It’s time to do something about adrenal fatigue because chances are you’re dealing with it. Many proponents of this condition estimate that almost every person can experience adrenal fatigue, also known as hypoadrenia, to some degree at a particularly stressful point in his or her life.
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Because of the vast influence of the adrenals on the body, symptoms of adrenal fatigue can mimic a number of disorders and isn’t always easily recognizable. Most sources agree that adrenal fatigue symptoms include extreme fatigue, brain fog, weight gain, insulin resistance and others (more on that below).
What Are Your Adrenal Glands?
What are your adrenals? Your adrenal glands (adrenals) are two thumb-sized organs that sit above your kidneys and are part of the endocrine system. Also known as the suprarenal glands, they’re involved in producing over 50 hormones that drive almost every bodily function, many of which are essential for life.
Hormones affect every function, organ and tissue in the body directly or indirectly. They react to each other as well as respond to conditions in the body in an intricate and highly sensitive balancing act. The adrenal glands work closely with the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in a system known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis).
Normally, the adrenal glands release cortisol on a diurnal rhythm, referring to the process of boosts of cortisol throughout the day that help wake us up, with a decline in this hormone level in the evening to aid the body in sleeping. This rhythm, however, doesn’t always apply when external stress occurs.
Adrenal glands play a huge role in stress response. Your brain registers a threat, whether emotional, mental or physical. The adrenal medulla releases cortisol and adrenaline hormones to help you react to the threat (the fight-or-flight response), rushing blood to your brain, heart and muscles. The adrenal cortex then releases corticosteroids to dampen processes like digestion, immune system response and other functions not necessary for immediate survival.
Your adrenal glands are also responsible for balancing hormones, such as:
Glucocorticoids – hormones that balance your body’s blood sugar, help with energy and food metabolism, help your body relieve stress and manage your immune response (e.g., cortisol).
Mineralocorticoids – hormones that maintain healthy blood pressure, manage your blood hydration level, and keep your blood healthy by keeping salt and water in balance (e.g., aldosterone).
Sex hormones – estrogen and testosterone.
Adrenaline/epinephrine – hormones that affect your heart health, make sure that all parts of the body are getting blood and convert glycogen into glucose in your liver.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a condition where your body and adrenal glands can’t keep up with the tremendous amount of daily stress many people experience. Sometimes misunderstood as an autoimmune disorder, adrenal fatigue can mimic some precursors to other common illnesses and disease.
Wellness doctors and practitioners believe that an episode of acute stress or prolonged, chronic stress can cause adrenal glands to become overloaded and ineffective, then improperly release cortisol. They believe that hypoadrenia can be caused by:
- Stressful experiences like death of loved one, divorce or surgery
- Exposure to environmental toxins and pollution
- Prolonged stress due to financial hardship, bad relationships or work environment, and other conditions that entail feelings of helplessness
- Negative thinking and emotional trauma
- Lack of sleep
- Poor diet (including crash diets and inconsistent nutrition) and lack of exercise
- Food sensitivities
- Reliance on stimulants like caffeine or energy drinks
- Rheumatoid arthritis
But can stress cause extreme fatigue? Yes, it absolutely can. One study found that students undergoing chronic, long-term stress when prepping for medical exams at the end of their educational careers impaired the students’ cortisol awakening response. By limiting this surge in cortisol that naturally occurs every morning when you wake up to help you feel alert, stress inhibits your ability to wake up fully, no matter how much sleep you get.
Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms
What happens when the adrenal glands stop producing hormones efficiently? Every bodily function is affected, and as adrenal hormone levels ebb and flow abnormally, even the normal “get-up-and-go” you get from them disappears. Adrenal fatigue symptoms include:
- Autoimmune conditions
- Chronic fatigue (always feeling tired)
- Brain fog
- Hair loss
- Hormone imbalance
- Weakened stress response
- Insulin resistance
- Decreased sex drive/libido
- Moodiness and irritability
- Muscle or bone loss
- Skin ailments
- Sleep disturbances
- Weight gain
- Sweet and salty food cravings
As you can see, there are a number of symptoms that might be related to other underlying disorders. Fortunately, the ways to combat these issues are very similar and will benefit your overall health. If you’ve experienced any of these adrenal fatigue side effects, take heart, for there are now many natural ways to treat and support your adrenal system.
