By Desi Horsman, Clinical Nutritionist, speaker, wellness expert
Chronic stress and our modern lifestyle can affect the body’s ability to recuperate physically and emotionally.
These stressors may come in the form of intense emotions, physical bodily injury, overexertion, including excessive exercise, rushing through daily life, or even through environmental factors such as toxins.
Your adrenal glands regulate this stress response by producing essential hormones that impact many bodily functions. They sit atop your kidneys, and while they are small, they have huge responsibilities.
Under the daily demands of chronic stress, the adrenal glands eventually become too exhausted to keep up with the body’s cortisol demands and hormone production drops off to below normal levels.
Reading the signs of adrenal fatigue
Adrenal fatigue can mimic a number of disorders and isn’t always easily recognisable. Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, brain fog, weight gain and insulin resistance. Other symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Still feeling tired first thing in the morning with difficulty getting up.
- Junk food cravings (especially sweets and refined carbs).
- Mood swings.
- Decreased libido.
- Lowered immune system function.
- Need for stimulants, like sugar or the coffee, to get through the day.
- Low tolerance for stressful situations.
- Muscle weakness
- Lack of appetite and other digestive disturbances
- Fatigue no matter how much sleep you get.
- Feeling constantly tired.
A common scenario is waking up and being unable to function without a significant amount of caffeine, which gives you a boost of energy during the early part of the day.
But then your energy levels dip at around 2 – 3pm, which is when you need another boost of caffeine. During the evening you feel tired but “wired” and battle to sleep.
Adding more stress through exercise
Exercise is generally considered a beneficial form of stress, excessive or extreme exertion can be harmful and can, in fact, become a major cause of your fatigue.
When the adrenals are already overworked, exercising can add additional stress, which further depletes them. While adrenaline and norepinephrine are released during exercise, levels may rise due to be dysregulation if you have adrenal fatigue.
While this helps you feel great during your workout, a few hours later you’ll feel drained. Adrenaline is used as a stimulant and an energy source [which is an artificial support] and it may take you days to recover from that workout. You should feel invigorated after a workout and not extremely fatigued.
Your body’s energy reserves are also used up and you are already running on low energy. This can cause a complete burn-out as your adrenal glands get pushed beyond their limits, which can ultimately lead to a crash.
What to do if you have adrenal fatigue
High-intensity cardio exercise is a drain on your system, so it’s advisable to keep your heart rate low with activities like walking until your system re-balances. And avoid the weights until your system recovers.
When you return, start slowly and build up. Recovery is possible, but one step at a time. The key is not to avoid exercise entirely but rather participate in activities like yoga, walking, slow cycling or tai chi.
These options promote circulation and oxygenation which are essential for adrenal function without depleting energy reserves. There’s great danger of overdoing it during this phase, so listen carefully to your body.
Adrenal burnout recovery can be one of the toughest of all the hormonal imbalances, mostly because there’s no single thing that helps. Recovery depends on many interrelated factors.
Adrenals heal the fastest when you:
- Get a full eight hours of sleep.
- Take breaks during the day.
- Have a healthy digestion and a good bowel movement.
- Choose what works for you to de-stress after a busy day.
- Get out in nature at least once or twice a week
- Don’t over-exercise.
Eating for renewed vitality
The foods that work best to combat adrenal fatigue are similar to any well-balanced diet: whole foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables, especially leafy greens (organic where possible). Also include:
- Seeds, which are high in B vitamins and magnesium, and
- Fatty fish and organ meats for their zinc, omegas and vitamin D.
Those with adrenal fatigue may crave salty foods, which could be the body’s way of regulating blood pressure. Make sure it is high quality sea salt. It is also best to avoid sugar and refined carbs (anything from refined white flour), including heavily processed foods.
And if you depend on caffeine to get through your day, you’ll need to cut back or abstain as, it will overburden your adrenals and produces more cortisol, which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Supplements can also help. Consider the following:
- Adaptogens ‘tonify’, regulate and rejuvenate the adrenal glands. These include Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Licorice root and Siberian ginseng.
- Amino acids like L-tyrosine are critical building blocks of catecholamines, neurotransmitters and thyroid hormones that are depleted during stress.
- Vitamin C and the B vitamins play important roles in the production of stress hormones.
How we handle stress impacts our adrenals which is why it’s so important to work on making lifestyle changes. One great example is to pay attention to the fact that trying to be a perfectionist and pushing our bodies towards the achievement of high endurance goals, leads to high [and perhaps unrealistic] expectations. This pressure is a constant stress to the body. Review all aspects of your life and find balance.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.