In these difficult times, where talks of recession make us nervous and fear for our jobs, or money issues are keeping us awake at night, have you noticed that your health is suffering?
Does life seem to be a little bit harder for you than it does for everyone else? Do you wonder where all your energy has gone? Do you feel tired during the day, but then can't get to sleep till late at night? Have you found that you have recurring coughs & colds that seem to last for weeks at a time? Do you need that extra cup of coffee just to get you going in the morning, or keep you going through the day?
Adrenal Fatigue is the modern ill-understood syndrome that affects many of us to various degrees, yet it is little understood or even heard of for the majority. So what is it? And what can you do about it?
Stress, be it emotional, physical, environmental, death of a loved one, loss of job etc, poor sleep, nutritional (poor diet or over consumption of caffeine and other food stressors), illness & injury, or extreme exertion with little allowance for recovery, can stimulate an adrenal hormonal cascade within the body that triggers the release of Cortisol.
Cortisol, Stress & Adrenal Fatigue
Cortisol is an essential "stress" hormone to the body produced by the adrenal glands. It helps the body fight stressors including infection & inflammation, it helps the body to regulate glucose levels, & helps the liver in the body's detoxification process. In essence, cortisol enables the body to restore homeostasis after any form of stress.
Unfortunately, in modern society, people are relying more & more on cortisol-fired "second wind" to get them through the day. Too many stressors in our life demand more & more production of cortisol. The higher our levels of cortisol, the higher our perception of stress rises, the poorer our immune system functions, placing the body under more & more stress into a self-perpetuating problem. So what happens when we ask so much of the adrenals, are working constantly under the excess production of cortisol and depleting the body's stores?
It is the adrenal glands production of cortisol that helps us deal with stress, and our stores are being constantly depleted. Excess demand means we lose the ability to recover so efficiently. For some it may be one specific event or trauma in their lives that is sufficient to cause Adrenal Fatigue. For others it may be a series of smaller events, or one that finally "breaks the camel's back". Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons that can make diagnosis difficult and a diagnosis of simply "Stress" can be poorly misunderstood or unsympathetically misconstrued. And for the sufferer, not realising that there may be more steps that they can, or should take, than simply a few days rest to prevent recurrence or exacerbating the symptoms when returning to the very life that could be causing these symptoms. So if you suspect that you, or someone you care for, may be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue, what common symptoms are you looking for?
Symptoms are extremely varied but include decreased ability to handle stress, drops in productivity & focus, muscle weakness, lowered sex drive, increased severity of sensitivities or allergies, swollen glands in neck, low moods, energy & clarity, feelings of cold, sleeping late, or waking after sleep still feeling unrefreshed, feelings of hopelessness, recurring coughs & colds or respiratory infections with longer than normal recovery times, skin conditions, pain in muscles (particularly in neck & upper back) for no apparent reason, dizziness when rising from standing/seated position and many more.
Note, a full list of precursors and symptoms is available in James L. Wilson's "Adrenal Fatigue - The 21st Century Stress Syndrome", as well as a detailed questionnaire which can helps individuals to establish the potential for adrenal fatigue, and its' severity.
Bear in mind conditions such as Diabetes (type II), M.E/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Asthma, Anorexia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can also predispose individuals to Adrenal Fatigue.
However, it is not all doom & gloom. If you suspect that you may be suffering from an even moderate form of adrenal fatigue, or your life is highly stressful & you are concerned that you are at risk of Adrenal Fatigue, then there are simple steps that you can take to help alleviate the symptoms, aid recovery & prevent regression.
Foods - Firstly cut out foods that place further demand on the adrenals by avoiding stimulants such as coffee. Highly processed foods also demand more of the adrenals as the body recognises them as toxins, and therefore Cortisol levels are further depleted to aid digestion.
Blood sugar levels can be difficult to maintain if suffering from Adrenal Fatigue. So don't let them drop too low as this can just create additional stress on the body. Eat small healthy meals regularly throughout the day, particularly in the morning, when blood sugar is conventionally low. Then an early lunch, light snack early afternoon, & evening meal - not too late. A light protein snack before bed will aid sleep & recovery further.
Sugary foods should be avoided as poor regulation of blood sugar creates a roller coaster of adrenalin & energy spikes, creating further stress on adrenal function.
Food sensitivities & intolerances are often exacerbated during adrenal fatigue, and the worsening of these can often be a secondary symptom of adrenal fatigue. Therefore, logically, to assist recovery, avoid known food intolerances. If you suspect you have food intolerances, you may want to try an elimination or detox diet, cutting out all processed & de-natured foods till you can establish what your intolerances are.
