What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is one of those conditions that bears similar symptoms to fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, ‘burnout’ and even Lyme disease. While it is much different from these conditions, it is nonetheless just as serious in nature.
The adrenal glands are two small glands that are part of the endocrine system. The adrenals sit on top of the kidneys and release hormones in response to stress. They also help to manufacture hormones (DHEA and cortisol), regulate blood sugar and the body’s mineral supply, help to produce and maintain body energy levels in conjunction with the thyroid, and produce stress-monitoring hormones.
Two of the adrenals main hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Adrenaline takes its name from the adrenals (surprise!) and deals primarily with short-term stress whereas cortisol is produced as a result of both acute and long-term stress.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t fatigue his adrenal glands because they only needed a burst of stress hormones during the occasional flight-or-fight situation. When we face chronic stress, however, it means that our adrenal glands fire constantly. This depletes the adrenal glands and compromises their ability to perform their tasks, like the controlled secretion of corticosteroid hormones. This leads to chronic fatigue, an impaired immune system, inflammation, and the other symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Whether prolonged stress is the result of emotional, environmental or physical causes, it is disastrous for the adrenals. Overworked adrenals will eventually crash and burn, leading to adrenal exhaustion or ‘burnout’, when the body is unable to maintain adequate adrenal hormone production. What results are symptoms of adrenal fatigue; people who experience this condition may have only a few or all of these symptoms.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Do many of these symptoms describe you? Then adopting an adrenal recovery diet and lifestyle is a key step in reaching your optimal health.
- Low energy through the day and trouble getting out of bed
- Low thyroid function (hypothyroid)
- Inability to lose weight
- Low or no libido
- Low blood pressure
- Dizzy when standing up
- Cravings for salt and sugar
- Anxiety, mental exhaustion, and/or depression
- Reduced immunity (you get every cold that goes around)
Why it is important to address adrenal fatigue?
- Without good adrenal function, the body can’t properly regulate blood sugar. This perpetuates inflammation and weight issues.
- Without healthy adrenals, the thyroid takes a big hit. It is impossible to fix hypothyroidism without also correcting adrenal fatigue.
- Women, it’s vitally important to fix your adrenal fatigue before menopause. Healthy adrenal function can prevent most – if not all – of the unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause.
- Once adrenal fatigue corrected, you’ll feel like you have your mojo back. You will be able to wake up with energy and motivation, you’ll have your libido back and you’ll have the energy to get through your day.
Natural Adrenal Fatigue Recovery
Three important factors work together to address adrenal fatigue: diet, supplements, and lifestyle. Of all three, the most important – and challenging – is lifestyle. Diet and supplements certainly improve adrenal fatigue, but you must make the lifestyle changes.
Start Primal. Immediately begin a Primal/Paleo diet. This eliminates grains, legumes, refined sugar and vegetable oils – all foods that stress the adrenals and increase inflammation. While it is possible, but difficult, to address adrenal fatigue on a vegetarian diet, it is impossible to reach optimal adrenal health on a vegan diet.
Breakfast done right. Enjoy breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up to help balance cortisol levels. A high protein breakfast will help to stabilize blood sugar throughout the day. Also, I recommend consuming a very low-carb breakfast (eggs, sausage and veggies, for example). Carbs can create drowsiness due to insulin release, and carb-digesting enzymes also peak in the evening. So enjoy your sweet potato with dinner, rather than breakfast.
Salt! Adrenal fatigue depletes salt levels in the body because it reduces aldosterone, the salt-monitoring hormone. Since adequate sodium in the blood is essential for healthy blood pressure, we can experience dizziness when aldosterone levels drop. Most people with adrenal fatigue crave salt. Liberally salt all your foods and add a pinch of salt to any fresh pressed juice or water you drink. Use only raw, unrefined sea salt, not processed table salt.
Eat regularly. Don’t skip a meal with adrenal fatigue. This is not the time to practice intermittent fasting! Your body is unable to properly monitor salt and glucose levels in your blood, so you must provide those factors frequently. Meals should focus on vegetables, healthy fats and quality animal protein. Carbohydrates should come from fresh fruits, root veggies, and starchy fruits/veggies like plantains. Fruit juices, refined sugars and grains should be avoided because they wreck havoc on your blood sugar.
