Does this image look familiar? If so, I’m not surprised. It is estimated that up to 80% of adult Americans suffer from some level of adrenal deficiency at some point in their lives, which is most commonly characterized by feeling tired for no reason, having trouble getting up in the morning, irritability and requiring coffee, energy drinks, sweets or salty snacks to keep going. However, it is one of the most overlooked and under-diagnosed illnesses in the U.S. and can be the underlying issue behind conditions such as of chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, alcoholism and food intolerance.
I can already hear many of you warily saying now — “so let’s run this back – being tired all the time, depending on your triple venti latte to be remotely effective during the day, being a little irritable and maybe having an inappropriate fondness for that glass (or bottle) of Pinot every night — who DOESN’T live like that?” Unfortunately being run ragged seems to be the acceptable norm in this country. As a Mom, entrepreneur and former corporate rat – trust me, I get it. But, I’ve also been down in the trenches of adrenal fatigue and am successfully climbing out and can promise you – it doesn’t have to be this way. Read on to figure out how to stop the madness.
All About Adrenals.
These two glands that sit on top of the kidneys may be small, but they are packing some of the most powerful hormones and neurotransmitters related to energy and stress response. They are chiefly responsible for releasing adrenal steroids, such as cortisol, and the catecholamines (a.k.a. the “fight or flight” hormones) epinephrine/adrenalin and norephinephrine.
Cortisol belongs to a class of hormones called glucocorticoids, which affect almost every organ and tissue in the body. Cortisol’s most important job is to help the body respond to stress. Among its many vital tasks, cortisol helps:
- maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function
- slow the immune system’s inflammatory response
- maintain glucose levels
- regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
Can you see why you want to do everything you can to keep these two little powerhouses firing on all cylinders?
The Road to Exhaustion.
The progression of adrenal fatigue is slow and insidious. Most commonly, adrenal fatigue is caused by some form of stress – could be physical (e.g. surgery or other serious injury or lack of sleep, excessive consumption of caffeine), psychological (e.g. traumas or chronic stress related to your career, finances, or family troubles), environmental (e.g. toxins from over processed food and other sources) and/or infectious (e.g. a severe case of or recurring bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, sinusitis). Prescription drugs and even pregnancy can also cause stress on the adrenals.
You’re even more at risk if you have multiple stressors simultaneously or one becomes chronic. Your adrenals will never get a chance to come up for air! Whether you are aware you are under stress or not, your body (and your cortisol levels) is keeping tabs. All stressors are additive and cumulative. At first, stress causes more and more cortisol to be circulating in your system, which can cause weight gain and lower your immune response. But eventually, your adrenal glands throw in the towel and slow or stop producing the need cortisol to combat the stressful situation.
While adrenal fatigue can affect anyone of any age or stage of life, those of us with Type A tendencies can be more susceptible to adrenal fatigue. With attributes such as constantly driving yourself, being a perfectionist and putting yourself under constant pressure, you are putting your poor little adrenal glands into constant overdrive. And so begins the recipe for a lethargic disaster.
Symptoms | Related Conditions
While some people can present without any obvious signs of being sick, they likely experience a sense that things just aren’t quite right and are likely masking their fatigue with caffeinated drinks, sugary foods or other stimulates to drag themselves out of bed and be somewhat effective in their daily lives. While you can’t draw any conclusions by experiencing just one of these symptoms or conditions, if many of these ring true you could be experiencing some level of adrenal deficiency.
|Difficulty getting up in the morning||Increased time to recovery from illness or injury | bruising easily|
|Continuing fatigue not relieved by sleep||Light-headed when standing up quickly|
|Craving for salt or salty foods||Mild depression/less enjoyment with life|
|Lethargy – not really awake until 10am; fading at 3 or 4pm, feeling best after dinner||Increased PMS – bloating, irritable, chocolate cravings|
|Increased effort to do every day tasks||Worsening symptoms with skipped meals|
|Decreased sex drive||Increased fears/anxiety|
|Weight gain around the middle||Confusion/Difficulty Concentrating/Memory Issues|
|Decreased ability to handle stress||Irritability|
|Feeling cold all of the time||Low blood pressure|
|Rheumatoid Arthritis||Respiratory Infections|
|Chronic Fatigue Syndrome||Asthma|
|Type 2 Diabetes||Cancer|
|Ischemic Heart Disease||Other auto-immune and chronic disease|
No Love From Western Medicine.
I’ll try not to get too “conspiracy theory” on you here, but the biggest rub with resolving adrenal deficiency is that because it doesn’t fit within the stricture of Western medicine, it can be difficult to find appropriate treatment, or even acknowledgement of the syndrome. First off, medical doctors, during their Big Pharma sponsored programs, are not educated on the etiology or treatment in adrenal deficiency. Even worse, there is no ICD-9 Code for adrenal deficiency or adrenal fatigue until it has become full-blown Addison’s disease. No code for billing = no reimbursement by insurance.
In Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands can have actual structural and physiological damage that could require life long treatment with corticosteroids — powerful, synthetic cortisol which provide a lovely laundry list of side effects including: high blood pressure, bone disease, poor immune system, high blood sugar, vision problems, white patches or sores, acne, swelling of the face, weight gain, and cognitive issues. The failure of Western medicine to recognize non-Addison’s adrenal fatigue is an enormous disservice to Americans, especially in this high stress Petri dish we live in. Dr. James L. Wilson, N.D., D.C., PhD explains in his book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, that “with each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in your body is more profoundly affected.” When caught early, adrenal fatigue can be easily treated with natural supplements and dietary changes – or even prevented altogether.
Adrenals Role in Food Intolerance & Food Cravings.
Interestingly, there is a lot of crossover between adrenal fatigue and food intolerance. When you consume foods your body doesn’t tolerate, your body releases histamine causing an inflammation. In response, your adrenal glands release cortisol (a strong anti-inflammatory) to mediate the histamine. The more histamine released, the more cortisol required and the harder your adrenals have to work to pump it out. Chronic inflammation from eating foods you don’t tolerate obviously further taxes your adrenal glands and leads to their fatigue. This in turn reduces the amount of cortisol they’re able to produce, which reduces the anti-inflammatory response and allows the histamine to inflame the tissues more. A vicious cycle.
It’s easy to see why Dr. Wilson claims that eliminating foods that you don’t tolerate is “one of the best and easiest ways to decrease the demands of your struggling adrenals.” For a refresher on common food intolerances and guides on clean eating, please refer to my Clean Eating Guide post from January.
There are many more adrenal specific nutrition guidelines as well as lifestyle changes and testing available that can be immensely helpful in restoring proper adrenal function, which I’ll cover in a follow-up post. For my Type A peeps, try to resist Googling your fingers off looking for answers and just GET SOME REST….