Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re constantly fatigued, feel like you’re dragging, and even minor stressors leave you majorly overwhelmed. You depend on caffeinated beverages, sodas, and salty foods to get you through the day and maintain a stable mood or energy level. And at the end of the day, no matter how tired you’ve been, you find yourself with a “second wind” of energy around 11 pm that keeps you up at night. If this description fits, you may be part of 80% of the population who experience adrenal fatigue at some point in their life.
More than just feeling tired, adrenal fatigue connotes an actual weakening of your adrenal function, and can cause many unwanted side effects ranging from weight gain to hair loss. Though the topic of adrenal fatigue remains slightly controversial among the medical community, more and more practitioners are recognizing it as a legitimate condition, and one that you can eventually heal from. In this article we’ll provide you with the facts: what your adrenals do, what causes adrenal fatigue, and how to recover from adrenal fatigue naturally.
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
Your adrenals are two glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They help regulate nearly every hormone in your body, one of which is cortisol, the stress hormone. When you undergo a period of prolonged or chronic stress (the potential causes of which we’ll discuss later) your adrenals can potentially become too overwhelmed to properly regulate your hormones, including cortisol.
Why are we stressing cortisol (pun intended?) above all the other hormones your adrenals are responsible for? Because when your body isn’t properly regulating stress, you’ll notice it. You’ll become irritated by small things. A minor traffic delay will cause you a major freak-out. Instead of having energy during the day and being tired at night, cortisol fluctuations will leave you feeling exhausted at work and like an insomniac at 2 in the morning.
In this article, we will focus on how adrenal fatigue causes fluctuations of cortisol in the body, leading to both mental and physical exhaustion, among other things. But it’s important to note that your adrenals also regulate other hormones and neurotransmitters, meaning you can have varied and multiple symptoms of adrenal fatigue that go beyond sheer exhaustion, such as low sex drive or depression.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue does not occur overnight. It doesn’t happen from missing out on sleep for a few nights or experiencing day-to-day job stress. It takes a long time for your adrenals to truly become depleted—which is why it’s beneficial to notice symptoms early on. The Mayo Clinic reports that chronic, long-term stress is the most likely cause of adrenal fatigue. The belief is that when under prolonged chronic stress, your adrenals can’t keep up with your body’s constant fight-or-flight response. Because of this, they fail to regulate your body’s hormones properly, including cortisol. Other potential causes of adrenal fatigue may include:
- Chronic stress – the most likely cause
- Surgery, trauma, or injury
- Chronic inflammation, infection, illness or pain
- Overwork, including physical or mental strain
- Long-term sleep deprivation
Let’s delve into the stages of adrenal fatigue to understand the science of how it happens.
What Are The Stages Of Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a gradual process that occurs when your body can’t keep up with chronic stress. It occurs in stages. As your body is undergoing the beginning stages of adrenal fatigue, your cortisol levels climb and fluctuate abnormally. You feel wired, over-stimulated, and on-edge, unable to sleep at night. As your adrenal fatigue worsens, your cortisol levels drops significantly, bringing on exhaustion or an energy crash. Too many “fight or flight” responses have occurred one after the other, and your adrenals can no longer keep up. At this stage, you feel complete exhaustion regardless of how much sleep you get, and this is considered severe adrenal fatigue.
Stage One: Alarm
In the early stages of adrenal fatigue, your cortisol begins to fluctuate abnormally. In a healthy person, cortisol levels are higher in the morning and decrease gradually as the day goes on, so that by nighttime, they are ready for sleep. But when adrenal fatigue begins, your adrenal glands weaken and your body’s cortisol regulation is thrown out of whack. You may have low cortisol during the day but a high spike in cortisol at night which keeps you awake. In addition to encountering some insomnia, you may find yourself increasingly overwhelmed by minor stressors.
Stage Two: Resistance
As adrenal fatigue sets in more fully, your high cortisol will start to decrease as your adrenals begin to weaken. You may find yourself feeling so burnt out during the day that you constantly rely on caffeinated beverages or sugary treats to get you through the day. Your quality of sleep continues to decline, and you may notice some abdominal weight gain, irritability, and feeling “on-edge.”
