Running on Empty? A Holistic Guide to Adrenal Fatigue
Do you wake from sleep unrefreshed and have difficulty getting out of bed?
Are you tired all the time? Do you crave salty and sweet snacks? Do you rely on stimulants such as coffee, chocolate and energy drinks to get you through the day? Are you noticing you have a decreased ability to handle the everyday stressors of life?
If yes, then maybe you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue.
So what are the Adrenal Glands and Adrenal Fatigue?
The adrenal glands are a pair of pyramid-shaped endocrine organs that rest atop of your kidneys. They are about the size of walnuts but have a very big effect on our physiology, affecting literally every tissue, cell, organ, as well as impacting our mind and emotions. These organs are responsible for the secretion of a wide range of hormones, most famously the hormones associated with the body’s stress response. The adrenals produce cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone), and adrenalin amongst others, which contribute to our ‘flight and fight’ response. These hormones make your heart pound, raise your blood pressure, help make your muscles tense, and put your brain on high alert. So basically the purpose of these glands is to help us cope and deal with stress in its many forms.
When we are under stress, it’s these little guys that work hard to make enough stress hormones to sustain the stressful event. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we enter the ‘fight and flight’ response which sees the cascade of these hormones. Their purpose being, to quickly jump start and activate the mind and body deal with the stressful event. In a ‘healthy’ stressful situation, our nervous system would shift back to the parasympathetic state – our relaxed state, when the stressful event has passed. This gives the adrenal glands a break and time to restore and rebuild these hormones. If your adrenals are overtaxed due to an overabundance of emotional, physical and mental stress, it can lead to a constant secretion of these hormones, which eventually depletes the adrenals and causes the condition known as adrenal fatigue.
The issue is, this modern world is perceived as being filled with one stress after another, which results in us being constantly on the go, rushing from here to there, meeting deadlines, dealing with bills or worrying and overthinking, that most of us are in this ‘fight and flight’ response nearly 24/7. This is seen in the rising epidemic of anxiety. Constantly being in this state exerts extra strain on the adrenal glands and eventually they become run down to the point of fatigue. It’s like when your car has run out of petrol, you can’t keep going. You’ve run out of juice to sustain the correct vital functions that your body needs for health and vitality. You’re running on empty. It’s when you’re in this state that your start to sense that something isn’t right. It’s when we start self-medicating our exhaustion with sugar, caffeine, snacks, chocolate and energy drinks. This attempt to drive the adrenals to make energy they simply don’t have, ultimately leaves the body more exhausted.
You may be experiencing these common symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
- High or low blood pressure
- Sugar and salt cravings
- Weight changes
- Low energy and feeling ‘ run down’
- Overwhelmed or anxious
- Sleep issues
- Waking unrefreshed from sleep
- Becoming more alert in the evenings and feeling ‘wired but tired’
- A loss of joy and libido
- Brain fog
- Increased PMS or menstrual issues
It’s interesting to note that when we require more stress hormones to ‘get up and go’ and meet the stressful event, we convert our sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone into cortisol, therefore messing with our reproductive system. This can lead to lack of menstruation, early menopause and infertility.
As the adrenal glands play a major role in basically all bodily system, the impact of leaving adrenal fatigue unaddressed can increase your risk of:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Cardiovascular disease
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
The Root Cause of Adrenal Fatigue
Nutritional deficiency and chemical toxicity can be potential causes for adrenal fatigue, but the root cause is excessive stress with the underlying cause of burnout being our lifestyles! We have become such a face-paced society where we are over stressed and over extended that it’s becoming extremely harmful to our health. When we are constantly in this stressed state, we are hard-wired for survival. In this state we are alert and hypersensitive to danger at every moment. So small events begin to seem life threatening and we are seeing the danger – real or imagined- at every turn. In this state the opening of an email at work can have the same effect on the physiology as if you were faced with a hungry tiger in the wild! At each crisis, our body’s pump more and more stress hormones into our bloodstream to help us ‘survive’. Eventually though these little guys tire and that’s when we crash.
To really overcome adrenal fatigue, we need to take a broader, holistic view of this disease, and understand why this imbalance occurred in the first place. We need to make committed shifts in our lifestyle, diet and thought patterns, and look beyond the symptoms to the cause of the problem. We need to take a nourishing and restorative approach for true recovery.
How to Heal
As stress and over activity are what primarily causes this systemic depletion in the body, we need to counterbalance these with nourishing, rejuvenating, grounding, slow and stabilising foods, lifestyle practices and healing herbs.
8 Recommendations to Restore Adrenal Function
1. Ayurvedic Panchakarma
This is the number one best thing to address fatigue. Experiencing an in-residence program that addresses the unique needs of your mind and body is truly transformative. It provides the time and space needed in our lives to slow down and heal. It’s when we are in a deep state of rest that the healing mechanism of our body can be enlivened. The combination of yoga, meditation, body treatments, diet and herbal medicine delivered in one systematic process (all under the guidance of a qualified Ayurvedic doctor), causes the release of stress, tension and the root cause of the disease from the mind body. In Ayurvedic terms we are releasing Vata and building the essence of Ojas.
