We need to address our STRESS.
It’s no doubt that most of us lead pretty stressful lifestyles, whether it’s stress we physically see and feel, such as our jobs, relationships, sitting in traffic, etc. OR stress that we don’t necessarily see, such as too much coffee, exercise, etc.
Either way, we are bombarded every single day with stressors, and over time these stressors have the power to create internal dysfunction.
What I’m talking about is something called HPA Dysfunction, or otherwise known as Adrenal Fatigue.
I’m sure a lot of you have heard of the term “adrenal fatigue” before. It’s become all the rage, specifically in the health and fitness industry over the last couple of years. It’s gotten a lot of attention, mostly because of the prevalence of it in chronically stressed individuals.
But what is Adrenal Fatigue? What does it mean?
The HPA-axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis) is the system within the body that responds to stress. It’s a complex
system that is responsible for the hormone adaptation component of our stress response. Simply put, when our bodies are exposed to stress, the HPA-axis is activated and causes the release of our stress hormone known as cortisol from our adrenal glands, and then boom, done… stress is managed and the HPA-axis turns off.
However, when the HPA-axis is exposed to consistent stress, it never gets a rest and is continuously turned on, pumping out cortisol. Because of this, we begin to become resistant to its effects, which results in more and more cortisol being released. If this continues to happen, the HPA-axis will not be able to keep up with the body’s constant demand for cortisol, and so cortisol levels decrease creating a plethora of symptoms… a.k.a Adrenal Fatigue.
Currently there is no official diagnosis for HPA-dysfunction/Adrenal Fatigue as it is a syndrome, not a disease, which means it is a collection of symptoms. Although there is not an official diagnosis, it is very real and affecting many people.
What are the Causes?
As stated above, Adrenal Fatigue is caused by chronic stress being imposed on the body, which creates dysfunction in the HPA-axis.
Okay, so we know the bodily cause, but what gets us to the point of having so much chronic stress that it affects our body in such a way?
Lack of sleep
Poor diet (highly refined foods, crash diets, nutrient imbalances, etc.)
Excessive consumption / having to rely on stimulants such as coffee & energy drinks
Lack of exercise OR too much exercise
Environmental toxin and pollution exposure
Prolonged stress due to finances, work environment, relationships, etc.
The most common stressors are the ones that we don’t necessarily notice or even think could have a lasting effect on us. In a way, we’re right. Not getting enough sleep, for example, for one or two nights, won’t cause adrenal fatigue. But if it happens on a consistent basis, it will absolutely have a prolonged effect, amongst our other stressors.
The body views things as stressors that don’t really seem like actual stressors, such as consuming a diet high in refined carbohydrates and empty calories. If an individual consumes a rather unhealthy diet, blood sugar is not stable and gut health is far from ideal, in most cases. When blood sugar is unstable and drops, our body registers it as a threat. When we consume something that our bodies don't agree with, our body registers it as a threat. Threat = the HPA Axis is activated.
Another not-so-obvious stressor is exercise, which I’ve also blogged about here (1). Exercise is typically looked at as being a positive addition to ones life, but the hidden truth is that it also has the ability to become a negative stressor. Consistent high-intensity workouts, most days out of the week, coupled with a super clean, low carb diet, reduces recover within the body and therefore the positive stress becomes negative.
So clearly, we have our work cut out for us here. It seems as though everything can impose stress on our bodies, we can’t seem to escape. These vicious cycles that we’ve found ourselves in just continue to go around and around and around again. How do we stop it? First and foremost, we need to identify what the symptoms are. We need to know what to look for…
What are the Symptoms?
Chronic fatigue - always feeling tired no matter how much rest you get
Reduced cognitive function - brain fog
Reduced stress response
Lightheadedness from sitting to standing
Waking up not feeling rested
When you look at this list, you might think “these symptoms look super generic”. That’s true, they are pretty generic and can double as symptoms to other underlying ailments. However, many of the methods used to treat Adrenal Fatigue, also help in improving one’s health even without having it.
How to Prevent / Pull Yourself Out of Adrenal Fatigue:
If you feel as though you are dealing with Adrenal Fatigue, there are a few things you can do for yourself.
The foods you consume play an enormous role in healing the body. It’s crucial that you pay attention to what you are fueling your body with, not only in this situation, but in general. When it comes to healing Adrenal Fatigue with food, it’s important to remove the things that are feeding into it. These foods include:
Caffeine - you can do this either cold-turkey or slowly ween yourself off. Either way, drastically reduce your consumption of caffeine.
Certain Carbohydrates - stress typically causes people to crave carbohydrates. But like I mentioned earlier, a rise and fall in blood sugar further affects the HPA-axis. Therefore, it’s important to consume high-fiber carbohydrates as well as less carbohydrates overall. Gluten is also another one of those things that causes inflammation, therefore it should be removed as well.
Sugar - this goes hand in hand with what I spoke about earlier — blood sugar peaks and valleys. Certain sweeteners can also cause gut issues. Replace sugar/sweeteners with natural options, such as stevia.
Processed foods - reducing processed foods also reduces consumption of additives, preservatives, and fillers that can cause stress on our digestion systems.