Stage Three: Exhaustion
In severe adrenal fatigue, your ability to cope with stress becomes almost nonexistent. You feel exhausted regardless of how many hours of sleep you get. Cortisol levels plummet, as do levels of sex hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood and sex drive. You may experience extreme irritability, depression, and a compromised immune system.
What Are the Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?
Some people don’t medically recognize adrenal fatigue, but they do recognize adrenal insufficiency, or Addison’s Disease. Addison’s Disease is a long-term endocrine disorder where your adrenals don’t produce enough hormones. Some medical professionals view adrenal fatigue as a milder, more temporary form of Addison’s Disease.
Adrenal insufficiency can be diagnosed with something called an ACTH stimulation test, which measures changes in cortisol levels in the blood. If you suspect adrenal fatigue and not true Addison’s disease, one option is to ask for a cortisol test to identify if your body’s level of this hormone are normal. But more importantly, you can also be your own best advocate. You can start by identifying your symptoms. If you’re experiencing multiple symptoms below, you can start to treat your adrenal fatigue naturally (with our suggestions at the end of this article).
Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Chronic fatigue, feeling tired all day but you get a “second wind” around 11 pm.
- Shakiness or elevated heart rate as an overactive response to minor stressors
- Frequent insomnia
- Reduced libido
- Difficulty losing weight, especially around your abdomen
- Excessive thirst
- Chronic pain or body aches
- Constant cravings of salty foods
- Hair loss
- Muscle weakness
- Suppressed immune system, noticing you get sick more often
7 Steps To Healing Adrenal Fatigue Naturally
It takes time to wear out your adrenal glands, and because of this, it also takes time to heal them. It can take six to nine months to heal from minor adrenal fatigue, and up to 24 months for more severe adrenal fatigue. Recovering from adrenal fatigue includes taking stock of your physical and mental well-being and making significant lifestyle changes that promote a regular sleep schedule, proper nutrition, and reduced stimulus from stressful situations. Here are seven natural ways to begin your journey to recovering your adrenals.
1. Go on a caffeine detox. Eliminate all caffeine from your diet until your adrenals are normal. This will help reset your cortisol levels.
2. Revamp your diet. Eliminate any foods that you have sensitivities to, particularly eliminate excess sugar from your diet. Eating excess sugar creates blood sugar spikes and dips that cause the adrenals to work harder. Instead, eat lots of brightly colored vegetables, lean clean protein, and whole grains. Also be sure to eat regular meals so your blood sugar doesn’t dip too low. No more skipping breakfast!
3. Create a regular, early bedtime. Go to bed early, before you get a second cortisol surge after 11 pm. Aim to get to bed at 10 o clock or before. Practicing “proper sleep hygiene” is an idea that’s become increasingly important in our fast-paced world, and part of that means keeping a regular bedtime so you train your body to sleep better.
4. Meditate. Aim to manage stress in a more proactive way. Instead of waiting until something upsets you to try and calm down in the moment (which can be difficult, especially when your adrenals are taxed,) begin every day with a 10-minute meditation. This will regulate your breathing, calm your mind and body, and help you better manage any stress that comes your way before it overwhelms your adrenals.
5. Try Himalayan sea salt. Adrenal fatigue affects a hormone called aldosterone, which is partly responsible for regulating salt in the body. Because of this, consuming more natural salts like Himalayan sea salt, which are full of trace minerals that support your adrenal function, can actually help heal your adrenals.
6. Avoid Over-Exercising. Too much cardio or excessive exercise is hard on the adrenals. If you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue, consider switching to a more moderate exercise routine, including de-stressing practices like gentle yoga or walking.
7. Try Adaptogenic Herbs. Adaptogens are herbs that help your body deal with stress better. Consider taking an herb that supports adrenal health, like ashwagandha or rhodiola.
If you suspect you have adrenal fatigue, give some of these natural treatments a try and be your own advocate with your doctor. If anything, adrenal fatigue shows us that how we take care of both our bodies and our minds can have major consequences on our health. Use our seven tips to reset your adrenals and heal from adrenal fatigue naturally!