Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be used as a self-diagnosis tool. This post is strictly for educational purposes and should not be used to diagnose or treat any illness. Please consult your physician.
If you’ve been following the wellness trends over the last 2-3 years then you’ve probably heard the term “adrenal fatigue” a million times. Honestly, it’s more than a fad. It’s a syndrome that affects millions of people and may even be affecting you.
For those of you who do not know, adrenal fatigue is a syndrome that affects the adrenal glands (the little walnut sized organs sitting on top of your kidneys). Chronic or prolonged stress causes these organs to function below the necessary levels. This decrease in function causes you to feel fatigued that is not resolved by sleep, anxiety, inability to handle stress, and in some cases intense salt cravings.
Your adrenal glands are endocrine glands that produce & secrete a variety of hormones that include adrenaline, aldosterone, and cortisol. Epinephrine, aka adrenaline, is one of the key hormones in the fight or flight response that we are familiar with. Adrenaline helps your body respond to stressful situations like getting chased by a bear or studying for that ridiculously hard organic chemistry final. Adrenaline works by increasing your heart rate, helping blood reach your muscles & brain (to help you run away from the bear or frantically scribble an answer on that final), and converting glycogen to glucose to fuel your brain. These are all necessary actions that keep us alive & on track to graduate!
Aldosterone is a mineral steroid that regulates your sodium & potassium levels and helps maintain proper blood volume in the body. Lastly, but most important is cortisol. Cortisol is your natural anti-inflammatory hormone that controls the body’s use of carbohydrates, proteins, & fats.
So, What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough of These Hormones?
These hormones were designed to keep us alive during stressful situations like the aforementioned bear crisis. However, we weren’t mean to ALWAYS be running away from the bear. Ideally, stressful situations were supposed to be few & far between. Unfortunately, we live in the 21st century where stress is as common as the sun shining in the sky. When we are under constant stress our adrenal glands are always working hard to create & release our stress hormones. Our adrenals aren’t very different from you & me so you can guess what happens when you’re always working without a break. Yep…you pass out from exhaustion and that is exactly what happens to our adrenals.
Day in and day out our adrenals work tirelessly to shell out cortisol & adrenaline to keep us alert, breathing, & working, regardless of how tired it is. Unfortunately, it won’t take long for our adrenals to start going crazy. Here’s a list of common symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue. I was so surprised that I had been struggling with one symptom in particular that I thought was just me not being a morning person***.
Difficulty waking up despite getting a full night’s rest***
- This symptom really surprised me! I used to be a self-proclaimed night owl & absolutely detested mornings. This symptom was my life all day, every day! No matter how long I slept or how early I went to bed, it damn near took dynamite to get me out of the bed and on my way to work in the mornings. I would press snooze at least 5 times and would get up with just enough time to wash my ass, get dressed & get to work on time. This meant that not only was I starting my day all stressed out but my whole day would likely be super stressful too. The reason why adrenal fatigue makes it so hard for you to wake up in the morning is because your cortisol cycle works opposite of the sleep-regulating hormone, melatonin. Ideally, your cortisol should be higher in the mornings and then taper off over the course of the day to the point that it’s low enough for melatonin to kick in & get you ready for a restful nights sleep. As the night goes on, melatonin begins to taper off and make room for cortisol to come out & get you ready for your day. The problem is that we burn through so much cortisol due to our high stress lives that there’s not enough cortisol to come out & get us moving & grooving in the morning. In addition, our high-stress lifestyles keep our cortisol levels high & when it’s time for us to sleep our brain still thinks that it’s in a high-stress environment & is always alert, waiting for the moment when we’ll have to run for our lives. It’s no wonder we don’t get any quality sleep!
Being super tired throughout the day
- When you do finally get your engines revved up in the morning, thanks to coffee (the real MVP), you often find yourself crashing around 2-4pm. This is because the caffeine has worn off and our adrenals have already burned through the little bit of cortisol it had left. This is often found in last-stage adrenal fatigue. Some people actually have the opposite experience. They drag all morning long and then have a random burst of energy in the late afternoon & evening when their adrenals finally get their bearings.
Frequent colds & illness
- As I mentioned before, cortisol is our body’s natural anti-inflammatory hormone. Inflammation is your body’s natural response to infection or illness but cortisol helps this reaction from getting out of control and damaging your body. So, you can imagine what happens when we’re always stressed and flooding our bodies with cortisol. Constantly high cortisol = little to no inflammation = weakened immune system = increased colds & illness. In other words, the more cortisol that’s floating around, the more it suppresses inflammation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing until it begins to interfere with the body’s natural way of handling infections. Instead of protecting the body cortisol essentially mutes the immune system to the point where it struggles to fight any type of infection. In comes the colds, sinus infections, etc.
Difficulty handling stress
- The main thing that stuck out to me when I was dealing with adrenal fatigue was my inability to handle stress. In college, I took pride in being able to cram for exams & write 10-page papers in one night. But girl, that all changed in grad school. The stress of my grad program flipped my world upside down and not only was I not thriving under the mountain of stress, I was barely surviving. My hair began to fall out, I gained 60+ pounds, I started having tummy probs, and I started suffering from depression & anxiety. When our adrenals are fatigued they struggle to release our stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, & norepinephrine). Rather than feeling focused, alert, & strong we end up feeling exhausted, anxious, and like we’re going to fall apart.
- Remember that random mineral steroid I talked about earlier? Aldosterone? Yep, well when our adrenals get fatigued, we lose the ability to properly release aldosterone. So, the sodium & potassium that should enter our bodies actually ends up being excreted in our urine. This causes a shift in our sodium & potassium levels & triggers our brain to demand more salt. In turn, we grab the chips, pretzels, and anything salty with the hopes of rebalancing our sodium & potassium levels. Ever wondered why sometimes you just NEED a salty snack? This could be why.
Click here for some less common but important symptoms that some people experience when they are suffering from adrenal fatigue.
If you are a busy young woman who is always exhausted, stressed out, and just feeling like shit consider talking to your doctor about adrenal fatigue. You aren’t alone in this struggle!
If you’ve suffered from adrenal fatigue I’d love it if you’d share some of your symptoms & remedies below in the comments. Also, let me know in the comments if you’re interested in a post about natural remedies for adrenal fatigue.