Joanna Foley, RD
It's no secret that life can be stressful. Things like frequent changes in routines, news in the media, stress at work, and family dynamics can all be taxing on the mind and body. If we're not careful, these conditions create a recipe for a condition known as adrenal fatigue.
This article will explain what exactly adrenal fatigue is, with tips to manage and help prevent it from negatively impacting your life.
Adrenal fatigue is a set of symptoms caused by prolonged and excessive amounts of stress. Under normal circumstances, your body responds to stress via a feedback loop called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This axis consists of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands of your brain, along with your adrenal glands, which are small organs located above your kidneys.
Each part of the HPA axis produces hormones like cortisol that help keep the body balanced and regulate stress. However, when stress becomes chronic, the adrenal glands can reach a state where they cannot keep up with the demands, and symptoms of adrenal fatigue can arise.
These symptoms may include:
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue often aren't isolated, and they can easily spill over into other areas of your life, potentially creating even more challenges. Many people with adrenal fatigue find it difficult to cope with stress or handle the weight of daily activities.
While anyone can experience adrenal fatigue, some may be more prone to it than others. Risk factors can include the type of job you hold, your personality, and your daily responsibilities.
Though adrenal fatigue isn't yet a recognized medical condition, the state that it puts the body in can lead to real health problems that warrant intervention. If not addressed, adrenal fatigue may lead to more serious health issues, including depression, hormonal disorders like altered thyroid function, and gut conditions.
Note that adrenal fatigue is different from adrenal insufficiency. Adrenal insufficiency is a medical condition that occurs when there is damage to the adrenal glands or a problem with the brain's pituitary gland. In adrenal insufficiency, the adrenal glands cannot produce enough steroid hormones, including cortisol, yet it's unrelated to stress.
With awareness and some diet and lifestyle modifications, adrenal fatigue can be both managed and prevented.
Here are some tips to focus on:
Your body requires more nutrients during times of stress, so this is a crucial time to pay extra attention to nourishing your body. The adrenal-fatigue diet promotes not only the proper functioning of your adrenal glands but also things like improved blood pressure, increased nutrient density, and improved stress levels.
The diet prioritizes nutrient-rich foods that will keep your blood sugar and hormones stable, such as whole grains, fish, healthy fats, and colorful fruits and vegetables. While it's common to crave stimulating foods like sugar and caffeine during times of high stress, these can make symptoms worse in the long run and should therefore be limited.
Here's what a day of eating for adrenal fatigue may look like:
Your body requires more nutrients to power your brain during adrenal fatigue. In addition to eating a balanced diet, some supplements can help mitigate the harmful effects of adrenal fatigue. These include:
You can read more about adrenal fatigue supplements and how they may help you in this post.
While exercise can be excellent for stress management, you'll want to take precautions when dealing with adrenal fatigue. To an overworked body, strenuous exercise can come as an additional stressor. For this reason, it's best to stick to gentle exercises.
Start slow with low-impact exercises like walking, yoga, and light resistance training. These activities provide the benefit of clearing your mind and getting your blood flowing without the risk of overdoing it or potentially causing more harm.
It's easy to let sleep take the back-burner when your brain feels stuck in overdrive. What's worse, stress can make falling and staying asleep even harder, intensifying your daily exhaustion. But inadequate sleep will only fuel adrenal fatigue, so consider it a top priority to do what you can to get at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is an excellent place to start, so consider these habits non-negotiable in your nightly routine:
Self-care should be viewed as a necessity, not a luxury. Without adequate self-care, your ability to dedicate yourself to others and your daily tasks will be significantly limited. Think about what activities you enjoy but might no longer be doing due to a perceived lack of time or energy. Examples include cooking nourishing meals, going on walks, watching a good movie, taking a warm bath, reading, journaling, or being out in nature. Try to prioritize time for a variety of these activities on a daily or weekly basis.
Boundaries are essential in life. Without them, it's easy to overcommit yourself, be unintentionally taken advantage of, or invest unnecessary time with people who may drain you, which can add to an already overwhelming stress load. Think about who or what in your life you can say "no" to, and work on rearranging your priorities and routine to better fit your lifestyle and needs.
This is perhaps the most overlooked part of dealing with stress and adrenal fatigue. No matter how hard you try or even want to, acknowledge that you can't do it all. Don't shy away from seeking support from those you trust in whatever way you need. If you don't know what you need yet, begin by simply talking about it.
Life will always have stressors from time to time, and some things will always be out of your control. But that doesn't mean you have to succumb to adrenal fatigue.
If you feel like you're experiencing symptoms related to adrenal fatigue, it's helpful to start with some reflection. Think about the current stressors in your life and whether your diet, sleep, and exercise routines could benefit from some adjustments. In doing so, you can be on your way to a healthier, more enjoyable, and sustainable lifestyle.