Is it a daily struggle to get up in the morning? Do you often find yourself extremely tired in the middle of the day? Suffering from poor energy levels and find it difficult to cope with daily grind? Day to day challenges overwhelm you to the point of depression and anxiety?
For some, these symptoms could be a sign of thyroid disorders, heart disease or any other underlying, unaddressed health conditions. However, sometimes it could be as simple as adrenal fatigue – a condition where your adrenal glands have burned out.
What exactly is adrenal fatigue and why does it happen? Is the condition real? Can you do something about supporting your adrenal glands?
Your adrenal glands are an integral part of the overall endocrine system. While they are primarily known for their role in stress response, these glands produce a range of important hormones that maintain your overall health and well-being.
What are adrenal glands?
Your body has two adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney. These glands produce several hormones that help your body regulate immunity, metabolism, blood pressure and your response to stress. Each gland has two parts, the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla; each responsible for producing specific hormones.
Let’s take a quick look.
1. Adrenal cortex: It is the outer part of the gland that produces cortisol, aldosterone and small amounts of sex hormones.
- Cortisol: It is a steroid hormone with many important functions. It helps you respond to stress, reduces inflammation, supresses immune function, increases sugar levels in the blood, controls the break-down of fat and protein into glucose in the liver and regulates blood pressure.
Along with adrenaline (a stress hormone released by the adrenal medulla), cortisol prepares you for the “flight or fight” mode when you are dealing with a stressful or threatening situation. It gives you the burst of energy you need during such situations and when you wake up in the morning to keep you alert and going. Cortisol production generally increases in early morning hours and gradually declines as the day progresses. The hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland (HPA axis) regulates the release of cortisol in the blood.
- Aldosterone: It is a mineralocorticoid that regulates blood pressure by maintaining the levels of sodium and potassium.
- Sex hormones: Adrenal cortex produces small amounts of sex hormones such as androgens (male sex hormone) and estrogen (female sex hormones). They are weak hormones but help in growth and development of the reproductive system and physical traits during puberty. The ovaries and testes produce these sex hormones in much larger amounts.
2. Adrenal medulla: It is the inner part of the adrenal gland and produces hormones called adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and norepinephrine. Adrenaline is responsible for how efficiently you respond to stress or a perceived threat.
How do adrenal glands work during stress?
When you sense danger – in the form of a physical threat or emotional distress – the hypothalamus in the brain springs into action.
Acute stress induces the feelings of fear, anger and excitement and triggers the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline, that instantly preps your body for ‘fight or flight’. Adrenaline increase your heart rate and blood pressure, spurs glucose metabolism, widens pupil in the eye and relaxes airways in the lungs.
All these changes give your muscles and brain get an increased supply of sugar, oxygen and nutrients – increasing muscle strength and improving your mental focus. You are now ready for some major action, such as to plan, defend, fight or run. This is called ‘adrenaline rush’.
With long-term, chronic stress, your HPA axis also kicks in:
- The hypothalamus produces corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH)
- CRH activates the pituitary gland to release adrenal corticotrophic hormone (ACTH)
- ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol
While all this happens as a part of the survival mechanism, over production of cortisol can make you gain weight, increase your blood pressure and predispose you to palpitations, angina pain, panic attacks, depression and jittery nerves.
So, what causes adrenal fatigue?
Prolonged or intense periods of stress – from work, financial trouble, death of a loved one, distressed relationships, chronic infections or injury – push your body to release more and more stress hormones such as cortisol.
Constant churning of stress hormones burns out your adrenals and reduces their sensitivity to make these hormones in the right amounts. This is when you find yourself struggling with symptoms of low energy, mood swings, lack of mental clarity and an inability to deal with stress.
The combined symptoms can wreak havoc on your life; and in some cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that it can make it difficult to get out of bed for more than a few hours per day.
Signs of adrenal fatigue
- Low energy levels and constant feeling of fatigue
- Inability to sleep at night and trouble waking up in the morning
- Inability to cope with stress
- Mood swings
- Anxiety and depression
- Brain fog
- Loss of appetite
- Weight gain
- Unexplained body aches, especially in muscles and joints
- Hair loss
- Auto-immune disorders
- Digestive issues
- Intense cravings for salty and sugary foods
- Headaches and migraines
- Excessive sweating
- Irregular periods
- Loss of interest in sex
- Frequent bouts of cold and flu
It is important to make sure you have ruled out these conditions before you start blaming adrenal fatigue for your symptoms.
And it is complicated. Chronic health conditions affect the workings of our adrenals, keeping these tiny organs overworked to maintain overall balance and regulate body functions as much as possible, basically supporting and protecting your body during this stressful period. After a while, your adrenals give up and your hormonal health goes for spirals down. Your overall well-being, ability to self-heal and repair, and several vital functions depend on your hormonal and adrenal health.
But when your adrenal glands work the way that they should, you become unstoppable: resilient, happy, energetic, and ready to face and deal with life’s challenges including, disease and stressful situations.
