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Your adrenal glands play a big part in how your body feels & specifically your energy levels from day to day. Located on top of each of your kidneys, the adrenal glands are quite small – measuring in at 5cm in length and weighing about 5 grams each. They consist of two main parts – the cortex and the medulla. The cortex produces several very important hormones, two of which are essential to human life – cortisol (which we’ll discuss in detail) and aldosterone (controls blood pressure through our salt / water balance).
Cortisol has many effects (see below), & is released in response to stress:
- acts as an anti-inflammatory, slowing down allergic reactions & depressing the immune system
- constricts blood vessels causing an increase in blood pressure
- heavily involved with metabolism of carbs, fats & protein.
The stress causing cortisone release may be mental, physical or chemical (e.g. relationship tension, work stress, over-exercise, exposure to toxins or dietary irritants). I am sure you can imagine just how many of us (in our busy, active, overworked lives) would experience these three types of stresses day in and day out! It would make sense that over short intense periods in our life, our adrenal glands get such a work out that they can eventually reach breaking point and become ‘fatigued’. It’s estimated that 80% of people around the world suffer from some degree of ‘adrenal fatigue’, a condition that most of the medical world doesn’t recognise unless a case becomes so severe that it is diagnosed as the rare Addison’s disease. This is attributed to the fact that common blood tests can’t reliably measure such small drops in adrenal function, but the body does!
Common symptoms of ‘adrenal fatigue’ are:
- feeling lethargic in the mornings & in the afternoon, particularly between 3pm to 5pm. People with this condition will often put off going to bed, even when feeling tired (which is actually one of the main causes / aggravating factors).
- having trouble getting to sleep due to stress / ‘can’t switch off’.
- ‘brain fog’ / difficulty with concentrating and memory
- Lowered blood pressure and blood sugar
- feeling lightheaded especially when standing up from a sitting or lying down position
- a higher likelihood of contracting the flu and other respiratory diseases
- tendency to gain weight predominately around the waist area
- unexplained pain in the back or neck regions
- PMS & irregular periods for women
- reduced libido – particularly women
One of the more negative impacts of adrenal fatigue becomes apparent when people start relying on ‘stimulants’ like the ‘three or five times a day coffee hit’, energy drinks, chocolate or foods that are high in sugar to perk them up. We all love a good coffee for the day but going overboard with stimulants masks the ‘burnout’ of adrenal glands, & stresses them further.
So the real clincher is… understanding that stress (mental, physical & chemical) gradually exhausts the ability of the adrenal glands to make sufficient amounts of hormones – mainly cortisol – which helps us deal with the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. It’s like running your car out of fuel…
If you think you may have ‘adrenal fatigue’ consider these factors:
- Take a chill pill bro! No pills here but remember that stress = adrenal fatigue, so find helpful ways to reduce that workload at the office, walk away from or resolve that conflict, consider taking up meditation or light yoga which is soothing to the soul – or even going for a light walk during the early morning or afternoon can you put you in a better frame of mind.
- Take the coffee train off the tracks for a while and reduce the amount of stimulants you use. These are covering up the real symptoms of your body – which is to crying out for some rest and replenish time! (Read up about energy drinks and their nasty impact on the body & you will be sure to find more reasons not to drink them!)
- Heavy exercise can act as a stimulant, & on an empty stomach can cause cortisol release (& muscle breakdown). – Low carb diets whilst exercising intensely / frequently can stress the adrenals.
- Sleep is extremely important. Try to aim for 8 to 9 hours a night, do not procrastinate and find something else to fill the time, your body NEEDS to rest!! A rule like ‘no screen time for at least an hr before bed’ is good too, & if you are ever in a position to have a 20 minute nap (“the power sleep”), do take the opportunity, this again helps heal the adrenals – it’s just like the bank – regular deposits help you save the energy (coffee to keep going is like raiding the savings account when the everyday account is empty – not a great long term plan!)
- Get a massage regularly (helps to switch off the fight or flight response).
- Consider switching a high sugar / carb diet (simple carbohydrates) to a low glycaemic diet as high sugar levels (& the consequent drops) will increase stress on the body, which in turn churns the over production of cortisol again. This can be a dangerous cycle because cortisol then interferes with the body’s ability to metabolise sugar. (High cortisol leads to high belly fat!) The way you eat your food is just as important – don’t eat fast and don’t eat on the run – sit down to eat & let your digestive system do it’s job without the stress. Leave the phone on silent / off.
Sometimes making changes like this can seem difficult, but taking steps to make at least one change will get you on the way to healing the increasingly common problem of adrenal fatigue.
Thanks to Peter Woods for his blog contribution :)