What is adrenal fatigue?
Your adrenal glands are situated right on top of your kidneys and are where your primary stress hormones are made; these are hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that are produced in response to stress. Their role is to prepare your body to fight or flee from a stressor. Historically, these stressors would likely have been physical ones, like tigers and avalanches, so our stress hormones adapted to favour rapid, effective, physical action. They enhance blood flow to the heart, lungs and muscles, and in so doing divert energy from less imminently vital tasks like digestion and detoxification. This is called the ‘stress response’ and is intended to be temporary: see a bear, run from bear, survive or die. Once the threat has gone, your biology is designed to return to normal.
Nowadays however, it’s harder to return to our baseline ‘rest and digest’ state. Stress comes in many forms and is seemingly never-ending. We’re under increasing amounts of emotional, relational, financial, environmental and physical stress: unread emails, arguments with a loved one, environmental toxic exposure, food intolerances, bad weather, energy bills, health worries and more add up every single day and keep our bodies in an extended state of activation. Chronic stress unchecked means that your body stays in the stress response, causing your hormones to become dysregulated, the adrenal glands to become fatigued and a cascade of negative health outcomes.
Here are some signs that your adrenals need support:
1. Fatigue that you can’t shake and difficulty getting started in the mornings. This can be a sign that your adrenals are struggling, particularly if you’re dealing with chronic stress.
2. Reliance on stimulants like caffeine. If your stress hormones are out of whack and you’re feeling a lot of fatigue, you might find yourself relying heavily on caffeine to stay alert and “feel human”. This can also be a sign of poor sleep.
3. Sugar cravings. Similarly, fatigue can lead to increased sugar cravings as your body seeks external sources of energy. Instead of leaning into these cravings, try to nourish your body with whole foods, protein and healthy fats to keep your blood sugar balanced and nutrient intake up.
4. Salt cravings. Unlike sugar cravings, you may want to heed your salt cravings. The adrenal glands require a lot of salt to function, so salt cravings can be a sign that your adrenals are working overdrive. Contrary to popular belief, salt is not inherently bad for you (although contraindicated in certain cases of high blood pressure). Make sure to choose a quality sea salt or Himalayan rock salt and to eat foods rich in potassium and magnesium too.
5. Low tolerance to stress. When your stress load is high and your adrenals are overworked, a seemingly tiny event can feel enormous and unsurpassable.
6. Frequent illness. Chronic stress and adrenal fatigue can impact the immune system, causing reduced immunity and leading to frequent illness.
7. Disturbed sleeping habits. Improper adrenal function can also lead to feeling wired in the evening, difficulty falling or staying asleep and reduced sleep quality. Unfortunately, this only compounds the issue as deep rest is so vital for healing and de-stressing.
What you can do to address it?
If some of these signs sound familiar, there’s a chance your adrenals could be working overdrive or even compromised from chronic stress. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for adrenal fatigue is to reduce the amount of stress that you’re under. It’s not always possible to remove stressors - there are some things that we simply can’t change - but we can try to focus on what is within our control. Here are some tips for reducing stress:
1. Eat a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods and reduce your consumption of inflammatory, processed foods and refined sugar. One the one hand, this can reduce your stress load by removing potentially harmful toxins from your diet. On the other, it optimises the nutritional support for your body and adrenals, to help them cope better with your stress load and to aid the healing process.
2. Assess and reduce your environmental toxin exposure. Toxic burden contributes to your overall stress load. You can reduce your toxic load, for example, by getting a water filter, buying organic food, skincare and cleaning products, and avoiding having plastic in contact with your food.
3. Consider setting healthier boundaries around work and difficult relationships. Learning to say ‘no’ instead of constantly taking on more work or emotional responsibility is an important way to protect yourself and reduce stress. Make sure too that you have a supportive social network. Your relationships can either be a source of stress or relief - choosing carefully who you spend your time and energy with can help you define that.
4. Prioritise getting enough high-quality sleep. Sleep is one of the most important pillars of health and the key to healing and regeneration. Most people need a minimum of 7-9h sleep per night, so make sure allow sufficient time in bed. Optimise quality sleep by taking time to wind down in the evening, keeping your bedroom cool, reducing blue light exposure before bed, taking daily exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and having a caffeine cut-off in the afternoon.
5. Use mindfulness and breathing exercises to calm the body and mind. Meditation is an excellent way to hit pause on life’s stresses. You can also try calming breathing techniques, such as lengthening the out-breath to double the length of the in-breath, i.e. breathe in for 4 counts, out for 8 counts. Repeat for several minutes.
6. Try supplementing with an adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbs that increase resilience to stress. Some of my favourite adaptogens are medicinal mushrooms, including reishi, lion’s mane and cordyceps, which not only help to reduce stress levels, they can also calms feelings of anxiety, improve focus and cognition, enhance both energy levels and sleep quality, and offer immune and digestive support. I also love ashwagandha and rhodiola rosea, which have excellent benefits on the stress response and can calm anxiety, boost energy levels and improve sleep. Choose a blend or try one at a time, and do make sure to consult a health professional before starting a new supplement.