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The topic of adrenal fatigue came into my life within the last year. I’ve touched on it before with promise of more detail, and today is the day I’ll start digging in some. I believe that adrenal fatigue is a far more widespread problem that anyone knows. In fact, I’d venture to say few people have even heard of it. And those who have may not fully realize the ramifications of what it means to have adrenal fatigue.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I am a scientist. Nothing written here is a professional diagnosis or professional advice by any means. My purpose here is to tell my story, report some science, share what has worked for me personally, and hope to relate to another homegirl. If you realize that you’ve got some serious issues, call your doctor or another medical professional.
My Adrenal Fatigue Wake Up
I’ll start by giving you some background about how I found out about my severe adrenal fatigue. My story starts May 2017. My first semester in graduate school had just ended, and I had graduated with my Bachelor degrees (I overlapped them, another story for another time). As soon as it was all over, my boyfriend Tim flew to Seattle with a friend for a 2 week vacation, leaving my schedule 100% to my discretion. Amazing, I started sleeping 8 pm to 8 am every night. I couldn’t sleep enough. I couldn’t get rested no matter how long I slept. And I certainly couldn’t get my butt to the university to work on my thesis.
I figured that I was just exhausted from the semester and would bounce back in a few weeks with some relaxation. No problem, right?
At the time, I was reading Hashimoto’s Protocol by Dr. Izabella Wentz (a highly recommended read for anyone dealing with thyroid issues). The second section of her book talks about detoxing the adrenal glands. There’s a few pages about adrenal fatigue tucked away in this section listing out symptoms. There’s also a quiz you can take to tally up your symptoms and see where you lie on the risk levels. Needless to say, I scored well above high risk.
Obviously, the first thing I did was hit up Google. Quizzes, articles, papers, books. I wanted to know anything I could find to heal fast now that I had some level of diagnosis to work with.
Looking back, it’s kind of silly that I thought I could beat adrenal fatigue in no time considering severe cases can take 18-24 months to fully recover. And honestly, I’m still deep in the trenches. My thesis defense is in a couple of months, and I’m starting a full-time job in a couple of weeks, all while launching this business’s first product line. So on a side note, if you realize that this is you, patience will be required – no matter how much reading you do or how motivated you are to get better.
The test you can take
I decided the best thing to do, especially with my avoidance of Western medicine* and symptoms interrupting my schoolwork, was to get a hormone test. I found am at-home saliva test on Amazon that I could do completely by mail (super cool, actually). The exact test I took is no longer available, but I now use a company called EverlyWell for at-home testing that is actually better than what I used at first. My results came back: cortisol levels very high in the early morning (8 am) and very low the rest of the day (from noon on). I had a diagnosis and confirmation for just a couple hundred bucks.
*A side note:
There is no official diagnosis for adrenal fatigue in Western medicine. Your doctor probably won’t recognize that you have a problem with your HPA axis until things get really, really bad. While I’m not a doctor and can’t diagnose your or tell you what to do, I can suggest that if you suspect this is your problem, do a lot of research on your own and talk to a doctor of natural medicine. They should be open to natural remedies (like food as medicine and meditation) and not call you crazy or tell you that you don’t have a problem or just give you a bunch of medication. If you do get that reaction from your doctor, it might be time to find a new doctor.
Fast forward 11 months.
I’m still exhausted, stressed, and some days it spirals out of control. However, awareness is the first step to healing. If you identify with the symptoms (keep reading for a list) of adrenal fatigue, it may be the answer to some of your health problems (mental and physical). Stress and anxiety can wreak serious havoc on your body well beyond mental health.
Understanding Adrenal Fatigue
The good news is, there’s hope! The healing process requires discipline, self-compassion, and in many cases a drastic lifestyle adjustment. No worries, it doesn’t have to happen overnight (remember that patience!).
The Hormone System
The first step is understanding. What exactly is adrenal fatigue and why would you get it?
According to Dr. Wentz, adrenal fatigue originates in the HPA axis. The HPA axis is the communication highway between the three endocrine glands: the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal. The hypothalamus keeps your body’s hormone levels in check by watching your hormone levels and placing orders for more when you’re out of balance. The pituitary gland manages the thyroid gland, adrenal gland, and the gonads. It makes sure the glands have resources to produce and passes on orders from the hypothalamus.
When you feel stress, your hypothalamus orders more hormones from your adrenals, namely cortisol and adrenaline. You stop relaxing, digesting, and healing. Everything nonessential gets put on the back burner.
In a healthy person, once the stressor disappears, the body goes back into the restorative mode and the levels of cortisol and adrenaline go back to normal.
In a chronically stressed person (yours truly), situations that don’t actually threaten your life cause you to go into fight or flight anyway. This could be bad traffic, checking your email, navigating the grocery store, working on your thesis. You see where this is headed.
The problem is, your body requires a tradeoff for all this extra cortisol and adrenaline. The other hormones that the adrenal gland is responsible for producing decrease production. When supplies are limited, your body produces what it thinks is most necessary first. Suddenly you can find yourself deficient in progesterone, DHEA, and testosterone.
The hypothalamus gets overwhelmed and fed up with being overworked. It stops telling the adrenals to produce hormones. I like to think of it like diabetes for the adrenals. A person with diabetes has low insulin levels as a result of too many spikes. The body gives up and quits producing insulin, so you have trouble processing sugar. A comparison can be drawn with adrenal fatigue. Your stress levels spike too many times. Your body gets tired and gives up producing the hormones you need to function. And your functions start to break down.
This list comes from Dr. Axe, a medical professional that I follow closely and respect greatly.
