What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Tired after you wake up in the morning. Brain fog. Inability to focus. Reliance on caffeine to get you through the day.
Stress. Burnout. Fatigue. Inexplicable symptoms yet clearly suboptimal health.
Sound familiar? I’m guessing it probably does, to a lot of you at least. Chances are you’re experiencing (or have at some point) adrenal fatigue, also known as hypoadrenia.
Chronic stress and lifestyle are the primary contributors to adrenal fatigue, which results from an overstimulation of the adrenals. Over time, it leads to inconsistent levels of cortisol – and out of whack hormones.
Which means you probably feel like crap and can’t figure out why.
The biological underpinnings of adrenal fatigue
Over time, chronic stress taxes the adrenal glands and the HPA axis, which disrupts cortisol production and the functioning of other hormones. Initially the body produces excess cortisol to cope with stress.
This eventually depletes the body’s resources, and cortisol levels drop without enough building blocks to keep up with demand. Depending on the stage and severity, cortisol levels can also become dysregulated, with irregular peaks in the evening.
My Own Road to an Adrenal Fatigue Diagnosis
Well my own journey and telltale signs could be the subject of a lengthy post – so I’ll stick to the basics and save that one for the near future. In a nutshell: I hit full-on burnout nearly three years ago. I was suffering from horrible insomnia, felt perpetually stressed out and anxious, and I could barely focus or concentrate on work. Frankly, it got to the point where I could barely get through the day.
One day I woke up and my body felt completely heavy and drained while my head felt completely spacey. My gut told me that if I got in the car to drive to work, I wouldn’t make it. I stayed in bed all day, because that’s all I could do.
I hit burnout a full three years ago – my adrenals were fried even then. So why did it take so long for me to get this diagnosis? Well, I took a little detour through cancerland first. So that kinda threw all the systems in my body for a loop – who knew what was what.
And the cold hard truth is… pretty much everyone in in New York is stressed, so complaining of stress or insomnia isn’t exactly something the doctors pay much attention to. In fact, it’s a badge of honor for some.
My gut told me I needed to slow down, so I fought tooth and nail to cut my work schedule back and carve out some more legitimate boundaries. I tried to rest and relax and do more yoga. But I guess it was too little too late. It took a ‘real’ diagnosis of lymphoma to give me a major kick in the butt and make real changes to my life.
Adrenal Fatigue: The long road to healing
Fast forward to today – I’ve made tremendous strides on my healing journey. I’ve learned loads. I’ve healed respectably (perhaps impressively, to some) well from 600 hours of chemo. Gut healing took precedence. I figured the insomnia would eventually fall in line.
But the fact is I’ve been under-resourced, so picking all the pieces back up and putting the pieces back together has been quite a slow-going process. And navigating this convoluted road more or less on my own hasn’t been easy.
Fortunately, since I moved down to Miami, I’ve been thrown into a whole new world of health and healing. It wasn’t just the never-ending northeast winter keeping me down. It went deeper.
I’m still learning, still figuring things out, trial and error, every day. But the pieces are beginning to fit, and my symptoms fit ‘adrenal fatigue’ to a T. And apparently, healing adrenal fatigue takes time and patience.
The Adrenal Fatigue Controversy – Is it really a thing?
But before I dive in further, let’s address the fact that adrenal fatigue is not considered a ‘real’ diagnosis. Western medicine either views adrenal function as normal or in a state of complete failure – Addison’s disease.
Either-or. Black or white. Unfortunately we don’t live in a black-or-white kinda world. Especially when it comes to health, we live in a thousand-shades-of-gray kinda world. And we all know that something can function without functioning perfectly. Sure, I’m ‘functioning,’ but not optimally. Not even close.
The title of one study actually states: ‘Adrenal fatigue does not exist: a systematic review.’ This review of studies on adrenal fatigue available at the time found conflicting results, providing no definitive proof, diagnostic criteria, or accepted treatment protocol. Therefore it must not exist at all.
Well that’s what Western medicine would have us believe. No evidence of proof means it can’t exist. But actually that’s not how science works. We simply don’t have enough evidence to make them happy.
Adrenal fatigue: An untidy set of symptoms, an ambiguous diagnosis
This leads to one of the major difficulties with naming and diagnosing adrenal fatigue: symptoms can vary dramatically. And if there isn’t a clearly defined pathology, the medical community steers very clear of acknowledging a condition at all.
However if you think about what the adrenals are – glands that produce and regulate hormones – this ambiguity makes sense. Hormones impact almost every bodily function, so when you take a holistic view of seemingly disparate symptoms, impaired adrenal function actually begins to make a lot of sense.
Western medicine likes to tie things up in neat little boxes. This doctor deals with this box, that doctor deals with that one. One clearly defined set of symptoms – one diagnosis – one treatment protocol – ideally involving some kind of expensive surgery or pills.
The final nail in the coffin for adrenal fatigue – in the minds of Western medical practitioners – is that adrenal fatigue isn’t treated with medication. Treatment for adrenal fatigue consists mainly of diet and lifestyle shifts. There is most certainly a time and place for surgery or pills, however adrenal fatigue is not one of them.
Addison’s lies on the extreme end of the spectrum – where the adrenals are more or less injured or broken. But again, the absence of an extreme diagnosable condition does not imply perfect health. Adrenal fatigue lies on the ambiguous downward spiral between optimal health and crisis mode.
The Most Common Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal fatigue impacts both hormones and neurotransmitters. Because the endocrine (gland) system deposits hormones into the circulatory system, these changes can affect literally every single part of your body.
Even though we’ve acknowledged that symptoms can vary pretty widely when it comes to adrenal fatigue (again, because of the wide ranging effects of hormones), there are some common symptoms that most people experience.
The most common symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- Persistant fatigue each day
- Inability to cope with stress
- Over-reliance on caffeine and other stimulants
- Cravings for salty foods
- Higher energy levels in the evenings
- Weakened immune system
Other common symptoms and precursors of adrenal fatigue may include:
- Asthma, allergies or respiratory complaints
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Dry skin
- Exposure to environmental toxins and pollution
- Extreme tiredness an hour after exercise
- Food sensitivities
- Frequent urination
- Joint pain
- Lines in your fingertips
- Loss of muscle tone
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Low sex drive
- Lower back pain
- Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
- Poor diet (including crash diets and inconsistent nutrition)
- Prolonged stress due to financial hardship, bad relationships or work or home environment; any conditions that cause feelings of helplessness
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Stressful experiences like death of loved one, divorce or surgery
- Weight gain
So as you can see, symptoms of adrenal fatigue can be incredibly wide-ranging. Everyone has their unique circumstances and susceptibilities which explains why certain systems and bodily functions may be impacted in one person with adrenal fatigue, and totally different symptoms may show up in the next.
Stay tuned… in the next post I’ll detail all the telltale signs and symptoms I experienced over the years, and what I’ve been doing so far on this ongoing journey to heal adrenal fatigue!