3 Steps to Overcome Adrenal Fatigue
Treatment for adrenal fatigue involves reducing stress on your body and your mind, eliminating toxins, avoiding negative thinking and replenishing your body with healthy foods, supplements and ways of thinking.
If you’re asking, “How can I help my adrenal glands?” the answer may be closer than you think — adrenal fatigue treatment looks a lot like the healthy, healing diets to help combat the underlying issues causing a number of conditions.
1. Follow the Adrenal Fatigue Diet
In every case of adrenal recovery, diet is a huge factor. There are a number of foods that offer adrenal support, helping to replenish your adrenal energy so your system can come back to full health. But first, you must start by removing any hard-to-digest foods and any toxins or chemicals in your environment.
The idea is to remove anything that taxes your adrenals. Foods to avoid include:
Caffeine: This can interfere with your sleep cycle and make it hard for your adrenals to recover. If you must drink coffee or a caffeinated beverage, then have a limited amount in the morning before noon.
Sugar and sweeteners: Includes avoiding high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners as well. Avoid sugary foods, cereals, candy, sweets, etc. Be aware that sugar is an additive in many breads, condiments and dressings. Try to avoid as much extra sugar as possible. Seek the benefits of raw honey or stevia as an alternative, and always moderate your use of sweeteners of any kind.
Carbohydrates: While carbohydrates aren’t all bad for you, the inflammation they can cause is particularly problematic when experiencing adrenal fatigue. Many people crave carb-heavy foods when they’re stressed, which offer a momentary satisfaction but end up taxing the adrenal glands more. If you’re overwhelmed and stressed out, try kicking the gluten and starchy carbs for a period of time to see if that may regulate your tiredness and energy levels.
Processed and microwaved foods: First of all, the microwave has its own dangers, but additionally, most microwaveable, ultra-processed foods have many preservatives and fillers that are hard to digest and wear out your body’s energy and digestion cycle. Try to buy food on the outer walls of your grocery store and prepare your own food whenever possible.
Processed meats: An overload of protein can stress your hormones more than you might think, and the added hormones and lacking nutrition in conventional, processed meats (particularly red meats like beef and steak) can throw your system out-of-whack in quick succession. When buying meats for adrenal support, stick to grass-fed beef and free-range chicken or turkey, and eat these protein-heavy meats only in moderation.
Hydrogenated oils: Vegetable oils like soybean, canola and corn oil are highly inflammatory and can lead to adrenal inflammation. Try to only use good fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, organic butter or ghee.
Next, you want to add nutrient-dense foods that are easy to digest and have healing qualities. Some of the top superfoods for adrenal health include:
- Avocado and other healthy fats
- Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.)
- Fatty fish (e.g., wild-caught salmon)
- Free-range chicken and turkey
- Bone broth
- Nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
- Seeds, such as pumpkin, chia and flax
- Kelp and seaweed
- Celtic or Himalayan sea salt
- Fermented foods rich in probiotics
- Chaga and cordyceps medicinal mushrooms
These foods help overcome adrenal fatigue because they’re nutrient-dense, low in sugar and have healthy fat and fiber.
2. Take Adrenal Fatigue Supplements and Herbs
Another big key to overcoming adrenal fatigue is taking the right supplements using supporting herbs. I always recommend eating the right foods to heal your body. However, it can still be a challenge to get enough of every nutrient you need every day. Therefore, it can be useful to wisely use dietary supplements for vitamins and minerals particularly vital for adrenal support.
In addition, there are certain herbs, spices and essential oils that can help to fight adrenal fatigue and support an energetic, vibrant life.
Adaptogenic herbs ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, schisandra and holy basil: Research indicates that adaptogen herbs may help to lower cortisol levels and mediate stress responses within the body. By using these herbs in food preparation, you can alleviate some of the strain on your adrenal glands.
