Chronically Tired? It might be your burnt out Adrenal Glands

Adrenal fatigue has been termed the 21st century syndrome by Dr James L Wilson in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Syndrome.  This syndrome is characterized by a set of signs and symptoms indicating the adrenal glands are not functioning properly; since it is a hormonal problem the manifestations appear throughout the body.  I prefer the term adrenal dysfunction as many people with adrenal fatigue will have some signs of a hyper active mind, may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating and regulation of various physiological systems breakdown.  Most conditions exist on a spectrum and this hormonal problem does also; dysfunction describes this phenomenon better than simply adrenal fatigue as it can manifest in different ways at different points along its progression.   Some of the indications and simultaneously occurring conditions of adrenal dysfunction include fatigue at some point during the day or all the time, dizziness or lightheadedness after rising from sitting or laying, difficulty responding to stressful situations, decreased control over emotions, emotional overwhelmed episodes, limited stamina, difficulty concentrating, frequent colds and flus, or never having colds and flus, sometimes allergies, weight gain around the abdomen, or unexplained weight gain, episodes of low blood sugar, elevated blood sugars, elevated fats in the blood, increased or suppressed appetite, food cravings, addiction, mental health problems and auto-immune diseases.  As you can see this is a huge spectrum of health concerns and without addressing the underlying problem of adrenal dysregulation many chronic problems go unresolved and don’t get the full treatment they require. 

The adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and have two parts - one is called the cortex - it secretes cortisol and other corticosteroid and mineralocorticoid hormones influencing blood pressure and metabolism. The other is called the adrenal medulla and it secretes the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline; these are your flight, fight and freeze hormones which increase your blood pressure, decrease appetite, increase heart and respiration rates and increase the breakdown of glycogen, the body’s sugar storage system.  Cortisol secreted from the cortex of the adrenals decreases inflammation, modulates the immune response, increases protein breakdown, mobilizes fatty acids for energy and increases your appetite. These two systems serve to get you ready for action and able to perform at your top capabilities. Healthy stress like prepping for a big sporting event, going on stage for a performance or getting the nerve up to talk about something emotionally charged get this system going and make you able to cope with it. The roots of this adaptation system stem from our need to run from tigers and bears which for the most part we thankfully don’t have to do anymore. 

However unhealthy stressors that persist over time like a difficult or toxic work environment, long hours of work, unhealthy eating including processed foods, refined sugars, over indulging in coffee, tea, alcohol, skipping meals, too much computer time, inadequate sleep, and mental and physical stressors like interpersonal conflict and chronic anxiety or depression will cause these normally adaptive hormonal responses to get stuck in the ‘On’ position physiologically speaking leading to psychological and physical repercussions like those described above.  


If you are someone who has experienced a difficult up bringing through poverty, mental, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, chronic conflict or mental health problems like depression or addiction in the home then likely you will have some symptoms of adrenal dysfunction.  In a sense these life circumstances are like living with the 21st century version of a tiger every day.  This is especially true for children since they don’t have the capability to reason the way adults do and depend on a safe and secure environment in an all encompassing life dependant way.  The patterns of adaptation as children often continue as dysfunction in adulthood.  

The reason Dr Wilson coined adrenal fatigue as the 21st century syndrome is that modern life affords us little down time, although we have many conveniences we have less time. We have internalized that tiger and are rarely satisfied; go go go busy busy busy are the mainstream values and with more and more cuts to spending from governments many jobs have become increasingly demanding.  The news is increasingly bad, the economy is unstable and as more information becomes available about the world the less certainty we all seem to have; these factors also contribute to stress and unease.  Cell phones, tablets, laptops all tend to encourage a hyperactive mind focussing on more than one things at a time and are often quite distracting and ungrounding.  In addition to this, physical stressors have increased through decreased nutritional value of foods and increased demands on our systems to detoxify xenobiotics and chemical additives.  The reason the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are so all encompassing is because they are caused by a myriad of factors and those factors like mental stress and over work affect us on all levels.  

Steps to Nourish Your Adrenals and Stress Response system

Since the adrenals are affected by your state of mind, your state of mind is one place you can start to work on.  Stress and worry can be both a result and a contributing factor to adrenal dysfunction. The more worried or hyped up you are the further taxed your adrenals will become.  If you have been through a difficult time in life either for a short period or a long period of time often worry, anxiety or hyper vigilance become part of your norm.  If this stems from childhood then you may not even know it’s there.  If it started in adulthood then you may be more aware of its presence.  In either case taking the time to fully relax is vital.  The first step is finding time to ‘tune in’ to your body.  If you’ve ever been to a yoga class you’ll have been led through the yoga posture shavasana or ‘Corpse Pose’ at the end of the class.  This is a progressive relaxation posture designed to make one aware of and then fully release tension accumulated in the body.  You could use Dr Google to find a good youtube demo of this posture and practice it daily at the end the start of and end of your day.  You can also build into your day mini check ins.  Set a timer on your phone every hour or two and do a quick scan of your body: are you holding your breath? Are you holding tension in your shoulders, jaw, brow or hips?  Is you mind on multiple things at once?   It only takes 30 seconds to take 5 deep relaxing breaths reminding yourself to do one thing at a time and relax your face, jaw, neck, shoulders and hands.  Often anxiety, over thinking and worry have their roots in negative thinking or in all or nothing thought patterns;  to have control over our thoughts and foster a tranquil clear mind these patterns need to be unwound and discovered so you can identify what thoughts are leading to stressful feelings.   No matter who you are or what condition you have spending time relaxing your body is so important to a healthy mind and relaxed nervous system which fosters clear and creative thinking.  

Calming hyper excitability with food and lifestyle choices. 

Since adrenal fatigue stems from an over worked stress response system, avoiding stimulates is key, both physical and mental.  Caffeine and sugar are not your friends when you’re fatigued.  People who stress you, cell phones, the internet, violent or suspenseful TV or movies can all be sources of stress and getting the nervous system keyed up.  If your mind is overactive, then quiet time is essential.  Slowing your body and mind down by doing things slowly and calmly makes a big difference to preserving your energy and keeping your nervous system calm.   Magnesium, Zinc, Vitamin C, B complex vitamins and healthy polyunsaturated fats like fish oils are great nutritional supplements for the adrenally fatigued.  If your diet is good and you get lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes you may not need to supplement with these but many people find benefit.  A protein rich diet is also essential especially at breakfast. Don’t skip meals and when you have snacks make them nuts, seeds, legumes (humus or other bean dips) and vegetables.  Whole grains including rice, rye, spelt, wheat, oats, and legumes, berries, cranberry,  oranges, bananas, greens like lettuce mixes or kale, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, nutritional yeast are all examples of foods high these nutrients.  I will bring you more info on this important health concern in the future.  You can also find this article in parts in the Inverness Oran and the Port Hawkesbury Reporter May 2015. 

Yours In Health, 
Dr Erin