2. Health Organic Diet
It’s best to follow a diet that suits your constitution/ dosha (Ayurvedic mind body type) as this encourages harmony within your unique physiology. In addition, the following are keys points; – Avoid refined sugar consumption – Avoid/ decrease the intake of common allergens – nuts (peanuts), soy, dairy, wheat – Avoid caffeine and alcohol – Eat mainly a whole food plant based diet – Eat foods rich in vitamin C and B vitamins are these nourish the adrenals – e.g. berries, citrus, whole grains, green leafy vegetables – Increase foods that build Ojas- ghee, almonds, dates, saffron – Avoid processed food and foods with additives, chemicals and preservatives
3. Herbal Support
Nature offers a wide range of herbs that deeply nourish the body, support the endocrine system and assist us in creating sustainable energy. Herbs have been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years, and are now verified by modern science and research. Ashwangandha This herb is considered an adaptogen herb and the key herb in adrenal fatigue. An adaptogen is an herb that supports the body’s ability to deal with stress – be it physical, mental or emotional in nature. It’s acts like a big support network for the body. Ashwangandha reduces the effects of stress, enhances memory and cognitive function that often becomes impaired when you experience adrenal fatigue and burnout. Recovery from adrenal fatigue is certainly possible. It may take several years depending on severity, and requires a change in diet, improving one’s lifestyle, nutritional supplements, detoxification procedures and attention to one’s emotional and spiritual health. Addressing all these aspects together, holistically, is the way to assure full recovery and abundant energy.
4. Slow Down
As a faced paced lifestyle is the cause, slowing down is the answer. This can be quite challenging for someone accustomed to a ‘go, go, go,’ lifestyle. Slowing down needs to be viewed as a long term commitment to your own health and wellbeing. You can start by recognising and removing known stressors in your life. Learn to say ‘no’ to events and situations that don’t serve you. Spend more time in nature, slow down to its rhythms. Start to go to bed earlier at night, leave work at the office and give yourself permission to do ‘nothing’, and simply ‘be’.
5. Quiet the Mind and Build Resilience to Stress
The following tools are incredible for ‘switching off’ the stress switch, giving your adrenals a much needed rest. We cannot live a completely stress free life, as its full of potentially ‘stressful’ situations, but what we can do is support our mind and build resilience to assist us in changing the way we perceive, cope and react to stress. Making it less harmful to our mind body.
Meditation is essential for adrenal fatigue treatment. The immediate benefits are that this practice powerfully calms the nervous system, dissolves accumulated tension built up in our physiology and releases mental toxins. It activates the body self-healing processes and removes cortisol and other damaging stress hormones from our system. In the long term, meditation teaches us to view stress and events with detachment. Seeing things with a passive awareness results in a healthier reaction to stress.
We don’t get carried away so easily with the wave of worry and destructive emotions. We are able to remain in a steadier state of mind, preventing the cascading release of the damaging stress hormones. Over time, meditation literally re-wires the brain which enables us to build resilience to stress and change our initial reaction to non- life threatening events.
Yogic breathing Using the breath in an intentional way can help balance the state of our nervous system. If you are feeling stressed and struggling with adrenal fatigue it is likely that you are breathing in a very shallow way which further stimulates this ‘fight and flight’ response.This simple relaxation breathing technique can tilt your nervous system towards a calm state.
Take a few minutes each day or several times during the day and simply focus on breathing in a steady, even way. Equalising the count of the in-breath and out-breath. Neither forcing the breath too deeply or keeping it too shallow. Make sure though you are noticing the rise and fall of the abdomen when you breathe as this ensures you are practicing diaphragmatic breathing.
A study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (May 17, 2000), coming out of Boston University’s Center for Anxiety Related Disorders, found that slow diaphragmatic breathing proved just as effective in reducing anxiety as the antidepressant drug Imipramine.
Yoga practice is great for providing recovery and can also help you deal with stressful circumstances without having such a strong negative reaction. The first paragraph in the classical yoga text – the yoga sutras of Patanjali, states ‘Yoga citta vritti nirodhah’. Which means ‘yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’. So, the whole purpose of yoga is to stop this mind chatter, negate these destructive emotions and promote clarity, happiness and peace of mind. It’s this constant mind chatter that leads to worry, anxiety and suffering. Certain yoga poses actually help to work on specific endocrine organs, enhancing nutrient and oxygen rich blood flow to the area to support its functioning. To help turn off the adrenal glands and calm the mind, practice restorative yoga postures daily in a warm, dark, quiet environment.
The most powerful pose to achieve this is called ‘Legs up the wall pose’ (Viparita Karani). For this pose, you literally lie with your legs up the wall, and the pelvis elevated on a bolster or folded blankets. If the legs tire of being straight, bend the knees and cross the legs, with knees near the wall. According to Yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D ‘This pose stimulates baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and upper chest, triggering reflexes that reduce nerve input into the adrenal glands, slow the heart rate, slow the brain waves, relax blood vessels, and reduce the amount of norepinephrine (adrenalin) circulating in the bloodstream.’
Author: Tegan Wallis
Holistic Health Practitioner