal health and Addison’s disease is referred to as adrenal fatigue, a mild form of adrenal insufficiency that occurs when your adrenal glands are overstressed.
The primary role of your adrenal glands is to produce and regulate the stress hormone cortisol. Your adrenal glands also produce sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, and they produce your neurotransmitters, adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, and dopamine. These hormones and neurotransmitters regulate your metabolism and communicate with other organs, like your brain, kidneys, and reproductive system. However, chronic stress can suppress your adrenal glands, causing them to release insufficient amounts of these necessary hormones.
Causes of stress:
- lack of sleep
- poor diet (processed, junk food)
- stimulants (caffeine, sugar)
- rigorous work schedule
- emotional trauma (unhealthy relationships, death of a loved one)
- overtraining (marathons, training without rest days)
- lack of fun and excitement
We live in a very stressful world. We work 80-hour weeks, sacrifice our sleep, drink two cups of coffee to stay awake during the day, reach for sugary foods for more energy, and these habits affect us emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
When you engage in stressful activities, your body enters into the fight-or-flight mode, where it believes that you need a surge of energy in order to survive. The primary stress hormone in your body is cortisol. Since its function is to provide you with a burst of energy, cortisol increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system to save energy, and begins breaking down your storage of protein and carbohydrate. Over time, high levels of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, weaken your immune system, and eventually cause muscle wasting, if not properly addressed.
Signs of Adrenal Fatigue:
- unexplained weight loss
- body aches and muscle pain
- fatigue (difficulty getting out of bed in the morning)
- low blood pressure
- salt and sugar cravings
- shakiness or lightheadedness after skipping a meal
- dizziness upon standing
- feeling of tired and wired
- sleep disturbance
- low libido
- thyroid imbalances
- hair loss
- blurred vision
- severe allergies
How to test for adrenal fatigue:
Since we live in a toxic, high-stress world, I assume that most of my patients have some amount of adrenal fatigue. I listen to the symptoms and lifestyle of my patients in order to assess whether someone has adrenal fatigue. In addition, I use saliva testing if patients want to get a baseline level or track their progress.
Functional Medicine Adrenal Stress Profile
This saliva test can detect imbalances in the stress hormones cortisol and DHEA by taking four samples throughout the day. Imbalances in these hormones can affect energy levels, emotions, and lead to many other health concerns, such as anxiety, allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, depression, migraines, recurrent infections, menstrual difficulties and infertility.
How to treat adrenal fatigue:
It’s important to remember that your adrenal glands are not the underlying cause; they’re just caught in the crossfire. The best way to treat adrenal fatigue is to address the root cause: stress. I encourage you to think about your personal daily stressors, and take your health back into your own hands. If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, the most important thing you can do is to establish a routine. Below you can find some of my suggestions for establishing your routine.
- Go to bed at the same time every night (preferably before 10 pm) and get 8 hours of sleep.
- Learn to say NO when you have reached your limit.
- Do something relaxing every day (warm bath, walk in the park, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, etc).
- Don’t over-exercise. If you’re fatigued after your workout, you might want to scale down.
- Eat a protein-rich breakfast before 10 am.
- Consume fruit with a source of protein (nuts or nut butters).
- Avoid alcohol, sugar, gluten and dairy (toxic and inflammatory foods)
- Consider supplementation (adaptogenic herbs, B vitamins).
Adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt and cope with stress. This is my go-to treatment to support the adrenal gland, as we work together to find the root cause of your adrenal fatigue.
The brand I use in my clinic is Douglas Laboratories’ Adreno-Mend, which is a blend of Rhodiola rosea, Panax ginseng, and a number of other herbal extracts.
Vitamin B Complex is ideal for adrenal support. All B vitamins are critical for the chemical processes within the adrenal glands.
For added adrenal support, you can also take magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin C.
If you are curious about your own adrenal health, or would like further assistance in treating your adrenal fatigue, I highly recommend seeking a Functional Medicine practitioner in your area.