Adrenal Fatigue: How Stress Impacts our Health and How we can Improve it.
Adrenal fatigue may be something many of us are experiencing and not really realize it.
Adrenal fatigue happens when we are exposed to and experience stress on an ongoing basis which causes our adrenal glands to “fatigue” so that they are unable to produce adequate cortisol to support our nervous system and energy production.
In this blog post we’re going to dive a little deeper into why the adrenals matter, signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue and strategies to improve adrenal fatigue symptoms.
Let’s get started!
So, what are the adrenals and why do they matter?
Our adrenal glands are the small, triangle shaped glands that kind of sit on top of our kidneys. They produce and help regulate hormones that control our metabolism, immune system, response to stress, sleep wake cycle and other essential systems in our bodies.
The three hormones that are produced by the adrenal glands are cortisol, aldosterone and adrenaline. Often the hormone most impacted by adrenal fatigue is cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that helps our body use fat, protein and carbohydrates, suppresses inflammation, regulates blood pressure, impacts our blood sugar and helps control our sleep-wake cycles. Our adrenal glands release cortisol during times of stress – that’s right, cortisol is one of the hormones that trigger that “fight or flight” response that helps us deal with emergency situations.
As many of us know, our fight or flight response was very important to our distant ancestors who may have needed that energy boost to run from predators- however in today’s world many things trigger that same fight or flight response.
Many of us may feel like we’re in that fight or flight state on a daily basis, not needing to run from predators but maybe needing to meet a looming work deadline, or battling traffic to pick our kids up from school on time or making sure the laundry gets done on a regular basis.
Often the biggest challenge is getting that fight or flight response to turn off– as many of us move from crisis to crisis without truly having time to recover. This causes our adrenals to fatigue and not produce cortisol properly.
The other important function of cortisol that is greatly impacted by adrenal fatigue is regulating our sleep and wake cycles. Cortisol is a hormone that gives us energy which is why we need more of it in times of stress.
When cortisol is being produced normally it is highest when we wake up in the morning and lowest right when we’re going to bed.
When the adrenals are fatigued, cortisol is not produced properly, sometimes there can be too much released late in the evening, so we feel “wired,” and not able to sleep. Or sometimes there is not enough released in the morning upon waking, so we feel tired before our day even begins. Or sometimes, there just isn’t enough produced at all. This leads to many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue.
Some of the common symptoms include:
- Decreased physical endurance and stamina
- Fatigue upon waking in the morning
- Losing interest in hobbies and things you normally enjoy
- Weakness or dizziness when standing up after sitting
- Fatigue after long periods of standing, walking or even talking
- Low or anxious mood
- Intolerance of sensory inputs (bright lights, temperature changes, etc)
- Recurrent viral or bacterial infections
How can I manage adrenal fatigue?
Since adrenal fatigue is caused by chronic stress, the main way to manage and recover from it is to decrease stress. However, that is often easier said than done and we need to consider all types of stress.
Often when we think of things that cause us stress we think of situations where we feel threatened or under pressure, those “big stressors”, deadlines, impactful life events, conflict with others, etc.
But there are other things that cause stress to our bodies that we may not even be thinking of as stressors: lack of sleep, hard strenuous workouts, eating a very restricted calorie diet or fasting too long. So when we think about managing and recovering from adrenal fatigue, it really requires a multidimensional approach.
Here are some things to consider to start you on the path to recover the adrenals:
Nutrition – eat to maintain stable blood sugar and avoid energy spikes and crashes
- Eat within 1 hour of waking up
- Space meals about 3-4 hours apart
- Try to eat balanced meals with proteins, carbohydrates and fats
- Eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables
- Avoid snacking before bedtime
- Long periods of fasting are not recommended, but fasting from dinner time until breakfast the next day is ideal
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day
- Avoid eating carbohydrates alone
- Get plenty of omega 3’s
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and tobacco
Activity – exercise is good but also remember too much or strenuous exercise can be more of a stress on your body
- Walking or other light cardio activities are great, aim for 10,000 steps per day or gradually work up to this if your current activity level is sedentary
- High intensity cardio, cross fit type training and long distance running are likely not ideal when trying to recover from adrenal fatigue, maintain your current level of cardiovascular fitness by doing light to moderate intensity cardio activities
- Resistance training or weight lifting can be modified by lifting lighter weights for 10-12 repetitions with 2-3 minute rest periods between sets, listen to your body carefully, decrease weight if your sets are too tiring
- Restorative activities like yoga, Pilates, stretching or other forms of body work will be very valuable not just for the impact on your body but also for the calming effect these activities can have on your mind.
Sleep – focus on and prioritize sleep, this can often be the most challenging part
- If possible maintain a consistent bedtime (ideally before 11pm) and wake up time
- Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night
- Set up your sleep environment to support sleep and rest: keep it cool and dark, limit access to electronic devices near your bed, create a calm, quiet, peaceful atmosphere
- Develop a relaxing sleep routine: start 1-2 hours prior to bedtime, turn down lights, put away all electronic devices, begin to calm your mind and body, try doing restorative yoga or calming breathing, take a bath with Epsom salts, let your body (and mind) know that it is time to get ready for sleep
Stress Reduction – although this may be the most important aspect it is not the only thing to consider
- Learn more about your stress triggers and responses: our body actually reacts to our interpretation of stress, not the stressful event itself so if you can change your perception of certain stressors or change your internal narrative when it comes to certain stressful events this can actually decrease your experience of stress
- Practice mindfulness meditation: start with even just 5 minutes
- Create healthy boundaries at work and in life: practice saying no
- Practice pausing: pause before making big decisions, pause when you feel stress coming on, pause when you feel overwhelmed
- Ask for help: perfectionism can lead to more stress when will negatively impact the adrenals
- Connect with friends
- Spend time with pets
- Practice deep breathing
- Journal, practice gratitude, reflect on the good things that happened during the day
Supplements – there are supplements that can help get your adrenals back on track
As I am currently working through healing from adrenal fatigue the biggest realization I had is the importance of “slowing down”.
Slowing down when eating and preparing my food to ensure I was nourishing my body properly.
Slowing down my workouts, practicing my weight lifting movements instead of lifting heavier, taking walks to appreciate nature and my dogs instead of aiming to run 5km.
Slowing my body and mind down before bed so I had time to relax before my head hit the pillow.
Slowing down in general to be more mindful, thoughtful and focused on my health and wellness.
So, there it is, how adrenal fatigue can impact us and what we can do about it. Our adrenal function really does impact many aspects of our lives.
Often managing adrenal fatigue is multidimensional and can be different for everyone. If you think you are experiencing adrenal fatigue and need help, reach out, work with a health coach or other trusted health care professional.
Access The Holistic RN & Co’s resources on nutrition, sleep, stress and supplementation. Pick one or two suggestions from this blog to start incorporating on a daily basis.
Good luck everyone and take care of those adrenal glands!
Holly Killeen, RN
I am a registered nurse, educator of nursing students and aspiring holistic health coach.
I have worked in the healthcare and post secondary education system for over 15 years and have come to realize that there was something missing in these areas for me… a true focus on health and wellness of the individual.
As I learn more about holistic health and focus on my own health and wellness, I aim to share this knowledge and empower others to start or continue their own health and wellness journeys.
I am also a lover of dogs, nature, exercise and food and believe all these things can have a positive impact on our health.