Is adrenal fatigue for real?
Most conventional doctors and medical organizations do not recognize adrenal fatigue as a real medical condition. This is largely since the symptoms of adrenal depletion are vague symptoms that can be experienced for numerous other reasons.
However, alternative medicine practitioners believe that overworked adrenals can produce symptoms such as a lack of energy and motivation, extreme tiredness, depression and brain fog, that can’t be typically explained by blood work and physical examination.
This disconnect can be very frustrating for people experiencing these ‘vague’ but real symptoms that are affecting their quality of life, work performance and relationships in real time.
Unfortunately, modern life is a source of non-stop stressors and triggers. Being chronically stressed is becoming the new normal. Considering a strong link between stress and chronic diseases, it’s not very hard to believe that overactive adrenal glands may eventually become dysfunctional and fatigued.
There is one condition called primary adrenal insufficiency that is recognized as a real medical condition. It is also called Addison's disease, where the adrenal glands produce low levels of cortisol.
How to manage adrenal fatigue?
You can nourish and support your adrenal glands through a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. Taking adaptogens like Jiaogulan and Reishi mushroom might also help. We do not recommend taking adrenal supplements as they contain synthetic steroid hormones that can create havoc on your hormonal health. These supplements are overhyped and are associated with diabetes, weight gain and poor bone health.
1. Stress management
We are living in the fast lane and it is just not possible to remove all the stress from your life. There are going to be ups and downs in work, in personal life and in health. It is important to be in control and manage these stressors without letting the pressure get to you. What can you do about it? Here are some practical stress busters.
- Organize your life and learn to manage your time
- Stop procrastinating
- Spend more time with family and friends
- Practice yoga and mindful mediation
- Deep breathing exercises
- Listen to music
- Engage in hobbies and activities that make you happy
- Laugh more often and laugh freely
- Try using essential oils
- Write things in a diary to vent your feelings
Chronic stress depletes your body of anti-oxidants and other nutrients. In addition, poor food choices become an additional source of stress for your body as it now needs to fight the damaging effects of sugar, artificial colors, preservatives and trans fats commonly used in junk and processed foods. What can you do about it?
- Reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Avoid trans fats and artificial sweeteners
- Increase your daily servings of fresh and colourful fruits and vegetables
- Take supplements like vitamin D and omega 3 fats
- Include nuts and seeds in your daily diet
- Reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol
A healthy lifestyle makes you healthy and may even naturally reverse some conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure. Healthy lifestyle tweaks such as getting regular nights of sound sleep and exercise has beneficial effects on your adrenal and hormonal health, thus improving your mood, energy levels and metabolism.
4. Take adaptogens
Adaptogens are unusual herbs that help your body adapt to and respond to stress. Reishi mushroom, Jiaogulan, Ashwagandha, Holy basil, Cordyceps and Licorice roots are examples of adaptogenic herbs. They have stabilizing effects on most body functions and work towards restoring overall balance. In other words, these one-of-a-kind herbs understand what your body needs and modulate their action to achieve that outcome.
Adaptogens nourish your adrenal glands. They stabilize the HPA axis, which helps in regulating cortisol levels and calming an over-excited nervous system. These stress-busters also have a positive influence of blood sugar levels and other hormones. Adaptogens are also a rich source of bioactive compounds, vitamins and minerals that nourish your overall body and provide the adaptive energy you need to fight stress, fatigue and disease.
5. Take magnesium supplements
Magnesium is a trace mineral that works as a co-factor in hundreds of bio-chemical reactions. You need it to maintain healthy calcium levels, produce energy and synthesise DNA, proteins and glutathione. And your body can’t properly use vitamin D without sufficient amounts of magnesium.
Magnesium can be very useful in reducing painful muscle cramps, helping you relax and relieving stress  . The mineral also regulates the production and function of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA, and brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF). All these hormones help in improving mood, sleep, anxiety, learning and stress response. Poor GABA levels in the body are known to cause anxiety, restlessness and an inability to sleep well.
Studies suggest that magnesium may work as well as regular anti-depressants but without the associated side effects. You can read our blog “Magnesium in stress, anxiety and depression’ to learn more on the role of magnesium in reducing stress and improving mood.
Adrenal fatigue is a controversial topic. It is always important to consider if other condition could be behind your poor energy and mood symptoms. It is true that some conditions like thyroid disorders can be challenging to diagnose and treat. Some conditions are even easy to overlook. However, your symptoms are for real and they have a huge impact on all aspects of your life. Your health is in your hands and we urge you to do proper research and take expert opinions from a highly expert healthcare professional who can dig into your medical history and symptoms and suggest a natural roadmap to good health.
- 1. Pouteau et al. Superiority of magnesium and vitamin B6 over magnesium alone on severe stress in healthy adults with low magnesemia: A randomized, single-blind clinical trial. PLoS One. 2018
- 2. Wienecke E, Nolden C. [Long-term HRV analysis shows stress reduction by magnesium intake]. MMW Fortschr Med. 2016