Adrenal Fatigue, or more correctly Adrenal Dysfunction is a generalised term, which comes from a symptom profile that can include some or all of the following:
Do you feel stressed all the time?
Do you feel exhausted?
Do you struggle to get up in the morning?
Do you wish you could stay in bed until at least 9am?
Have you either been gaining weight, or struggling to lose weight?
Have you been struggling with depression, anxiety or other mood disorders?
Are your hormones all over the place? Missed, irregular, painful periods? Thyroid imbalance?
Do you always feel hungry?
Do you crave sweet and high carb foods?
Do you find it difficult to concentrate? Or have a ‘foggy’ brain?
Do you feel exhausted during and after moderate exercise?
You struggle to bounce back from an illness, or get sick regularly?
Do you have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up?
Or have any of the following:
Higher or lower body temperature
Reduced sex drive/libido
Unexplained muscle pain
Blood sugar imbalance
And while this is not a definitive list, it does cover the spectrum of Adrenal Fatigue.
But how do we get to this point? And what role does Stress play in Adrenal Dysfunction?
To be more accurate, Adrenal Dysfunction is actually a HPA Axis Dysfunction or Dysregulation. The HPA axis is responsible for controlling the glandular system in our bodies, of which the adrenals are a part of. If the adrenals are ‘fatigued’ or not working properly, then all aspects of the HPA Axis are not functioning correctly.
The HPA Axis is responsible for creating many of our hormones, including our stress hormones. The main 4 that the adrenals produce are Cortisol, DHEA, Adrenaline and Noradrenaline. The one we will be focusing on is Cortisol. Within the HPA Axis, each gland is responsible for triggering a reaction that triggers the manufacturing and release of certain hormones. I won’t go into too much detail, as it can get confusing, but I just want you to understand that the HPA Axis is involved in Adrenal Dysfunction.
So how have we got here? How have we allowed ourselves to become so fatigued? This is such a hard concept for many people to get their heads around, including many Doctors. Adrenal Dysfunction is still a highly misunderstood ‘syndrome’. There is no definitive test, although some tests offer great insight into the cortisol functioning in the body. So for many people, when they go and see a health care provider with extreme fatigue, they don’t know where to look. The symptom profile can indicate several conditions, but there is no real diagnosis. And with no diagnosis, we don’t know what is going on or how to fix it. So we continue as we always have, and our bodies struggle more and more.
So to understand Adrenal Dysfunction, we need to understand the Stress Response System (SRS).
Our bodies were designed to cope with stress in a very efficient manner. If we are faced with a ‘threat’ our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline to prepare us to Fight or Flee/Flight (run away). Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) prepares us to meet the challenges we are about the face. Our heart rate and breathing increase, blood rushes from the rest of the body to the limbs, while keeping just enough for the vital organs to function. Once the threat is over, our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) calms the body down, entering a relaxed state, while slowing down our breathing and heart rate. This allows us to recover and prepare for the next ‘threat’. Our digestive system and immune response can also return to normal.
During a stress response, our digestive system essentially minimises its functioning, to allow for more blood to go where it is needed. Our immune functioning is also decreased during the fight or flight response.
This is a very efficient system. However, in the age we are living in, the SRS is working overtime. For many people the perceived ‘threat’ we are facing is not a threat at all, but our bodies don’t know the difference. We are living in a highly stressful society, where the demands of daily life can be overwhelming for many people. We are living in a state of Chronic Stress.
During times of high stress, large amounts of cortisol are released into our system. This is designed to help up, but it has become a great concern. With the constant state of stress, our adrenals can’t keep up with the demand for our stress hormones. And we are becoming less responsive to the PNS and relaxation. When your adrenal reserves are low, the body can still release enough hormones to maintain ‘normal’ health. But during times of constant high stress, the adrenals begin to reduce their ability to produce these hormones and the result is adrenal fatigue and other health conditions.
So to put it in easy terms: our bodies are fatigued from the constant demands of stress. But it is not just what we perceive as ‘stress’ that is placing stress on our bodies. There are many stressors that we need to be aware of:
Plus a host of other issues.
There are generally 3 stages of Adrenal Fatigue: Mild, Moderate and Severe. Different people have different terms for these stages, but lets keep it simple!
Mild: you thrive on stress, needing the highs to keep you motivated during the day. Periodical Fatigue.
Moderate: you struggle to get out of bed in the morning and need caffeine to keep you going. Stress hormones spike in the evening, therefore even though you are tired you can’t switch off and get to sleep. Anxiety levels can be high, depression may be present. Fatigue is an almost daily issue.
Severe: you have nothing left to give. You start out mild or moderate, but keep pushing on, only to completely drain your reserves. You push through to meet your daily demands, but otherwise there is nothing left. Sleep imbalance is very common, mood changes, weight gain, immune issues, hormone imbalances – plus a whole host of other issues can be present when you reach Severe Adrenal Fatigue. When you are experiencing this type of fatigue, it is hard to control your emotional response. You can become snappier, cry for no reason, have increased anger, cravings can become more severe. Under normal circumstances we are more equipped to control or handle our emotions, but when you are facing Severe Adrenal Fatigue, this becomes increasingly difficult.
Addressing Adrenal Fatigue as soon as possible will minimise the recovery time. People with Adrenal Fatigue/Dysfunction can take from 6 months to 2 years to fully recover.
So as you can see, Adrenal Dysfunction/Fatigue is a complex issue.
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