Fats - remove hydrogenated/vegetable oils, such as soybean and canola oil. These oils are rather inflammatory and can feed into Adrenal Fatigue and overall systemic inflammation.
Protein - excess protein consumption (specifically conventionally processed meats, pumped full of hormones; red meats) can cause internal distress. Be sure to consume lean protein sources such as, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, eggs, turkey etc., and wild caught seafood.
Reduce Your Stressors -
Another extremely important component of improving Adrenal Fatigue is reducing/removing one of the biggest things that got you there in the first place: stress.
In today’s world, it may seem difficult to do this. These changes require habit breaking and habit building, which can seem very daunting. However, when consistently done these things will naturally turn into routine.
Sleep - Ensure you give yourself enough time to get 8 hours of sleep per night
Consume a nutrient-dense diet and eat regularly - someone who is trying to combat their Adrenal Fatigue needs to focus on fueling their body with a diet high in fiber, omega-3’s, and low saturated-fat. This diet is very consistent with the Mediterranean Diet, which has been praised for it’s low-inflammatory properties and essentially being disease preventing.
Reduce environmental toxin exposure - do not heat food in plastics or drink out of plastic water bottles. Focus on buying organic fruits, vegetables, and other goods as well as grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught protein sources.
Turn negative self-talk into positive self-talk - studies show that consistent negative self-talk / having a toxic mindset contributes to depression and chronic disease. Turning it into positive-self talk can help you feel motivated and feel a sense of purpose and passion to improve your overall health. Be kind to yourself. (This also goes hand-in-hand with negative people in your life; keep your environment positive.)
Do something everyday that will calm your mind - reduce stressors from finances, work, etc. by starting a mind-body practice, such as yoga and/or meditation. These practices can help you drastically manage your stress and improve your overall mindset, cognition, and mental clarity. Getting out in nature and going for a walk has shown to be extremely beneficial in this category as well.
Exercise - daily walking and moderate weight-training 3-4x per week, with enough recovery time, reduces inflammation and can help with mental clarity and improve quality of life.
Address emotional trauma - with any traumatic experience, whether physical or emotional, it is imperative to seek support or counsel in order to handle its manifestation.
Take time / do things for yourself - I am a huge advocate for this one for every single person. We often forget to take a step back and practice self-care. If you are not taken care of, other things in your life cannot thrive. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Supplementation to Help Treat Adrenal Fatigue:
When it comes to healing Adrenal Fatigue, it is important to ensure adequate nutrient supply via supplementation. In a perfect world, we would be able to get the vitamins and minerals we need straight from our food sources, but unfortunately that’s just not the case. Therefore, we need to resort to physically taking our vitamins. We know there are specific vitamins that we need for overall health, regardless of Adrenal Fatigue, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, Vitamin C, fish oil, etc.
But there are specific supplements that are important for someone dealing with Adrenal Fatigue. Studies have shown that adaptogen herbs play a role in this. These types of herbs known to be adrenal-friendly and cater to the HPA-axis by improving the body’s ability to adapt to stress. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen herb that shows to be extremely beneficial for a number of processes within the body, but specifically in maintaining adrenal function. Other adaptogen herbs include licorice root, ginseng, rhodiola rosea, and maca.
B Vitamins are also essential for someone with Adrenal Fatigue. These nutrients are essential in cellular metabolism, improving hormone balance, improving metabolic pathways, boosting energy levels, improving cellular turnover, and helping in reducing fatigue, among other benefits.
Some studies suggest that a majority of the population in the United States are deficient in Magnesium. However, it is an essential mineral in maintaining energy, specifically in Adrenal Fatigue sufferers. Magnesium helps in reducing symptoms of depression and fatigue, as well as improving digestion, muscle cramping, and stiffness.
Probiotics are also extremely important in not inly improving digestion, but improving stress levels. Being that our guts are essentially our second brains, having bad gut health (which most individuals with Adrenal Fatigue do) inhibits us from absorbing the nutrients needed to maintain energy levels, hormone balance, our immune systems, etc.
Please note: these nutrients depend on the individual and therefore one should consult a nutritionist to determine which dosage is correct for them.
Wrapping it Up:
Our modern lifestyle caters to the development of Adrenal Fatigue. However, this does not determine our fate and there are many things that we can do in order to either stop the development or prevent it.
If you feel as though you might be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue, it is important to address the issue heads on as Adrenal Fatigue is believed to lead to more serious health conditions and or prolonged damage to the adrenal glands.
Seek out the help of a professional, such as a Integrative Nutritionist, Functional Medicine Specialist, or a Clinical Nutritionist that have the credentials to help in healing your Adrenal Fatigue. Consult an endocrinologist if your symptoms become severe.
Panossian, A., & Wagner, H. (2005, October 19). Stimulating effect of adaptogens: an overview with particular reference to their efficacy following single dose administration. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16261511
Singh, N., Bhalla, M., Jager, P. D., & Gilca, M. (2011, July 3). An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/
Wilson, J. (n.d.). The Source on Adrenal Fatigue. Retrieved from http://adrenalfatigue.org/