Adrenal fatigue is a term that we’re hearing crop up more and more often, but it’s not something that a medical professional is likely to diagnose in clinic. If you’re undergoing a period of prolonged stress, struggling to fully recover from illness or generally feeling too tired to function,however, you may find that some of your symptoms fit with the description of adrenal fatigue.
If you’ve excluded other causes but are still feeling distinctly ropey, consider Omniya hormonal specialist and GP Dr Sohère Roked’s overview of adrenal fatigue, from exactly what defines it, to what you can do about it.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a common source of tiredness, yet not many people know a lot about it. The adrenals are two small glands that sit on top of the kidneys, each about the size of a walnut. Despite being small, they are very important for health and wellbeing.
The adrenals affect virtually every system in our body. They aid our bodies in responding to stress, maintaining energy, regulating the immune system and our heart rate. They also maintain levels of minerals and keep blood sugar, fluid levels and blood pressure within a healthy range.
In addition they produce adrenaline and noradrenaline: the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hormones which help the body deal with acute stress. These are the hormones that give a person superhuman strength, such as to lift up a car when a child is trapped underneath it or the energy to run away from an attacker.
The adrenal glands manufacture over 30 different steroids including cortisol, DHEA and cortisone which help the body to process fats, proteins, carbohydrates, regulate insulin levels, reduce inflammation and influence the immune system. When the adrenal glands are healthy, they secrete precise amounts of the steroid hormones.
However, too much physical, emotional, environmental or psychological stress causes imbalances in their functioning. This can result in adrenal fatigue, when the adrenal glands are no longer coping with the strains put on them.
There can be many causes of adrenal fatigue, such as work pressures, emotional traumas, relationship strains, chronic illness, infections, surgery, pain, grief, financial difficulties, lack of sleep or depression and anxiety .
The condition isn't acknowledged in the medical community - why? Is it a 'new' phenomenon?
The medical community generally look at pathology of the adrenal gland like Addison's disease or Cushing's disease and don't recognise that you can have an adrenal dysfunction. It isn't a new phenomenon, but is becoming more common due to sustained high levels of stress and pressure implicated in modern lifestyles.
What are the symptoms?
The classic symptoms are tiredness, low energy, cravings, insomnia , irritability, anxiety and poor concentration.
Many people with adrenal fatigue get into the habit of relying on stimulants like caffeine and sugar to keep them going as they feel so fatigued during the day, and then alcohol or other relaxants to wind down at the end of the day as they have trouble switching off at night.
Is there a test for adrenal fatigue?
Yes, I regularly carry out a test for patients which measures cortisol levels four times over 24 hours to look for disruption in cortisol production.
Is anyone in particular more prone to adrenal fatigue?
There can be many causes of adrenal fatigue, such as work pressures, emotional traumas, relationship strains, chronic illness, infections, surgery, pain, grief, financial difficulties, lack of sleep or depression and anxiety.
This is all sounding rather familiar...
The questions below may help you to determine whether adrenal fatigue could be an issue for you, although of course visit your GP to discuss your symptoms before self diagnosing.
Have you in the last week...
1. Felt stressed, restless, overwhelmed and/or exhausted?
2. Experienced anxiety, nervousness, irritability, phobias or panic attacks ?
3. Kept yourself going by way of sugar, caffeine and/or snacks?
4. Experienced light-headedness on standing?
5. Felt more awake at night?
6. Craved salty food, sugar or liquorice?
7. Had dark circles under your eyes or feel that your eyes sensitive to bright lights?
8. Spent the whole day rushing from one thing to another?
9. Suffered from interrupted sleep or insomnia?
10. Been particularly absent-minded or felt that your short-term memory lets you down?
If you've answered yes to five or more of these, you may have adrenal fatigue.
What are the treatment options?
Lifestyle changes are paramount when it comes to recovering from adrenal fatigue.
Here are the main ways to treat adrenal fatigue:
Eat your way back to energy
Eating regular meals throughout the day will stop your blood sugar and hormones from fluctuating too much. When we have a big meal, cortisol, the fat-storing hormone, is released so it’s better to have your big meal earlier in the day. Perhaps it’s no surprise that cutting back on sugary snacks will help you to recover faster from adrenal fatigue. The body often craves sugary or salty foods in this state. Many people rely on caffeine to keep going, but overall this leads to a greater drop in energy. The best foods to support the adrenal glands with micronutrients are asparagus, avocado, garlic, cabbage and ginger.
Consider adding a few supplements to your diet
Vitamins B and C and omega-3 fish oils all support the adrenal glands. You could take these in the form of supplements, or eat more foods rich in vitamins B and C, such as avocados, grapefruits, strawberries, bananas, oranges and blueberries, to name but a few. Omega-3 fish oils are found in oily fish such as mackerel and salmon. In addition, herbs such as ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, timo cordyceps mycelium extract and L-theanine can all be helpful. There are some herbal supplements that can also help to support the adrenal glands as well as a supplement with pituitary and adrenal concentrate from bovine source to aid the healthy functioning of the adrenal and pituitary glands, but this should be done under the supervision of a health-care professional.
Exercise, but go gently
When you have adrenal fatigue over-exercising, for instance blasting out a strenuous gym session, will only put more strain on the adrenals. It’s more beneficial to do 15–30 minutes of gentle exercise a day. Walking, yoga and swimming are ideal forms of exercise. It’s also good to get some fresh air whenever possible so ensure to walk outdoors rather than on a treadmill.
Set aside time to relax
Schedule some relaxation into your diary every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. Walking, hot baths, massage, reading and meditation are all simple but effective. Go out and have fun too. We relax when we are doing things that we enjoy. Whenever you are stressed, take a few deep breaths through your nose. This helps to slow the heart rate down. We’re all extraordinarily busy nowadays, but it pays to learn how to notice when we’re first getting stressed, acknowledge it and take time out to have a cup of herbal tea or gather our thoughts.
Is it curable?
Instigate a few lifestyle tweaks, and definitely!
Still tired? For more advice on overcoming exhaustion, read Peta Bee’s guide to the sleep and stress connection
Book an appointment with Dr Roked here