Here’s how to find out if you are dealing with adrenal fatigue, how to restore your adrenals, and get back to being you
Does this sound like you?
You wake up exhausted. You coax yourself through another foggy morning, fuelled by caffeine. You start to feel more human by mid-morning, but crash again around 3:00. You go through the rest of the day exhausted, and then are hit with a burst of energy between 9 and 11, when it’s finally time to go back to bed.
Constant fatigue or low energy can be challenging to resolve. There are so many reasons why we might feel worn out, and we– along with our doctors– often dismiss exhaustion as “normal” or just a fact of life.
But here’s the thing. It is not normal to be so tired! If you constantly feel like you’re operating below your ideal level, you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can include:
-Feeling tired all the time; waking up tired even after a long sleep
-A dip in energy levels in the afternoon (around 2-5 PM) and a boost in energy in the evening when you’re ready to go bed
-A diminished capacity to handle stress
-Reliance on coffee and/or other stimulants to get through the day
-Brain fog; difficulty concentrating
-Frequent cravings for salty or sweet foods
-Unexplained weight gain
-Moodiness; anxiety; depression
-Feeling generally unwell or worn out, but you’re not sure why
What is adrenal fatigue?
So, what’s going on here? In order to understand adrenal fatigue, we first need to understand what our adrenal glands are and what they do. The adrenal glands, which sit over the kidneys, are tasked with producing more than 50 hormones that are necessary for all kinds of bodily functions and processes.
Among other things, our adrenal glands are responsible for our stress response. When we encounter stress of any kind, they spring into action, releasing hormones such as cortisol– sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone”– in order to help us tackle the stressor, and directing other bodily processes so that we can focus on coping.
The thing is, especially in our modern world, we’re faced with SO much stress from so many sources on a daily basis, and this stress accumulates. Eventually, our adrenal glands themselves can become overloaded and stressed. This can be caused by severe or ongoing emotional stress, and it can also be exacerbated by physical stressors such as environmental toxins or processed foods.
When our adrenals become overwhelmed and exhausted, they lose their ability to function properly (just like us). This impacts not only our stress response but our levels of cortisol and other crucial hormones and neurotransmitters throughout the day, when we’re relying on them for things like getting out of bed, going to work, and going to sleep. The consequences of a dysregulated cortisol rhythm include low energy, difficulty dealing with day-to-day stress, and disrupted sleep.
Depending on how far along your adrenal fatigue is, you may experience dips and boosts in energy at the wrong times (this is because your rhythm is dysregulated) or you may simply feel like you’re on the low end of the energy spectrum all the time (because your cortisol levels are consistently too low). Trouble falling asleep is a common symptom, but if you have adrenal fatigue, even if you do manage to get a full night’s sleep, you will often wake up feeling as though you haven’t.
With adrenal fatigue, we may also have a difficult time absorbing nutrients, leading to deficiencies that further deplete the body’s stress resources. Our ability to balance mineral levels is diminished, which can cause our bodies to crave what we think we’re missing, like salt.
What causes adrenal fatigue?
We’ve talked about how adrenal fatigue is brought on by stress. But stress is not always just emotional. Often, adrenal fatigue is brought on by a combination of emotional and physical stressors that accumulate over time.
Possible contributors include:
-Stressful life events (loss of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job)
-Perpetual day-to-day stress (high pressure at work, relationship troubles, financial worries, etc)
-Lack of proper sleep
-Exposure to environmental toxins; chemicals
-Fast food; processed foods; lack of proper nutrition
-Longterm reliance on caffeine; other stimulants
-Current or past depression
-A diet high in sugar; refined carbohydrates
-Vitamin, mineral, and nutrient deficiencies
-Use of some medications
-A disrupted gut microbiome; SIBO
Diagnosing adrenal fatigue
Conventional medicine disputes the existence of adrenal fatigue. There are medical diagnoses involving the adrenal glands, but they are more extreme. For example, if an individual’s adrenals become completely incapable of producing the required amounts of cortisol, they will receive a diagnosis of Addison’s disease. This is usually brought on by injury/damage to the glands, or sometimes by an autoimmune disease. Adrenal fatigue, which involves a more moderate level of dysfunction brought on by stress, is usually brushed off.
With all of the complexity and intricacy of hormone production and regulation that the adrenal glands are responsible for, of course they aren’t either working perfectly or in a state of total failure. There is a spectrum. And although it is possible to spend months or even years of our lives coping with persistent fatigue and other frustrating symptoms due to suboptimal adrenal functioning, that doesn’t mean that we should have to, and it doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real.
So, how can we test for adrenal fatigue?
If the symptoms listed above sound like you, the chances are pretty good that you’re experiencing some degree of adrenal dysfunction. But in order to come up with a better picture of what’s going on, you might want to explore testing.
There are a few options for adrenal fatigue testing, all of which involve measuring cortisol levels. There are blood tests that measure cortisol levels, but because cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day, this is of little use in the case of moderate adrenal dysfunction.
The preferred method used to be saliva testing where free cortisol levels are measured 4 or 5 times throughout the day in order to get an idea of overall rhythm.
In my practice I use the DUTCH test, which also measures cortisol levels throughout the day, but does so using dried urine. Not only is the collection method easier than with a saliva test, the DUTCH panel offers a much more complete picture of hormonal patterns. It measures not only free cortisol levels but also total cortisol production and the speed at which cortisol is metabolized, as well as levels of other important hormones like DHEA, estrogen, and progesterone.
How to heal your adrenals
Recovery from adrenal fatigue can take some time, but the good news is that we can heal largely through diet and lifestyle changes, and by restoring our adrenals we are often able to restore our health in a larger sense.
We know that adrenal fatigue is caused by an accumulation of stress, so the first thing we want to do is remove as many stressors as we can. Again, we are largely looking at lifestyle changes that will improve our overall well-being. Some stressors are harder than others to eliminate, but we can start by avoiding sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. Choose nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, healthy fats, wild-caught fish, organic chicken or turkey, nuts, seeds, and bone broth.
As much as possible, we want to avoid or at least limit intake of caffeine and other stimulants that we may have been using for energy boosts throughout the day. The more stressed and tired we get, the more we feel like we need stimulants, the less effective they become, and the more we stress out our systems.
Cutting out emotional stress is a little bit more challenging, but adopting practices of meditation or yoga, addressing sleep hygiene, and just taking time to listen to your body are good ways to start.
Your naturopath can also recommend specific herbs and supplements, and a complete protocol to help support you through your recovery process and heal your adrenals.
Are you ready to recover your adrenals and restore your health? To inquire about testing for adrenal fatigue and getting to the root of your health problems, book an appointment with me.