Adrenal fatigue? Say what? I hear you. It’s certainly nothing they ever taught me in medical school, and chances are that if you go to your doctor at Kaiser and ask to get tested for it, they’ll raise a white coat eyebrow at you.
What Are The Adrenal Glands?
As Dr. Christiane Northrup describes it, “The adrenal glands are the body’s primary shock-absorbers.” These small organs that sit right above your kidneys make hormones like cortisol, DHEA and norepinephrine, which help your body negotiate the metabolic requirements of keeping a body healthy, energetic, and safe.
What Do These Adrenal Hormones Do?
Our bodies are super smart in that they’re designed to help us in times of stress. Back when we were cave people, running away from cave bears, we needed highly tuned systems in place to activate our “fight or flight” mechanisms. Hormones like norepinephrine (which converts to epinephrine, aka “adrenaline”) and the adrenal hormone cortisol were critical hormones that meant the difference between life and death.
The problem is that most of us are no longer high-tailing it away from cave bears. Instead, we stress about finding a job, our divorce settlement, problems with our teenagers, marital problems, meeting the right guy, getting promoted, and a whole host of other “stressors” that have nothing to do with living or dying. As a result, our bodies live in “fight or flight,” spitting out norepinephrine and cortisol as if the cave bear is right on our heels.
Chronic Stress Is Not Our Friend
What this means is that we’re shooting out these hormones all the time, and this takes its toll, particularly on the adrenal gland. Poor thing. It’s only doing its job. When the stress never lets up, the adrenal gland poops out — and adrenal hormone production falls off, leading to deficiencies in hormones like cortisol, DHEA and pregnenolone.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
When you’re under chronic stress, calling upon the adrenal gland’s reserves simply to get you through an ordinary day, the adrenal gland tends to get weary, and levels of adrenal hormones fall off. Suddenly, the hormones you’ve become used to getting you through a normal work day are depleted, and you wind up with debilitating fatigue, depressed mood, loss of interest in the things you used to love, irritability, decreased libido, memory loss — in short, you’ve lost your mojo.
How Can You Tell If You Have Adrenal Fatigue?
If you wake up feeling exhausted after eight hours of sleep, have to chug two Starbucks cappuccinos to get started in the morning, crave sweets when your energy levels get sluggish, feel depressed, are not interested in sex, keep catching colds, and then — at the end of an exhausting day — you have trouble falling asleep, you may have adrenal fatigue. If you’re perimenopausal, your symptoms may be exacerbated by the hormone swings that accompany this transition.
Serum or salivary tests can confirm the diagnosis, but make sure you see a health care provider who believes adrenal fatigue exists. Many traditional Western medical doctors will look at you funny if you ask to be tested, which means they won’t know how to interpret your lab results, even if they order them, since many people with adrenal fatigue have lab results that are within the normal range, albeit on the low end of normal. Every lab is a bit different, so it’s hard to establish firm rules, but many integrative medicine doctors are skilled at helping you figure out the status of your adrenal glands.
Hormone Treatment for Adrenal Fatigue
If laboratory testing reveals that your adrenal glands aren’t functioning properly, you can tackle the problem in several ways. First, you can replace the hormones directly. If DHEA is low, try replacing it with pharmaceutical grade DHEA supplement in low doses (5-10mg in the morning, although some people need up to 25 mg twice a day). If your cortisol is low, you can supplement with a product like IsoCort (a freeze-dried adrenal cortex supplement made by Bezwecken) and/or Adrenogen (an herbal supplement to help heal the adrenal glands by Metagenics). In severe cases, some people need very low doses of hydrocortisone until the adrenal gland heals enough to begin producing adrenal hormones again. Pregnenolone, when low, can also be replaced. Dosing depends on the severity of the deficiency.
Holistic Alternatives for Adrenal Fatigue
While hormones are usually effective for treating the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, you won’t achieve long-term healing unless you get to the root of the underlying issue. The goal is to replace your hormones, but not for long. By working on what caused the adrenal fatigue in the first place, you should be able to wean off your hormones and allow your body to begin making the hormones it needs, but this can take some effort on your part.
Tips for Improving Adrenal Fatigue
- Reduce your stress. Adrenal fatigue usually signals a deeper underlying issue that’s begging for your attention. Does something need to change at work? Are you unhappy in your marriage? Are your kids making you crazy? As long as your body is still in fight or flight mode, your adrenal glands are unlikely to recover.
- Never skip breakfast. Your body needs healthy fuel to get you going in the morning.
- Eat healthy snacks often to keep your blood sugar stable. Try supplementing with green juice you make at home with your juicer.
- Eliminate sugar and caffeine. I know, I know — how are you going to do that when that’s all that gets you through the day? Trust me on this one. It only makes things worse.
- Eat a whole foods, healthy diet high in protein and veggies.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Take a good multivitamin.
- Try Siberian ginseng or licorice root (but if you take the licorice, keep an eye on your blood pressure if it trends towards high).
- Sleep 8-10 hours per night. Your body needs it.
- Move your body — but not too much. If you’re extremely adrenally fatigued, you may need to cut down your exercise until you build your strength back up. But if you’re not exercising at all, start out slow and take walks, gradually increasing your movement until you feel better.
- Focus on healing, loving thoughts. What makes you feel good? What do you desire? What brings you pleasure? Bring your attention to these things and invite healing juju to help you heal your adrenal glands and your life.