Considered the "stress syndrome" of the 20th century, adrenal fatigue is still an under-diagnosed and little understood condition. More people than ever before are battling with chronically depleted adrenal glands, yet it is unrecognized by most doctors.
Perhaps you have struggled for a long time with always being tired, for reasons you just can't quite understand. Maybe several years of stressful circumstance after stressful circumstance have left you frequently sick, irritable, worn out or depressed. You might have pushed yourself physically too hard for too long, and found yourself suddenly unable to push anymore, your reserves completely drained.
What Do the Adrenal Glands Do?
Your adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys, and they are part of the endocrine system (which manages hormones). Their job? To regulate your stress hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline's job is to give us increased focus and stamina to deal with sudden situations that require our full attention and effort. Think fight or flight response.
Cortisol's job is to convert protein into energy, to give us that extra boost for the situation at hand. It does this by converting our body's stored sugar, glycogen, which fuels and supports the adrenaline response. The adrenal glands also play a role in balancing blood sugar and maintaing the correct electrolyte balance of salt/water for proper cellular function.
Significant and/or prolonged stress on the adrenal glands causes them to continuously release adrenaline and cortisol. This happens when we consistently push ourselves to work past the point of fatigue, when we try to cash in on our body's "extra" energy by using stimulants like caffeine and sugar, when we deal with acute or recurring illnesses, when we experience a string of stressful situations (pregnancy/birth, loss of loves ones, moving, financial strain, job loss, natural disasters, etc.), when we fail to heed our body's signals that it is worn out and needs some TLC.
Image by oimax
Defining Adrenal Fatigue
To try to cope with these stressors and strains on the body, our adrenal glands faithfully pump out extra energy to us. Think of it like a bank account, with a sizeable amount of money set aside for emergency savings. Each time you run into a minor financial difficulty, however (a blown tire, extra groceries because you went over budget, a large cell phone bill), you dip in just a little.
The fund wasn't intended to see you through the constant stream of regular, daily life. Without being added to or replenished, it will only sustain these constant withdrawals for so long. When your husband suddenly loses his job in a down economy, or when tragedy strikes and you become seriously ill without insurance, suddenly that money is gone and unable to cover the circumstances it was intended for.
Simply put, adrenal fatigue occurs when our adrenal glands have been drained through constant "withdrawals", without being replenished. They become depleted, empty, and unable to help us when we need them most.
Why is adrenal fatigue becoming so prevalent? I liked many of the explanations in this post of the reasons why adrenal fatigue develops. To this list I would also add uncontrollable stressful situations (illness, loss, etc.), and long-term undiagnosed food allergies or sensitivities (often to the very foods that you most love and crave).
Levels of Fatigue
Not all cases of adrenal fatigue are equal. You can deplete your adrenals mildy, causing some signs and symptoms that slow you down a little, but nothing that cannot be recovered through some lifestyle changes.
More prolonged depletion can result in moderate adrenal fatigue, which often consists of more serious and debilitating symptoms including extreme fatigue, depression, frequent illnesses, an inability to cope with stressful situations, hormone imbalance and more. Recovery is certainly possible, but it will take longer, and require more purposeful changes and treatments.
Severe adrenal fatigue (sometimes called adrenal exhaustion) is when they adrenals reach the point where they are barely functioning at all. For many, this means that they can hardly get out of bed or make it through the day. Everything takes herculean efforts and recovery can take many years and much, much effort, usually with the help of a trained specialist (like a naturopathic doctor).
Image by D. Sharon Pruitt
Do I Have Adrenal Fatigue?
Here are some common symtoms of adrenal fatigue:
- Frequent, often unexplainable fatigue
- Feeling tired despite sufficient hours of sleep/ difficulty feeling awake in the morning
- Insomnia (many feel very alert or find that their heart pounds even when they are tired and lying down)
- Weight gain, especially around the middle
- Depression and/or irritability
- Hair loss
- Reliance on stimulants like caffeine
- Cravings for carbohydrates or sugars
- Cravings for salt
- Low immune function and slow recovery from illness, injury or stress
- Intolerance to cold
- Decreased sex drive
- Lightheadedness and low-blood pressure
- Brain fog, or having trouble concentrating or remembering things
- For women, increased PMS symptoms or cycle irregularities
Sadly, adrenal fatigue is not recognized by most conventional medical doctors. So how do you know if you truly have adrenal fatigue? A good naturopathic doctor will usually be able to do more specific tests and assessing to determine whether you do have some level of adrenal depletion.
Another way to learn more is through some of the excellent books out on the topic. I don't always like to rely on self-diagnosis, but if you can't afford to see an alternative specialist or don't have access to one in your area, these books have extensive questionnaires (much more in depth than my list of symptoms above) that will help you to not only determine if this is what you are dealing with, but will also help you to determine the severity of your condition. I used the questionnaires in both Tired of Being Tired and Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome to reach a very similar diagnosis of moderate adrenal fatigue.
It is important to note that not everyone who has these symptoms has adrenal fatigue. Much as it is becoming more common, each person and each body is different, and sometimes symptoms can be the result of simple lifestyle choices or they could also be an indicator of other, more serious illness. If you suspect something is wrong, it is always best to see a health practitioner who can perform proper diagnostic tests rather than simply self-treating.
In the second post on adrenal fatigue (coming later this week), I will address some ways to treat it and give you some resources as well!
Does anyone else have experience dealing with adrenal fatigue?
Top image by smith
Disclaimer: I am not a certified medical professional of any kind and am not qualified to give you medical advice, to diagnose any illness or prescribe treatment. My goal is to help to educate and inspire you to take responsibility for your own family's health and make informed choices of your own, not to consult you on medical treatment.
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