Adrenal fatigue has become a popular topic in the alternative health and nutrition sphere in recent years. Now we are seeing this language creep into mainstream reporting – and with good reason. Most people are experiencing some kind of stress, fatigue and adrenal dysregulation.
“Adrenal fatigue” refers to a cluster of conditions where the adrenal glands become overworked and unable to produce the right balance of hormones. In a society where we value hard work, deal with financial stress and often don’t meet our nutritional needs, the occurrence of stress related fatigue is epidemic.
In this article I cover the basics of adrenal fatigue and why it is critical that we all de-stress a little to support our physical and mental health.
What are the adrenal glands?
The adrenals glands are small pea sized glands located around the lower back on either side of the spine, just above the kidneys. (Think above your kidney = ad+ renal) They are responsible for regulation of our stress hormones.
Each adrenal gland has an inner, medulla, and outer cortex with three zones. The medulla and each zone in the cortex have different hormonal functions.
The important hormones for that regulate our stress or fight or flight responses are cortisol and adrenaline. Importantly these hormones also play a critical role in regulating our blood sugar. Cortisol produced in the adrenal cortex, which adrenaline and nor-adrenaline are produced in the medulla.
In addition to controlling our stress response the adrenal glands also influence our circadian rhythm and our sleep.
The sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous system
Humans, like all other animals, have two states in which we exist.
The para-sympathetic state is also referred to as rest and digest mode while the sympathetic state is fight or flight mode. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism that enabled us to escape predators and hunt food when we were hunter-gatherers.
When we are in fight or flight mode then our body produces hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which facilitate a faster heart rate, expansion of blood vessels to increase blood flow and support muscles working quickly. In this state our digestive function shuts off, because we aren’t going to be stopping for a meal as we run away from a predator! I go into greater detail about each state in this article.
As you might have guessed we want to spend more time in the para-sympathetic state because this is the state in which our system is relaxed and able to perform functions such as proper digestion of food. It is in this state that our gastric juices are properly secreted, which gives us the ability to adequately breakdown food and absorb nutrients.
Unfortunately in our modern busy lives most of us actually spend more time in a sympathetic state, fight or flight mode. Our bodies cannot tell the difference between a real, life threatening stressor (such as escaping a predator) and an emotional stressor such as being stuck in a traffic jam. This means that our bodies are often producing the hormones associated with the sympathetic system (fight or flight response).
If we are constantly in this state of stress then we can end up with adrenal fatigue. This means that our bodies have become so used to producing stressor hormones that the glands responsible become exhausted and less responsive, or that our sensitivity to these hormones lessens.
Financial, emotional and physical stress all takes a toll on our adrenal glands.
Defining adrenal fatigue
Adrenal fatigue (AF) refers to a collection of conditions relating to the chief symptom of hypoadrenia (low adrenal function), which is fatigue. This syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms that all result in the patient feeling “grey and low” and this can lay the foundation for ongoing weakened immunity.
Weak immune function then leads to poor respiratory function, allergies, cold and flu like symptoms and more which feeds further into the cycle of feeling grey, low and fatigued.
Adrenal fatigue is the result of stress which is a term used to define a whole range of stressors including emotional and physical burdens. Our bodies have acute stress feedback loops designed to work when we are at risk of attack in the wild. However, despite the intelligence of our bodies, they cannot tell the difference between an ongoing lower-level stressor such as a work problems and an acute need. As a result many people are constantly under stress and their adrenals are working overtime. In addition to chronic stress, adrenal fatigue can also manifest after a chronic or severe infection, which also puts the immune system under great stress.
Adrenal fatigue can have a rapid onset or be more of a progressive condition. It is an inherent part of some chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue and respiratory illnesses, which place a significant burden on the immune system, but unfortunately is not widely recognised and hence often left unaddressed. In fact, AF is “a generally unrecognised component in many types of health problems ranging from bothersome to life threatening.” People that have experienced alcoholism are also more susceptible to adrenal fatigue because of the huge burden that alcohol metabolism puts on the bodies blood sugar and detoxification functions.
The impact of diet
Our blood sugar levels have a huge impact on our adrenal glands. If our blood sugar ever gets too low then the adrenal glands kick into gear because our body feels threatened. Regulating blood sugar by incorporating healthy fats and plenty of protein during the day can go a long way to improving our adrenal function and supporting good health.
For support with building a diet that will provide the best support to your adrenal glands and entire stress system, then get in touch with me, a certified functional nutritionist.