Be warned, if you are currently relying on coffee & other "quick fixes" such as sugary foods to get you through the day, then you are probably going to have a "crash" where the body detoxifies. This can be a hum-dinger of a headache. However, this tends to be extremely short lived, typically a day or two, and then you will start to feel the benefits shortly afterwards.
HCL - many people with adrenal fatigue suffer with lower levels of Hydrochloric Acid, which is necessary to break down proteins in the stomach, leading to excess gas, and/or bloating. Supplements are available for this.
Hydration -Unfortunately, too many of us are not keeping hydrated enough on a day to day basis. Dehydration itself can be a stressor on the body, so take steps to keep fully hydrated. You should ensure that you are are drinking at least 1 litre of clean, pure water for every 50llbs of your own bodyweight each day. Juices, teas, coffee & other soft drinks do not count towards this!
Sleep - Hormone levels fluctuate at various points in the day, so if you are not at rest during certain key times you are further depleting your body and blocking recovery. Aim to be asleep by 10.30pm at least five times a week (before that second-wind kicks in & keeps you up late). Turn off the lights, switch off the computer, TV, or games console an hour or two before bed & try to unwind fully before attempting to sleep. If you are unaccustomed to sleeping so early, then it may be an idea to train the body slowly, try to be asleep by 11.30, then 11.00, then 10.30. Where possible also try to sleep in until 8.30-9am, if only at weekends.
Relaxation - Finding a specific time to dedicate to yourself is a simple positive step you can take. Maybe book a weekly massage, or try & set aside a weekly time to take part in a hobby that you enjoy & find relaxing.
Breathing - the simple practice of breathing techniques can be an enormous help in coping with stress, the sensation of stress, and reducing cortisol levels. Try lying down & placing one hand on your chest & one on your belly and feeling where you are breathing into; chest or belly. If you are breathing predominately into the upper chest, then you may be exacerbating tension as you breathing paradoxically (look at a sleeping baby or pet, you will notice that it is the belly that moves with the breath naturally). Practice abdominal breathing, then slowing down the breath. Maybe invest in a short meditation course, or if time is precious, simply practising abdominal & slower breathing at night in bed (a great way to help you to sleep) & before rising.
Exercise - Practices such Yoga, Qigong & Thai Chi are excellent forms of exercise as they also use breath-work, but are also means of helping the body maintain equilibrium.
However, this does not mean that you should avoid other forms of exercise, but you may need to adjust your usual exercise routine. Short intensive workouts such as circuits (using moderately to heavy weights with smaller repetitions) are ideal, rather than extensive, cardio-heavy training sessions that can serve to increase the pressure being placed on the adrenals. Rest after 20 - 25 minutes of exercise, stretch afterwards, and focus on correct breathing techniques throughout.
Good things - take steps to avoid additional stressors where you can, be that people or situations that you find physically or emotionally draining. Surround yourself in the time that you can with people, places that have a positive effect on you.
Supplements & Herbs
If you want to give yourself every possible helping hand, then you may want to consider investing in some high-quality supplements that assist in the adrenal cascade and/or alleviate some of the symptoms of Adrenal fatigue. Some of these include;
Vitamin C - high doses of Vitamin C are essential to the hormonal cascade (release & production process) & strengthens general glandular function.
B complex of vitamins - (niacin, thiamine, pantothenic acid, riboflavin,and vitamins B6 and B12). Helps to reduce headaches & fatigue, maintains the whole nervous system, help build stress tolerance.
Magnesium - best taken at night, aids in adrenal function
Calcium - settles the nervous system. Also calcium & magnesium act as antagonists, so it is important to maintain a healthy balance between the two. (Note calcium is better taken late afternoon/early evening, but should not be taken at the same time as magnesium).
Ashwagandha - as an adaptogen, ashwagandha helps the body to achieve equilibrium. It also aids in endocrine function, assisting in coping with stress & anxiety, as well as aiding good sleep function.
Rhodiola - excellent for some of the more mental health aspects of Adrenal Fatigue.
I know that all of these things may seem a big ask when people are struggling with increased workloads, and are both time & cash poor, but making a few simple changes can alleviate your stress levels & symptoms. It is important to bear in mind that the points earned with your boss from staying late, taking on too much work, juggling too many things, may not be worth the price your health is paying.
In these times of financial insecurity, it seems the smartest investment seems to be in your own health.
Julie Winterton is a Level 2 Health Coach, Yoga Siromani & Kinetic Chain Assessment Specialist at the Dax Moy Personal Training Studios, Islington, London
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