Hydration. Essential for optimal health but don’t over do it here. I hear so often “I drink a gallon of water a day.” Without proper electrolytes this can actually cause more harm than good when trying to recover from adrenal fatigue. Aim for half your bodyweight in ounces of H20 per day. I recommend adding electrolytes to your water and sipping bone broth for hydration. Drink when you’re thirsty and avoid ALL diuretics.
Enjoy lots of good fats. Emphasize sources of healthy saturated fats from grass-fed butter and ghee, coconut oil, pastured egg yolks, and grassfed meats. Monounsaturated fats from avocado and unadulterated olive oil can also be enjoyed. Strictly limit nuts and seeds, because the fatty acid profile and anti-nutrients impair thyroid function and digestion. Avoid all plant oils, including canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, and hemp oil. Do not do low-fat… it will utterly undermine your adrenal fatigue recovery.
Say no to low carb. Expert Chris Kresser recommends a moderate carbohydrate diet for adrenal fatigue. He suggests aiming for about 20% of calories from carbohydrates. Favor fresh fruits and starchy vegetables for carb intake. A low carb diet exacerbates adrenal fatigue. During my short stint on a low carb diet (yes, I did try it before I knew better!) my adrenal fatigue symptoms drastically intensified.
No caffeine or alcohol. No no and no. You want to get better, right? Some caffeine is fine for healthy people, but not while you are in a period of recovery.
Sleep. Just sleep. More often than not, those who have adrenal fatigue have pushed sleep down low on their list of priorities. It’s time to move sleep to a number one priority. Be in bed, ready to sleep, by10pm (or earlier) each night for at least one month. It’s just one month, you can do it! After the month, depending on the severity of your adrenal fatigue, you may be able to have a more lenient bedtime but for best results, stick to a 10 bedtime. Allocate at least half an hour each day to simply rest. One of my favorite “constructive rest” practices is doing gentle stretching while listening to an audiobook. Visualization exercises and guided relaxation audios aid recuperation.
Stop intense exercise for a month. Avoid cardio and all other forms of strenuous exercise for 30 days. This is very important, because intense exercise wreaks havoc on exhausted adrenals by spiking cortisol. Short, slow walks (30 minutes) in nature are beneficial, and strength training may be incorporated slowly. Think gentle Pilates or Yoga.
Adrenal glandular. Glandular treatment, the ingestion of small amounts of animal glands, is a traditional treatment practiced by ancient healers from across the globe. When it comes to glandulars, less is usually better and quality counts. I recommend one by Biotics called Cytozyme AD.
Herbal adrenal support. There are dozens on the market and I have tried many, I highly recommendGaia Herbal Adrenal Health.
Vitamin C. Experts widely recommend vitamin C for adrenal fatigue recovery. Ascorbic acid, the popular choice for vitamin C supplementation, is a synthetic compound usually made from GMO corn. It also kills the good bacteria in our digestive tract, so it is not a good option for the long term. I use plant-sourced vitamin C, camu camu capsules or powder added to smoothies.
Pastured Beef, Chicken or Pork Liver – Gram for gram, pasture-raised liver is the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. It provides true vitamin A, an essential nutrient for adrenal fatigue recovery and hormone balance in general. (Vegetables do not provide the body with useable vitamin A). Eat sautéed liver a few times per week or shave a bit in your smoothies (you won’t know it’s there I promise). You can also purchase dessicated liver capsules, look for a grass-fed source.
I cannot stress this enough: adrenal fatigue is a serious condition, although it can often go unaddressed and is not widely recognized by Western medicine. In our society, ‘burning the candle at both ends’ and pushing ourselves beyond our means is, unfortunately, a cultural norm. Progress is in opposition to rest and relaxation, and those who take time to relax are more often than not viewed as lazy or self-indulgent.
If you or someone you know is experiencing adrenal fatigue, give them or yourself the permission to rest, heal, and be. Things will improve with time and patience, and taking the proper steps necessary to good health, wellness, and balance. Remember that we are all bio-individuals and this post will not provide you with all the answers to your unique health situation. I recommend seeking a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Naturopath or Functional Doctor to get on a path to healing.
For further reading, I recommend:
Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Syndrome by Dr. James L. Wilson
Your Personal Paleo Code by Chris Kresser
Jody Reis, (Student) Nutritional Therapy Practitioner