Adrenal fatigue, the stress syndrome of the 21st century
Adrenal fatigue. In this blog I would like to discuss the greatest epidemic of Western society, next to insulin resistance: adrenal fatigue, also called burnout. Adrenal fatigue may occur when we are chronically exposed to stress.
What Happens In A Stress Situation?
Our stress reaction was developed in prehistoric times, when we were subjected to real dangers. For example when a dangerous predator or enemy crossed our path. To survive, we had two options: fight or flee. To enable these, a lot of energy had to be released in as short a time as possible. Raising our blood-glucose levels was our body's response.
The adrenal glands play an important part in this raising of the blood-glucose level in stress situations. After all, the adrenal glands produce the hormones adrenalin and cortisol, which ensure the conversion of glycogen in liver and muscles, and proteins in muscles, into blood glucose as quickly as possible. Next to raising the blood-glucose level, cortisol is also the most important anti-inflammatory agent in the body. Which is logical really, because any inflammations or wounds sustained during a fight or flight would reduce our chances of survival.
Stress Influences In This Day And Age
In fact, our body uses the same system today, during modern stress influences, as it did on the old days in order to save our lives. Except that our stress load is totally different. The stress we experience today does not usually involve a life-threatening situation, but represents an accumulation of minor stress loads at work, in our private lives, in our present-day society with its information and communication overload, overeating, and sometimes even overtraining. Usually no acute traumatic situation is involved, but a chronic accumulation that may eventually become too much. As a result, we are no longer able to cope with any stress at all. In nature, an antelope fleeing from a lion will be peacefully grazing away within just 5 minutes, while a human being having faced a trauma may end up on the therapist's couch years after the incident.
I'm sure you have people among your acquaintances who have worked very hard for ten years or so, seemingly invincibly. Then, suddenly, they are burnt out. They fall from one illness into another and need years and years to even remotely resemble their old energetic selves once again.
Explanation On The Basis Of Hormones
This is easily explained on the basis of the functioning of glands and hormones. To cope with stress, the adrenal gland produces the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. As long as this is sufficient, all will go well. However, in case of a chronic stress load, it may occur that the adrenal glands have had to produce so many of these hormones that the glands are totally depleted. When that happens, not enough adrenalin and cortisol are being produced. When that happens, adrenal fatigue has occurred. Besides being unable to stabilise blood-glucose levels, the body will have more difficulty fighting inflammations, preventing the immune system from properly doing its job. Well-known symptoms pointing to adrenal fatigue include:
- Low blood-glucose levels causing dizzy spells
- Craving for sweet foods
- Inflammations taking over and allergies developing or worsening
- Autoimmune diseases
- Low blood pressure
- Craving for salty foods (aldosterone is made from cortisol and will raise blood pressure)
- Trouble getting up in the morning and going to sleep at night (cortisol will normally kick you awake)
Prevention And Cure
As you can see, it is dangerous to let it get this far. Adrenal fatigue may result in dangerous inflammations and autoimmune diseases.
Next to checking the symptoms, it is possible to have a cortisol profile determined by a physician, using saliva tests. Make sure the physician concerned knows what adrenal fatigue is. Regular medical protocols only involve cortisol values for Addison's disease and Cushing's syndrome.
It is very important, after reading the symptoms and if you suspect adrenal fatigue, to tackle the causes. Try to find out which stress sources have the most impact on you. Focus on these sources and determine, if necessary by consulting a coach, how this stress may be reduced in order to allow your adrenal glands to be restored. Be aware of the fact that, if adrenal fatigue is actually the case, it will not suffice to go on a week's holiday.
Important Stress Sources
- Work/career: Examples of solutions include improve delegation methods and time management, a change of position, and working fewer hours.
- Private life: Solutions may include help in case of trauma handling, family or relationship coaching, and cognitive behavioural therapy.
- Food: Too much sugar, chemical E numbers, pesticides, and food for which you may be intolerant or allergic may be stress sources that can be avoided. The Hormone Balance Diet is hypoallergenic, and chemical E numbers and pesticides are avoided. Still, you may have a rare intolerance or allergy that is not included in this programme. Therefore, it is wise to keep a diary to find out whether other allergens may play a part.
- Pollution, allergens, and toxins from the environment.
Reducing the stress load and introducing various forms of relaxation, yoga, meditation, and coaching may tackle the cause of adrenal fatigue. Still, if the adrenal glands are extremely depleted, additional actions may be needed. Sometimes, a physician may decide to temporarily supplement a low dose of cortisol to give the adrenal glands some leeway and suppress more dangerous inflammations. Complaints involving a low blood pressure may be alleviated by taking some more unrefined salt, e.g. Himalaya salt or Celtic sea salt. In other cases, it may help to take supplements such as vitamin C (3000 mg) and rhodiola.
Another reaction of the body to stress and adrenal fatigue is a slowing down of the thyroid gland. This may be seen in the blood if a lower free T3 level is observed, rather than low levels of TSH and free T4. Often, the cause lies with the adrenal glands, rather than the thyroid gland. I would therefore focus on the adrenal glands if this is the case.