You’re exhausted, restless and on edge. But that’s normal, right? Yes – or it could be adrenal fatigue. Here are 10 things you need know.
Adrenal fatigue is the over-achiever’s affliction.
It occurs when your adrenals (two walnut-sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys) pump out extra quantities of hormones, such as cortisol, adrenalin and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) to compensate for non-stop schedule and chronically raised stress levels. Trouble is, these hardworking glands are designed to release these hormones only in spurts – when you need the extra energy and focus in response to a perceived threat. So if feeling up against it is your status quo, the result can be large amounts of these hormones circulating in your system, and your adrenal glands becoming overtaxed. When supplies eventually become depleted, your body is left out of whack and you feel jittery, exhausted and overwhelmed. ‘If you’re constantly on the go, you’re guaranteed to take on more stress than you can cope with,’ explains Marek Doyle, a nutritionist and hormone specialist. ‘Your adrenal glands may suffer.’
Just because you’re tired doesn’t mean you’re adrenally stressed.
But feeling on-your-knees exhausted and flooded with irrational anxiety about the day ahead could indicate adrenal fatigue. ‘Your increased adrenal output gets to the point where supplies run dry and levels of hormones, such as cortisol, plummet,’ explains Doyle. ‘That’s when people feel awful. If you have low levels of cortisol and DHEA, your brain will panic, and you may feel excessively anxious, unable to cope, exhausted and on edge.’
Good stress, bad stress – your body still releases adrenaline.
That’s why even ostensibly good pressures – moving in with your boyfriend, taking on an exciting new job – you can contribute towards adrenal fatigue if your life is already overflowing with work commitments, a jam-packed diary and very little downtime. Your body will still release adrenalin and cortisol into your bloodstream as a way to keep up and, when its supplies run dry, you’ll feel jittery, exhausted and unable to cope.
‘It’s the job of your adrenals to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source,’ says James Wilson in his book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome (£14.95, Smart). ‘Your resilience, energy, endurance and very life all depend on their proper functioning.’
If your blood sugar hits a low, your adrenals will hammer out hormones.
‘That’s why regular snacks every three to four hours are crucial,’ says Tim Jones, health and fitness specialist at tjfpersonaltraining.com. Not allowing yourself to get ravenous avoids placing stress on your adrenals. Good, high-protein snacks to stabilize blood sugar include nuts, boiled eggs and chicken.
Wilson says, ‘If you suspect you’re adrenally fatigued, ditch the coffee and sugar, as they stoke imbalances by spiking blood-sugar levels.’ He also recommends eating within the first hour of waking and having a small snack near bedtime.
Your GP could well miss it.
The medical establishment doesn’t fully buy into adrenal fatigue and, as a result, it’s rarely diagnosed by doctors. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the key signs of adrenal fatigue – exhaustion, trouble sleeping, feelings of panic and of being unable to cope – mimic the classic symptoms of depression. ‘A huge number of patients are being dismissed – or offered antidepressants as a token measure, which is the last thing they need,’ says Doyle. It’s most commonly diagnosed by naturopaths after a lengthy consultation, and a blood, saliva or urine test to measure hormones. If adrenal fatigue is suspected, your practitioner will overhaul your diet and lifestyle, and suggest taking vitamin supplements. In severe cases, a naturopath may prescribe a replacement regime for the hormone DHEA.
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Your body clock seems to be out of sync.
If you’re restless at night and exhausted during the day, it could be a warning sign. ‘Sufferers follow a typical pattern of behaviour,’ says Jones. ‘They find waking up in the morning extremely difficult and feel completely exhausted, then reach for the caffeine in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon lulls, as well as regular sugar hits. They’ll also find it hard to get to sleep at night.’
Stiff and sore muscles can be a symptom.
When you’re stressed, blood is diverted to the brain and major organs, like the heart, telling you a threat is perceived. This can cause raised shoulders, stiff upper back and neck, and stiff leg muscles. Usually, the immediate threat or stress is short-lived and the body returns to normal. But if you’re living with adrenal imbalances due to chronic stress, this will become your ‘resting state’ instead of a temporary response to stress.
Your adrenals hate long workouts.
‘Don’t exercise every day,’ warns Jones, ‘or for hours on end. Cut down on cardio. If you think you might be suffering adrenal fatigue, you should focus on getting your body back in balance.’ Supplement a gentler workout routine with daily yoga and mediation; try the guided meditation app by buddhify.com.
A glass of wine may actually help.
A moderate intake of alcohol won’t trigger adrenal fatigue. ‘Although alcohol has been shown to increase cortisol levels, it’s all about balance,’ says Jones. ‘If you’ve had a tough day and it helps calm you down, then have a glass. Just make sure your diet is low in refined carbs, sugar and caffeine to compensate.’ However, binge drinking is a no-no, as it can set off a blood-sugar crash. ‘Break that habit – it’s a major stressor for your adrenals.’
Can’t say no? Watch out.
If you rarely turn down an invitation or a request for help, you’re more likely to suffer from adrenal issues, say experts. ‘Being a people pleaser is often linked with adrenal imbalances,’ says Doyle. ‘You end up with a packed schedule that puts you under enormous strain. It’s very important to learn to say no to others.’ Get rid of the things in your life that cost you energy, but don’t give you much back. It’ll take a load off your adrenals.
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Sleep is your number-one priority.
A chronic lack of sleep can contribute to hormonal imbalances and make you susceptible to adrenal fatigue. ‘It’s more important than exercise, diet and drinking enough water,’ says Tim Jones. He advises you to banish Wi-Fi from the bedroom and , if you have your phone next to you at night, set it to airplane mode. ‘Dim the lights, and don’t stare at Instagram for ages before trying to go to sleep.’ Your best bet is to create a new routine. Soon you’ll associate it with better rest and it will become a habit.
Caffeine is your enemy.
It dehydrates you, stimulates cortisol levels and stays in your body for hours. ‘The half life of caffeine – the amount of time it takes for half an ingested dose to wear off – is about six hours, so having a cup of coffee in the afternoon could stop you sleeping,’ says Jones. ‘If you really can’t give it up, don’t have any caffeine after midday.’
Move around every half an hour.
‘If you’re desk-bound during the day,’ says Jones, ‘set the alarm on your phone and every half hour to an hour, get up and be mobile for 60 seconds. It kick-stars your metabolism and keeps your cortisol levels stable.’