- 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
This list also comes from Dr. Axe, my trusted medical professional.
- 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
The 3 Stages
There are, in general, 3 phases of adrenal fatigue. After seeing the specific list of symptoms, you might already be able to pinpoint where your stress levels have landed you.
1: Mild (Stressed)
This is a phase where many people hang out off and on without even realizing it. You will have elevated levels of stress hormones, feel tired, but in general feel like your functioning mostly normal.
2: Moderate (Wired but Tired)
The levels of other hormones produced by your adrenals may start to be lower. “Wired but tired” is a common way of describing the feelings at this stage. You crash at night but can’t fall right to sleep. Your quality of life starts to drop as the rest of your hormone levels are consistently lower. I would venture to guess that most people don’t start to wave a red flag on their health until they’re on the cusp of stage 3. Our culture is so saturated in work and the go-go-go mentality that stages 1 and 2 are “normal”. I think this is where I was last summer. At this point, I might bounce between stages 2 and 3.
3. Severe (Crashed)
This is where burnout happens. Your stress hormones and sex hormones bottom out. The symptoms of this stage impact every part of the body.
For my fellow stressers,
At this point, I have either pique your interest or lost you. That’s okay. This is a lot of data for someone who can’t currently relate. But I suspect those of you who are still with me, are with me. You might be at the same point I was last summer: What do I have to do to fix this?!
I’ll take a few different approaches to answer this questions and share some of my most trusty resources at the end. Several factors influence how we deal with stressors, and you’ll have to get a handle on all of them to completely heal. Here’s a list of some of my biggest triggers:
- lack of sleep
- lack of sunshine
- overworking on school
- intense exercise
- poor diet
I think a good place to start is to identify what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse. Once you nail those down, you can start fixing what makes you feel worse and adding more of what makes you feel better. Things that makes me feel better include (I’ll make this list longer to give you some suggestions):
- a good meal
- getting outside
- spending time with my SO
- essential oils
- chamomile tea
- breathing exercises
- stand up comedy (laughing)
- working on my business
- taking a bath
The two most crucial factors to start with
When you’re feeling all the fatigue, let your body rest. Get 10 hours of sleep if you want it. Go to bed as early as you can. 9 or 10 PM. Sleep as late as you can. According to Dr. Wentz, deep sleep happens between 10 PM and 2 AM; REM sleep happens between 5 AM and 9 AM. This is your restorative sleep, so try not to miss out on it.
Start drinking decaf, ditch the Red Bull, and avoid anything that could interrupt your good sleep. If you don’t feel any more rested after drinking it anyway, then what’s the point, right?
Chill out on those killer workouts, and (for now) opt for something easier on the body. Yoga is an excellent option for this. I love Yoga With Adriene for all my at-home yoga instructor needs. If you can handle something a little more intense, Cassey Ho’s Blogilates videos are a good option. You can search for some of her easier Pilates workouts.
Set aside time for yourself. Schedule “me time” like it’s just as important as a meeting, workout, or anything else.
Dr. Axe has an excellent design for an adrenal-supportive diet. In general, these are the foods to ditch:
- processed food
- unhealthy oils
A more intense detox would include also removing:
- hot peppers
A simple Google search will give you a huge list of supplements to take to support your adrenals. Unfortunately for most of us, spending as much money on food as supplements just isn’t an option. The $$$ adds up quick!
Dr. Axe and Dr. Wentz both give suggestions for supplements in their resources. I’ve choses to take a vitamin C with probiotic, ashwaganda, and multivitamin for women. I also eat Brazil nuts for selenium. What’s right for you may not be right for me. Do your homework, talk to your doctor, and choose what works for you and your budget. (Seriously, though, one of the probiotics I take on occasion is $50/mo!! It can add up super fast if you’re taking a few different things!)
My Other Resources
As promised, here is a list of the resources I used and things I read that were immensely helpful and educational. These either are educational about adrenal fatigue, food, or dealing with stress.
- Yoga for Emotional Balance by Bo Forbes (an amazing understanding of anxiety, depression, and how to treat them using yoga – by a psychiatrist)
- Eat Dirt by Dr. Josh Axe (a crash course to cleaning up your diet in general)
- Hashimoto’s Protocol by Dr. Izabella Wentz (specifically written for thyroid issues, but applicable if you zoom out a bit when you read it)
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown (a helpful take on how to say no, manage your priorities, and focus your energy to reduce stress)
- Summer 2017 issue of Yoga International magazine (many amazing articles about stress and yoga)
- August 2017 issue of Mindful magazine (a feature about MBSR – a program for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
- The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (tons of insight into personality types as far as motivation and dealing with exceptions from internal and external sources – the more you know about yourself, the easier it is to navigate or altogether avoid stressful situations)
- The 21-Day Brain Detox by Dr. Caroline Leaf (I’m currently doing this one now – it won’t be for everyone because it’s very Christian-based, but if you’re interested there you go)
- Elegant Excellence by Hilary Rushford (an online class for entrepreneurs/CEOs but tons of amazing material about managing stress and balancing your life)
- Broken Brain by Dr. Mark Hyman (a documentary with one whole episode dedicated to stress & anxiety + tons of other amazing health info)
I hope that this has been helpful and educational to those of you who either didn’t even know adrenal fatigue existed or are looking for a place to start healing. If you have any questions about my story or experience, feel free to drop them in the comments below. However, as I said before, I’m not a doctor. I can’t recommend treatments, supplements, or anything else. I can only tell you how I feel personally and my personal strategy for healing.
Drop me a line in the comments below: Have you struggled with adrenal fatigue? Are you in the process of recovering? What are your favorite strategies for stress management?