After the birth of my sons I found myself living in a fog, constantly forgetful, constantly exhausted and always needing coffee to function. I wrote it off as parenting exhaustion, lack of sleep and bad diet. And in a way I was right, but the way I was feeling has a more definitive explanation, and it’s something that affects more of us than we may imagine.
Adrenal fatigue is something that is often overlooked, it is not easy to diagnose as it consists of a range of symptoms that often resemble other maladies. In its extreme form, adrenal fatigue is recognised as Addison’s disease, but in a subclinical form it is an odd box of symptoms that could easily be explained away under the guise of tiredness or stress. Most people with adrenal fatigue have no idea that they are ill, other than a pervading sense of ‘unwellness’ and exhaustion.
- Find it hard to wake up in the morning
- Rely on coffee or energy drinks to function
- Chilly extremities and a difficulty with maintaining a body temperature
- Feel like you have a constant mental fog or haze
- Have memory loss and often forget important things
- Have a low libido
- Have spells of light-headedness and dizzy spells, especially when rising quickly
- Prone to seasonal and viral illnesses such as flu and respiratory tract infections
- Crave high energy foods, processed carbs, fatty, salty and sweet things
- Experience an afternoon slump at 3-5pm
- Have heart flutters or shaking and anxiety
- Inclined to put on weight, especially around the jaw and midriff and you find it hard to lose
- Have exacerbated PMS or your period stops and starts
- Feel better lying down or at rest
- Get a regular pain in your back or side above your kidneys
Then you may have adrenal fatigue.
So what is adrenal fatigue?
Essentially, it’s the loss of function in your adrenal glands, this loss of function affects our ability to regulate stress processes, leaving the body in an chronically inflammatory state. It also inhibits our ability to metabolise fats effectively. All of the stress processes are managed by cortisol which is what our adrenal glands produce. Cortisol is an essential hormone that helps us deal with stressful moments. But when our bodies are exposed to too much stress, or have other health related crises occurring, then the adrenal glands start to lose function. Events that can precipitate the loss of adrenal function are ongoing stress or psychological worry, long periods of sub-optimal sleep, chronic infection or excessive exercise and nutrient depletion. As the adrenal glands lose function we start to feel less great, as we feel less great we do things like take stimulants and eat high energy foods to try and rebalance the exhaustion. Our sleep cycles also suffer as a result of this. All of this puts further pressure on our adrenals which puts us in a vicious cycle that seems impossible to escape.
Realising I had adrenal fatigue was a lightbulb moment for me, I wasn’t just tired all of the time because I was getting old, or raising children, there was something more going on that I could work with, my body needed support to heal. The first thing I needed to do was cut out coffee, coffee was my biggest culprit and my biggest crutch, losing it was a challenge but I made sure I supported myself through the coffee weaning process by getting plenty of rest.
Addressing adrenal fatigue effectively will differ from person to person, but the basics tend to be the same. Set yourself regular sleeping patterns, avoid stimulants and relaxants like coffee and alcohol. Exercise regularly, but not too heavily, 45 minutes is the perfect length of time and open yourself up to a diet that doesn’t undermine your body.
Along with basic good nutrition, it’s valuable to keep some specific nutrients at optimum levels. Vitamin C is essential to our body when we are exposed to stress, when our adrenals are not functioning properly then we may not get optimal levels of Vitamin C, therefore supplementation with sodium ascorbate on a daily basis is ideal, I have a spoonful in water with my breakfast. Two minerals that are often depleted in people with adrenal fatigue are magnesium and potassium, these two minerals actually work in synchrony so taking them together is the ideal way to improve levels. Since taking my magnesium and potassium supplement I have noticed the quality of my sleep has improved significantly.
There are also a range of herbal supplements that support your adrenal system. These have quite specific actions and may not suit your needs so it’s important to get professional advice with herbal mixtures. Licorice is one of the most well known herbal remedies for adrenal fatigue, it has titerpenoid saponins which act to regulate the cortisol-cortisone balance in your body. I take it daily to improve my blood glucose control and fat absorption modulation as well as improve my iron absorption and rebalance my hormones. Licorice is also an anti-inflammatory so taking it helps me to manage the inflammation that comes with adrenal fatigue as well as protecting the gut and mucosal surfaces. While licorice is considered the primary herbal remedy to take for adrenal fatigue, there are other options to consider.
Ginkgo – to improve peripheral circulation (for chilly extremities) and neural alertness. Most interestingly though, studies have shown a relationship between ginkgo supplementation and cortisol levels.
Eleuthero – this herb falls under the category of ‘adaptogen’ which means it has immunoprotective qualities. This is helpful for people with adrenal fatigue because it buffers the effects of stress on the body.
Rhodiola – this is another powerful adaptogen which regulates key mediators of the stress response. It has a history of being used for managing fatigue, stress and a depression.
Ashwaganda – also known as Withania, Ashwaganda is an ayurvedic medicine which is said to ameliorate insomnia and other sleep issues related to stress.
Korean ginseng – known in Chinese medicine for restoring vitality, Korean ginseng is used as a powerful remedy for stress and fatigue.
Astragalus – is known as a tonic for adrenal support. It is often used in combination with Eleuthro or Licorice.
There is no quick fix for adrenal fatigue, it requires a concerted effort to address the underlying causes and rebalance the system. Fortunately there are some great resources out there for you if you feel you may have adrenal issues. My journey with adrenal fatigue is not over yet, but I already feel better now that I am proactively managing it instead of dosing with coffee reactively.
By Sian Hannagan
Natural Mum on the Cheap
Good Health Stress & Vitality Support is a triple action formula that supports the adrenal glands and in doing so supports the body’s natural resistance and adaptation to stress and nervous tension.
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Diet hyperlink http://www.drlam.com/protocol/diet/andrenal_fatique_diet.asp
Ginkgo study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16698134
Adaptogen study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19500070
Vitamin C study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17616774