Is adrenal fatigue really an adrenal problem?

Today there is another guest post on ZenBarbell. Today’s post is about adrenal fatigue and is by my fabulous friend Amber Golshani.  I asked her to write about this topic as you hear a lot about it and she knows her stuff!! Enjoy!!

Is adrenal fatigue really an adrenal problem?

If you drag through your day, feel tired all the time, or are fatigued, no doubt you have searched the internet for causes. It’s likely you have stumbled across information about adrenal fatigue.

what stresses your body

Low or disrupted adrenal function can cause fatigue, irritability, depression, weight gain, disrupted sleep, low immunity, dizziness, food cravings and more.

And while most experts will tell you the problem is the adrenal gland,
I assert that the problem actually starts in the brain.

You see, the adrenal gland is part of the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. The adrenal gland (a little triangle shaped gland that sits on top of your kidneys) is controlled by the pituitary which is controlled by the hypothalamus (both which reside deep in your brain), which sends signals to turn on or off the hormone secretion from the adrenal gland.

The Hypothalamus get its signals from our environment-such as amount of light, amount of hormones circulating such as melatonin, inflammatory hormones, and even metabolic hormones like insulin (which is largely influenced by what we eat).

Normally in response to environmental clues, the HPA axis should produce a certain rise and fall of cortisol throughout the day and night. In the morning, it should be highest, thus we have most energy through the day. As night approaches our levels of cortisol should decrease so we can rest and sleep well. Cortisol release should follow a normal circadian rhythm.

Cortisol is also released in response to stress-helping us survive periods when we need quick energy. It is a necessary hormone for survival, great for when our muscles need a quick burst of fuel to outrun a threat, or we need more circulation to our lungs to bring in more oxygen.

The problem is that in our modern world, we often feel like there is a constant threat to our lives. Even though the threats are primarily psychological, not physical, they are pervasive and persistent. Thus we react by demanding our bodies to produce more and more cortisol.

Compounded is the fact that we live OUT of sync with nature and our inborn hormonal response to it (circadian rhythm).

Artificial lights signal a year-round summer with late nights. An abundance of sugary and starchy foods cause insulin dominance. Toxin exposures, electromagnetic fields and other trappings of modern life cause HPA axis dysregulation resulting in what is called adrenal fatigue.

So you see, it’s not actually the adrenal glands fault! It’s just responding to the on and off signal coming from the brain.

If you have read this far, you are probably most interested in what you can do to get better, so lets get to it.

I use a four part approach to restore normal circadian rhythm and adrenal function and build a Fatigue-Proof body. And that’s based on your lifestyle. All the supplements, herbal adaptogens and vitamins in the world won’t help you if your lifestyle isn’t Fatigue-Proofed.

Fatigue Proof Body
Fatigue Proof Body

How to build a Fatigue-Proof Body:

  1. Nutrition: Eat protein and veggies at every meal. This keeps your blood sugars balanced which lessons a burden on your adrenals (cortisol raises blood sugars). If yours are dipping too low, your body will respond by releasing cortisol. Eating this way also keeps insulin spikes to a minimum. Insulin disrupts the normal signaling of the HPA axis. Make sure you include lots of oil fish as your protein source, as they will contain the fats your brain and nerve cells need to function correctly.
  2. Sleep: Maybe one of the most important ways to heal your HPA axis and re-establish normal circadian rhythms is to get sufficient sleep. Start by dimming lights and avoiding screens (TV, smartphones, computers) for at least an hour before bedtime. Light, especially artificial light will inhibit your brains ability to send normal signals to the adrenals. Then, aim for 9-10 hours during most months of the year. In the summer, our bodies seem more adapted to staying up later. This makes sense because there is more daylight. Your bedroom should be completely dark as any amount of light can disrupt normal nighttime hormone secretion. That means you must cover up all little lights, indicators on electronics and other glowing things. I’d also recommend black-out drapes. First thing on waking, get bright sunshine on your skin and to your eyes (unfiltered, no glasses or sunglasses) as much as possible in order to re-establish normal circadian rhythm.
  3. Exercise: Exercise smartly! If you have not been able to exercise because of fatigue, start with leisurely walking after dinner, which is the best way to balance cortisol production. I truly mean slow walking here. No jogging or power-walking. Start with a few minutes and work your way to 1 hour a day. I have also seen patients on the other end of the spectrum who are OVER-exercising. If you are tired, and you have to force yourself to exercise and you end up more tired, you are doing too much. You are actually making your situation worse as the exercise becomes another stress on your body, forcing more cortisol to be made.
  4. Relaxation/Recovery: True relaxation is a lost art! Many people know how to rest, which is passive and simply the absence of activity, but few know how to relax or recover, which is an active restorative state that brings you back to normal. This includes all stress management techniques that recharge you such as music, meditating, getting a massage, prayer, acupuncture, using aromatherapy, guided imagery, even hobbies, sports, and reading books just for entertainment. There is no right or best way to do this, it’s what ever you like and can do on a regular basis, AND most importantly its unplugging and investing time in yourself. This does not include television or movie watching, surfing the internet, checking email, facebook or twitter, which are examples of ‘rest’ and actually drain your energy even further. Recovery is not time when you put energy OUT into something or someone else, but to energy you are directing inward to healing yourself.

Try these four steps and see what a difference they can make. If that still doesn’t help, as I mentioned there are herbal adaptogens, vitamins and other supplements can help. Look for my next post to cover some of my favorites.

If you want to learn more about how to beat your fatigue, sign up for my newsletter here:

All the best, always,
Dr. Amber
Twitter @DrAmberGolshani