From May of 2014 until May 2015 I was exhausted. Like, come home from a short easy run and have to lie down and take a nap or I thought I would die exhausted. At first I figured I was just being a wimp. I mean, I've worked night shift, I know what it's like to be tired. But when I started feeling I've-been-up-for-52-hours-straight-because-I-work-night-shift-and-now-I'm-traveling tired, along with feeling forgetful and not sleeping well, I knew something was wrong.
The short version of the rest of this story is that it took FIVE health care providers (four doctors and a very smart naturopathic nurse practitioner) to figure out that I was recovering from mono. This was confirmed with lab tests. While I was super excited to have an answer to my bone-crushing fatigue, it was not the answer I wanted because there was no "cure." At many points throughout this journey, I actually wished for a thyroid issue. Who does that?!? That at least would have a fairly simple and straightforward solution. But of course, I did not get what I wished for and instead got a virus that sticks with you forever. My nurse practitioner also diagnosed me with adrenal fatigue and put me on some supplements that really helped me feel less tired. It took me much longer than I expected to overcome this and feel like myself again.
What is adrenal fatigue?
The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system and release hormones. They are responsible for releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine (your "fight or flight" hormones), cortisol (what helps you get up in the morning), aldosterone (regulates fluid balance), DHEA (a precursor to testosterone...yes ladies, you too need testosterone, just not too much), and sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone which regulate mood and libido)
The adrenals are just one piece in an entire system that controls our stress reactions in the body. This system is called the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal). Many different types of stress can activate the HPA axis. In normal healthy people the HPA axis is activated when needed and shut off when the stress is resolved.
One thing to be aware of is that our bodies are not good at distinguishing types of stress. It sees the run you take to clear your mind the same as running from a bear and skipping a meal the same as potential winter starvation. This can lead to excessive stress on the adrenals without realizing it and is why it's so important to be aware of what your body is telling you!
When our adrenal gland get tired of trying to keep up with our hectic, stress-filled lifestyles, they start pumping out not enough or too much cortisol and sex hormones. When this exhaustion becomes more than they can handle altogether, they pack their bags and buy a one way ticket to a secluded tropical island. They stop working the way they are supposed and you start to feel BONE. CRUSHING. FATIGUE.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol plays an important key role in regulating balance within the body. It helps to regulate:
- Blood glucose levels
- Immune response
- Blood pressure
- Glucogenesis (glucose production from non-carb sources)
- Circadian rhythm
A person with a properly functioning HPA access and well-balanced cortisol will have the highest levels in the morning. As the day progresses, cortisol levels should continue to drop until it reaches the low point around midnight. This enables melatonin, the counterpart to cortisol, to allow us to go to bed and shut off the HPA axis for about 8 hours each night. If you look at your phone or computer at night, the blue light from the screen will suppress melatonin and make it hard for you to sleep!
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Do you ever feel like you need a crane to get you out of bed in the morning?
Maybe you used to be super sharp and on top of it but now you're lucky if you remember to put on pants in the morning.
Perhaps your sleep is interrupted by your mind which has suddenly lost the ability to slow down and shut off for the night?
Are you so tired, but yet wired at the same time because if you stop you know that you'll sleep for days?
Do you get dizzy or lightheaded often? Are your emotions suddenly unpredictable? Do you alternate between craving sugar and salt all. the. time? Have you suddenly lost your fortress-like immune system?
If you are nodding your head yes then you might have adrenal fatigue. The good news is that you are not crazy and it is a real, treatable condition. The bad news is that most doctor's don't think it's a real thing. However, a naturopathic or integrative medicine provider will take you seriously.
This is where listening to and knowing your body is so important. If I had not continued to find a healthcare professional who took me seriously, I would still be calling in sick to work so I could sleep all day multiple times a month! If you think something is not right, then it’s not right. It can be frustrating to be brushed off by your doctor, but trust me, it's worth it to find someone who will listen to you.
What can be done to treat adrenal fatigue?
First of all, it's very important that you distinguish adrenal fatigue from other medical conditions. Many medical conditions can cause similar symptoms so it's important to rule out thyroid or other causes of your symptoms.
I also don't recommend self diagnosis when it comes to conditions like this. It is important to go to your healthcare provider armed with information so you can make informed decisions together about what is best for you and your situation.
Treatment depends on which level of adrenal fatigue you are currently experi:
Stage one: Intermittent periods of tiredness and some occasional sleep issues.
Stage two: Tired and wired. You go, go, go, but the minute you sit down you are done for. Coffee becomes something that you absolutely can't live without. Your sleep gets more interrupted.
Stage three: Tired, grumpy, and low sex drive. Your sex hormones are being sacrificed in order to keep your cortisol levels up and get you through the day.
Stage four: Time to call in the crane. Coping with daily life feels virtually impossible. Cortisol loses it's morning peak and remains flat-lined throughout the day.
Seeking medical attention is the most important thing in determining appropriate treatment. The labs and supplements you may need depend on what stage you are in and what symptoms you are experiencing.
However, there are some things that you can do for yourself in the meantime.
1. Follow an adrenal friendly diet. This means getting rid of foods that you are sensitive to as well as foods that cause inflammation. Eat plenty of brightly colored vegetables, lean clean protein, gluten-free carbs, and good fats (coconut products, avocados, nuts, and seeds).
2. Go bed early. Getting to bed before 11pm is a must in any stage of adrenal fatigue. Many people get a second cortisol surge after 11pm, which will further disrupts sleep patterns. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep or more.
3. Take your B vitamins. B vitamins are food for the adrenals. If you have been on a high-fat, low-carb diet, you might not be getting enough B vitamins. B12 and folate also help with energy production.
4. Calm inflammation. Using omega-3 fatty acids (from fish, not fish oil), curcumin, and vitamin C supplements can help to decrease systemic inflammation, along with the dietary changes you made in step 1.
5. Replace important nutrients. Vitamin D, selenium, magnesium and zinc are all important for proper thyroid function and adrenal function.
6. Focus on hydration. Dehydration is also a common sign adrenal fatigue. You can add fresh lemon juice or sea salt to your water instead to help your body absorb more water.
7. Cut the caffeine. Caffeine is a stressor on your body and stimulates your adrenals. If you are constantly bombarding them with caffeine, you will likely burn them out eventually. If you are already suffering from adrenal fatigue, caffeine is only going to make the situation worse. Most people with adrenal fatigue actually feel better after they get over their caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
8. Build rest into the day. The last you need if you have adrenal fatigue is high-intensity cardio that will continue to burn you out. Focus on restorative exercise such as yoga or meditation and take a few rest breaks throughout the day to calm yourself and remember to breathe.
9. Try essential oils. Oils such as wild orange and lavender have been scientifically proven to reduce your perceived stress levels after just five minutes of smelling them. Remember to always choose the best quality oils you can find, otherwise you are harming your health rather than supporting it. You can click here (or fill out the form in the sidebar) to find out more about how/why I use oils as well as request a sample.
It is also thought that there is an emotional component to adrenal fatigue, so changing your perspective and attitude can be immensely helpful as well (I know, easier said than done). A little bit of self-care and YOU time can go a long way!
**Remember that while I am a healthcare professional, I am not YOUR healthcare professional and I do not know your unique situation. This post is meant for informational purposes only and is not considered a substitute for professional medical advice.**