Adrenal Fatigue: Signs, Symptoms and The Functional Medicine Approach

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It's time for bed, but you're wired. You're exhausted but you just can't get restful sleep. You toss and turn for hours and wakeup feeling like you never fully rested.

You may have anxiety during the day, but you're dependent on coffee or other stimulants to get you through the work day.

This scenario is reality for millions of men and women around the world and there is an answer to this problem--but you wont get it from your mainstream doctor.

They don't recognize this condition; adrenal fatigue.

Function of the adrenal glands

Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and produce 3 types of hormones. The adrenal glands consist of an outer and inner layer.

All steroid hormones require cholesterol for their production. [source].

The adrenal cortex is the outer layer of the adrenal glands, similar to the crust on earth.

This outer layer secretes the infamous stress hormone cortisol along with other glucocorticoids. Cortisol helps control inflammation in the body and is a key player in our stress and immune response. Cortisol also plays a role in blood sugar and blood pressure regulation.

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone which breaks town muscle tissue to increase blood sugar levels.

This is partially why highly stressed individuals have trouble burning fat or building muscle.

Do you have adrenal fatigue?The adrenal cortex also produces our sex hormones and allows us to maintain a libido. This is partially why adrenal fatigue, burnout, high stress and low libido may be experienced together.

Lastly, our adrenal cortex produces aldosterone which is a steroid that helps regulate our potassium levels and blood pressure by coordinating with the kidneys.

People with low aldosterone commonly crave salt and may feel lightheaded when going from a lying or sitting position to standing up.

The inner region of the adrenal gland is called the medulla.

The medulla produces adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine. This is where our "fight-or-flight" system comes from.

This system becomes "stuck on" when you're exposed to chronic stress, eventually sapping your energy levels.

Causes of stress

You can assume most that people in the developed world have some level of adrenal fatigue for a myriad of reasons:

  • Chronic stress
  • Blood sugar dysfunction
  • Overconsumption of sugar
  • Low thyroid function
  • Inflammation
  • Food intolerances
  • Poor gut health
  • Autoimmunity
  • Low cholesterol (mostly from statins)
  • Not enough dietary fat
  • Type-A personality
  • Too much coffee and stimulants
  • Too much exercise
  • Heavy metal toxicity (mainly too much copper)
  • Low zinc status
  • Lack of fatty acids
  • Poor self esteem
  • Harboring anger and hatred
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Not enough play time
  • Taking yourself too seriously
  • Lack of laughter

While some of these play a bigger role than others, these are all important factors to look at when you are self-treating or working with a qualified functional medicine practitioner.

The stages of stress

Do you have adrenal fatigue?

Take a good look at this chart. Where do you currently lie?

The reason that we hear about stress so often is because the modern world presents new inputs, incomprehensible to our ancient ancestors, or even our grandparents.

iPhones, tablets, computers, emails, social media, notifications, TV, YouTube and more are constantly pulling us away from the rest-and-digest mode that we are designed for about 99% of our lives.

We are designed for stressful events about 1% of the time.

Our ancestor would have been walking in the woods when they startled upon a bear.

For the next 3 minutes, they would have either been running from the bear or hunting the bear. That fleeting moment of stress would not leave a significant impact on the nervous system or adrenal glands.

What stress does

When we become overwhelmed with long-term stress we can experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Decreased tolerance to heat or cold
  • Aches and pains
  • Feel tired even after sleeping
  • Depression
  • Feelings that life is "unreal"
  • Lightheadedness and a poor sense of balance when sitting or standing
  • Fatigue and dizziness when fasting
  • Extreme energy and crash after a meal
  • Frequent colds
  • Sleep disruption or insomnia
  • Cravings for chocolate, caffeine and sugar
  • Mood imbalance and irritability
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues

and almost anything.

World renowned Functional Medicine expert, Dr. Mark Hyman and I discussed stress together on the podcast. He agreed with the concept that 95% of all health symptoms worldwide are either caused by or worsened by some form of stress.

To be a bit more specific, stress first tends to wreak havoc on our digestive system by shunting blood away from the gut and into the muscles to prepare for a fight, getaway or to the brain to help improve decision making.

Digesting a meal to breakdown the proteins into amino acids which fuel the brain becomes a luxury. As does reproduction.

You're running from a bear, even if that bear is just an email notification, so your body puts your sex drive and digestive enzyme production to the wayside.

Cortisol scavenges our precious muscle tissue to make a quick source of fuel (glucose) for the brain and body.

Even having a cell phone around us can create a stress response due to the radiation emissions [source]. If that doesn't seem concerning, our neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that allow us to have a stable, bright mood are also affected by cell phones [source].

Minimizing our exposure to stress and minimizing our response to stress is of the utmost importance.

How can stress cause so many diseases?

This excerpt from stress.com, dedicated to the "founder of stress", Hans Selye explains:

[intense_blockquote color="#f5f5f5" font_color="#333333"]Many of these effects are due to increased sympathetic nervous system activity and an outpouring of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-related hormones. Certain types of chronic and more insidious stress due to loneliness, poverty, bereavement, depression and frustration due to discrimination are associated with impaired immune system resistance to viral linked disorders ranging from the common cold and herpes to AIDS and cancer. Stress can have effects on other hormones, brain neurotransmitters, additional small chemical messengers elsewhere, prostaglandins, as well as crucial enzyme systems, and metabolic activities that are still unknown. Research in these areas may help to explain how stress can contribute to depression, anxiety and its diverse effects on the gastrointestinal tract, skin and other organs.[/intense_blockquote]

Stress can have effects on other hormones, prostaglandins, as well as crucial enzyme systems, immune function metabolic activities that are still unknown. Research in these areas may help to explain how stress can contribute to depression, anxiety and its diverse effects on the gastrointestinal tract, skin and other organs.

