When was the last time you asked someone how they were and heard something like, “Gosh, I’m great. My hours are manageable at work. I’ve had lots of time to exercise and cook healthy meals, and at night, I sleep the deep, restorative sleep of a 3rd grader!”
If you’re sighing to yourself about how implausible that seems, you’re not alone. As a culture, we’re over-busy and under-rested. We face innumerable stressors everyday, from traffic jams to bad bosses to money worries. And, in some ways, we’ve come to take pride in our busy, stressful lives, regularly telling others about “how much we got done today” or “the kids’ crazy after-school schedule.”
The bigger problem? Unrelenting stress can lead to a condition called adrenal fatigue and it affects up to 80 percent of the population, says functional medicine practitioner Marcelle Pick, NP, OB/GYN. Many functional medicine doctors consider adrenal fatigue a modern-day epidemic — and many conventional doctors have never even heard of the condition. According to functional medicine doc Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Cure, adrenal fatigue is the most common hormonal imbalance in women.
Understanding Adrenal Fatigue
The adrenal glands are considered the body’s “shock absorbers” because they help us respond to and rebound from stress, says integrative practitioner Aviva Romm, MD.
For example, when we experience stress, the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, which tells our bodies to prepare for action. Our blood sugar revs up to power our muscles, we breathe faster, and our heart rates go up. (Evolutionarily speaking, this hormonal cascade helped us outrun tigers.) When the stress is gone (or when we’re safely out of the tiger’s reach), our systems switch back to low gear. Breathing slows down, heart rate normalizes, and the pancreas releases insulin to shuttle all that extra blood sugar back into our cells.
At least that is what’s supposed to happen. With adrenal fatigue, our bodies get ready for action — but then they never switch back out of action mode. That’s because our bodies can’t tell the difference between the stress of a pile of unanswered emails and the stress of outrunning a tiger, so the adrenals just stay ‘turned on’ all the time, responding to one stress after another. In a nutshell, adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands have been working so hard and for so long that they start to burn out — and a long list of symptoms can start to accumulate.
“We know scientifically that there are very serious side effects from stress,” says Pick, who refers to the condition as “adrenal dysfunction” and is the author of Is It Me or My Adrenals?. Here are just a few:
Trouble falling asleep even though you’re exhausted (feeling “tired and wired,” as Pick puts it)
- Sleeping through the night, but waking up feeling unrested and “draggy”
- Chronic exhaustion
- Weight gain, especially around the middle
- Hitting a big afternoon slump and feeling like you need sugar, caffeine, or a power nap (or all three) to make it through the day
- Craving sweets
- Craving salt
- Getting irritable quickly (and often)
- Lowered immunity and more severe allergic responses
- Brain fog
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Low libido
- Low-grade depression, anxiety
- Dry skin, dry hair
- For women, severe PMS and difficult perimenopause
Healing the Adrenals
Think you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue? Here are some powerful natural strategies for healing this vitality-robbing condition:
Balance your blood sugar. Keeping blood sugar steady is one of the most important factors in healing the adrenals. The blood sugar roller coaster (when you eat a high-glycemic food and your blood sugar surges up and then quickly crashes) puts a huge tax on the adrenal glands. To maintain steady blood sugar throughout the day, stick with whole foods that are high in protein and healthy fats; non-starchy, phytonutrient-rich vegetables, and low-glycemic fruit like berries.
Skip the caffeine. If you’re in the throes of adrenal fatigue, caffeine (and sugar) might be all you want. Fight the urge! Caffeine just sends your adrenal glands further into overdrive and can be a factor in getting too little and/or low-quality sleep. Speaking of which…
Prioritize sleep. When we sleep, the body heals. We often think of quality sleep in terms of duration — “I got eight hours last night!” — but truly restorative sleep is measured in a broader way, taking into account quality, depth, and even timing. For the most healing sleep, try these tips.
Identify your historical stressors. Daily stresses can definitely add up, but one massively overlooked area, according to Pick, is historical stress. If, as a child, you had “ongoing stress, and you were tiptoeing around your house, not quite knowing what kind of mood your parents or siblings were in, that caused your cortisol to surge,” says Pick. That translates into adrenals that are predisposed to send out a rush of cortisol at the first sign of stress. The remedy? “It starts with recognizing that you are not crazy, that something DID actually occur in the past” that taxed your adrenal system, says Pick. “But you don’t have to stay in your past. It doesn’t have to define you. Instead, it can give you strength going forward.”
Find a relaxation technique that works for you. The key clause here is “that works for you.” Meditation isn’t right for everyone. The important thing is to find an activity in which you’re completely absorbed or that puts you into a state of flow, whether that’s gardening, reading, knitting, cooking, swimming, walking in nature, doing cartwheels, or jigsaw puzzling. Our bodies and minds relax when we feel a sense of total involvement and energized focus.
Exercise, but keep it slow and steady. Overexercising makes adrenal fatigue worse because intense activity increases cortisol production (one reason why people who overexercise sometimes struggle with weight-loss resistance). Consider yoga or interval training — short bursts of energy followed by rest engages the rest-and-relax system in the body.
Consider adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens do exactly what their name implies: they adapt to your body’s unique needs. If you’re producing too much cortisol, they help slow down your adrenal response. If you’re not producing enough, they can help support healthy cortisol production.
Laine Bergeson is a longtime health journalist and functional nutrition educator and coach with Healthful Elements. She believes lifestyle medicine is a blockbuster drug.