Licorice root: This spice is available in extract form and helps to increase the DHEA in your body. Licorice root is associated with some side effects and may sometimes be avoided by taking DGL licorice. Pregnant women and those with heart, liver or kidney problems should avoid licorice root. Don’t take it for more than four weeks at a time.
Fish oil (EPA/DHA): There are a large number of benefits of supplementing with fish oil (or, for people on vegan or other plant-based diets, algal oil). Several of these include counteracting a number of adrenal fatigue-related symptoms and complications, such as diabetes, mental dysfunction, arthritis, immune system function, skin issues, weight gain and anxiety/depression.
Magnesium: For some time, magnesium has been understood as one of the necessary nutrients for fighting adrenal insufficiency, a medical condition I’ll dive into below. While the mechanisms of this aren’t fully understood, you may benefit from supplementing with magnesium if you are suffering from adrenal fatigue.
B-Complex vitamins: Research has found that vitamin B12 deficiencymay be associated with stress on the adrenal cortex in some animals. Vitamin B5 is another commonly deficient vitamin in people with adrenal stress. Especially if you’re reducing or eliminating meat from your diet in order to fight adrenal fatigue, it may serve you well to take a high-quality B-complex vitamin supplement.
Vitamin C: Known as a “stress-busting” nutrient, vitamin C has been found to minimize the effects of stress on people as well as reduce the time necessary to bounce back from stressful events.
Vitamin D: In addition to maintaining homeostasis between magnesium and phosphorus in the body and supporting strong bones, Vitamin D has also more recently been seen to have impact on other conditions, including adrenal dysfunction and disease.
Selenium: At least one animal study has found that selenium deficiency can negatively impact adrenal function.
Lavender oil: Human and animal studies show that lavender essential oil has a calming effect that can reduce stress. Research also suggests that it may lower high cortisol levels when inhaled.
Rosemary oil: Rosemary essential oil (along with lavender) can help to decrease cortisol concentrations and reduce oxidative stress on cells. (31)
I always recommend using whole-food-based supplements from reputable companies and using only 100 percent, therapeutic grade, USDA Certified Organic essential oils. Make sure you trust what you’re purchasing.
3. Reduce Adrenal Fatigue Stress
The last and most important key to restoring your adrenal function is to heed your mind and stress needs. Pay attention to your body!
- Rest when you feel tired as much as possible.
- Sleep 8–10 hours a night.
- Avoid staying up late and stay on a regular sleep cycle — ideally, in bed before 10 p.m.
- Laugh and do something fun every day.
- Minimize work and relational stress however possible.
- Eat on a regular food cycle, and reduce your caffeine and sugar addiction.
- Exercise (even moderate exercise and walking can help). Yoga, in particular, can help to improve quality of life and reduce stress responses.
- Avoid negative people and self-talk.
- Take time for yourself (do something relaxing).
Seek counsel or support for any traumatic experiences.
- Adrenal fatigue is a controversial condition, coined by Dr. James L. Wilson in the late 1990s.
- This condition is considered to be an “in-between” state of health, before reaching a state of diagnosable disease, that is characterized by several general symptoms affecting various body systems, similar to China’s classification of suboptimal health symptoms.
- Adrenal fatigue is said to be caused by high levels of chronic stress that lead to a taxing of the adrenal glands, forcing them to overproduce or underproduce cortisol, the stress hormone, at the wrong times.
- Many believe that adrenal fatigue can lead to more serious adrenal diseases like adrenal insufficiency or Cushing’s syndrome.
- Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue include severe tiredness, brain fog, decreased sex drive, hair loss, insulin resistance and others.
- To naturally fight adrenal fatigue, remove inflammatory foods from your diet such as sugar and excess carbohydrates, and eat plenty of colorful, plant-based foods, free-range lean meats such as chicken or turkey, and lots of healthy fats.
- There are a variety of herbs, spices, supplements and essential oils that may be used to combat adrenal fatigue. These should be used under medical supervision.
- If you experience symptoms for an extended period of time or have certain issues like patches of darkened skin, consult an endocrinologist immediately for help.
This is a condensed article written by Dr. Axe for Dr. David Jensen