What can we do about this?

Since conventional medicine laughs at the idea of adrenal fatigue or dysfunction, it's important to work with a functional medicine practitioner that recognizes and treats this health issue at the root causes.

In the meantime, you can use these non-supplemental methods, that are free:

  • Engage in mild exercise. A study found that found that exercise prevents the anxiety-like behavior related to the stress response. Too much and/or too intense exercise taxes the adrenals. A good gauge to determine if your exercise is "good for you" is to pay attention to your energy levels after your workout. If you are much more fatigued after your workout than before it, you may want to tone it down a bit. Exercise should energize and vitalize you.
  • Avoid high-carbohydrate intake. The american diet is laden with an abundance of refined carbohydrates and sugar. The blood sugar fluctuations that occur with such a high-glycemic diet wears out the "PAL system", which consists of the pancreas, adrenals and liver. If you put stress on any part of this triad, symptoms arise.
  • Avoid horror movies and TV stimulation. Drama, the news and movies are stimulating and addicting to the mind and body. We seek these out for a short burst of fear-based energy. Find a show that makes you feel good if you insist.
  • Avoid loud and excessively stimulating music. Existing in the natural world was relatively quiet, much quieter than our modern world of chainsaws, diesel trucks and sound systems. Sound pollution not only disturbs humans, but other life forms as well. The guy blasting heavy metal to get through his workout may already be in adrenal burnout and not know it.
  • Seek out funny things. I've documented an increase in heart-rate variability (indication of a relaxed nervous system) during and after laughing. We all have different senses of humor. It's simple; find videos or things that make you laugh!
  • Don't take yourself so seriously. Looking at the lighter side of an issue can ease the whole response to it.
  • Use an acupressure mat. The body has various points that can be stimulated and activated to induce relaxation. Make this a regular practice.
  • Reduce cell phone and technology use. Find time to disconnect and completely get away from the inundation of WiFi, cell phones and other man-made electromagnetic fields.
  • Avoid heated arguments and don't feed them. We all end up in tense situations from time to time. Keep your cool and prevent an escalation.
  • Don't weave and speed through traffic. Driving amongst others is stressful enough. Weaving and speeding through traffic tells our body to escape. Drive defensively but passively. Don't let someone cause you road rage. Control yourself.
  • Try yoga. Yoga is not just a trend--it has thousands of years of practice and plenty of research proving the engagement of the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest mode of your nervous system.[source].
  • Go camping. Forest bathing, known as Shinrin-yoku to the Japanese, has been proven to normalize cortisol levels and blood pressure. Instead of a late night out on the town drinking alcohol, spare the health of your liver and circadian rhythm and opt for a night under the stars.
  • Go for a walk in nature. Nature deficiency is a major factor in our poor health and depression. Forest therapy has been proven to lower salivary cortisol and induce a calm nervous system. Depressed alcoholics even benefit from time spent in the forest and boost their immune system [source][source].
  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine and other stimulants. Caffeine is the world's most widely abused drug. It is effective, but it further depletes the adrenal glands due to its stimulating effects.
  • Go to bed by 10pm every night. Yes, even on the weekends.  A proper sleep cycle is essential to recovery and napping during the day may also be helpful in the beginning stages of your treatment.
  • Hug your friends and family. Our love hormone oxytocin is essential to detoxification and a feeling of happiness. Hug long and tight. Enjoy the people around you.
  • Avoid yelling and arguments as much as possible. Pumping up the adrenals with stress and anger will slow your recovery. This is a good excuse to practice solving altercations in a gentle manner.
  • Do fun things. Workaholics and those who think life is only about our duties are commonly stressed and fatigued. Find a minute to go for a walk and play frisbee with your friends. If you don't have friends, try making a few in a local meetup group.
  • Take epsom salt baths and try float tanks. Magnesium acts as a cofactor in hundreds of reactions in the body. Absorbing magnesium transdermally is a great way to calm the nervous system and enhance your brain function, since adrenal fatigue and brain fog coincide.
  • Generally take it easy. You can be your best friend or your own worst enemy. The perception of how you perform in life can be self-limiting and destructive. Make sure you celebrate the small wins and achievements and learn how to be content.

This topic is huge

Another entire article, or even a book can be written about the therapies that are helpful for adrenal fatigue such as herbs, botanicals and adaptogens.

We have reached 2000 words and I am left feeling like I've barely scratched the surface of this complex and pervasive issue in our modern world.

We have brought most of our fatigue and stress upon ourselves with globalization, 24/7 technology, poor economy, agriculture, industry and all of the supposed progress of modern life. We have many blessings and technologies that make our life more exciting and easier, but we must remember to take the simple road sometimes.

I hope this helps you and please share this with those who need help. Changing the world, starting a business, or even making it through your workday when you are fatigued is nearly impossible.

Remember that we can't help others until we help ourselves first.

Not Just Paleo now offers specialized salivary adrenal test kits to identify what stage adrenal fatigue you may be in. Evan Brand, the author and practitioner behind Not Just Paleo Functional Medicine Clinic will review your results and guide you towards healing via Skype or phone.

Resources Mentioned

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http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25332212

http://notjustpaleo.com/dr-mark-hyman

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12076339

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23852905

http://www.stress.org/about/faqs/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15666839

http://amzn.to/1sBWS7Y

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19735239

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21996762

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258312/

Alpha Brain

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24682350

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23121080

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24969491

Vitamin C and zinc

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15666839

http://amzn.to/1wEO2fJ

Shroom Tech Sport

Krill oil

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