Fatigue. Overwhelm. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Depression. These are some of the most common concerns we hear from smart, capable, proactive, otherwise healthy women (and men) in our practice. If you can relate to these awful experiences that steal your quality of life, your energy, motivation, even your personality!!…you’re not alone. Adrenal fatigue – basically a condition where your stress tolerance and stamina-producing system just can’t keep up, is extremely common in modern life. Having dealt with all of the above, it’s a real passion of mine to be able to help other high-achieving, heart-based women hear from their body’s innate wisdom so they can actually turn these symptoms around. If there are some tell-tale signs it’s time to ask your doctor about your adrenal health, it’s these ones.
- Fatigued – You need more sleep than usual, or your energy crashes in the middle of the day. You’re used to a certain level of motivation and stamina, and it’s just not there for you to fall back on these days. In some women, cortisol levels are low relative to healthy levels at all points in the day. For others, cortisol may be low in the morning making it difficult to get out of bed, but then spike abnormally so they then can’t get to sleep at night. For still others, they may fall asleep easily but find themselves wide awake at 3am-5am – the classic “tell” for insomnia related to adrenal fatigue.
- Foggy – difficulty concentrating, distractibility, needing caffeine or sugar to focus, forgetting why you went upstairs – these are all signs your brain function could be under siege from adrenal fatigue. The brain could be under the influence of too much or too little stress hormones leading to you arriving in your driveway with no recollection of the actual drive home! Brain fog is the worst! Nothing makes you feel more underproductive and blocked from reaching your goals and ticking off your to-do’s at home and work.
- Frustrated – You know when the annoying sound your partner makes when chewing his oatmeal feels like grounds for divorce? Do you feel like you’ve got one nerve left and everybody’s getting on it? Secretly developed full on road rage? Irritability is a major sign of adrenal fatigue. It represents that your system is on fight or flight overdrive – where “one more thing”, no matter how seemingly small, is more than enough to put you over your “edge”.
- Flatlined – I remember the first time I ever described how I was feeling using this word. At first, not feeling like I could handle ANYthing, not having it in me to see my normal flow of clients, having zero creativity for my business, crying or feeling highly sensitive to anything my husband said or did, and truly not having the energy to get out of bed even after 9 hours of sleep, made me wonder if I was depressed? Not feeling like that was really what it was, I realized I was in burnout. The end result of adrenal fatigue or chronic stress that just goes unaddressed for too long. When along the timeline does burnout happen? This is completely arbitrary. There aren’t really warning signs you’re about to go from “adaptation” to this high stress level, to full on incapacity aka burnout. One phenomenon that’s recently been identified in research is called “HPA axis fragility”. “HPA” is the intercommunication cascade between the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland as sources of hormones, and therefore major physiologic, emotional and experiential happenings in our bodies and minds. The “fragility” refers to the potential for this system to suddenly be taken out by stress. If you have higher HPA fragility you’d go into burnout sooner and more suddenly than someone with less HPA fragility. The arbitrary and sudden nature of this phenomenon means an extra dose of caution around hanging out in high stress. It’s really important to help as many women I can to redefine their lifestyles so they can prevent burnout from ever happening (for the first time, or a repeat).
What Is “Adrenal Fatigue”?
Got all 4?? Many women who come to see me often already wonder if they have adrenal fatigue. Since conventional medicine does not recognize this diagnosis, women are looking for a doctor who will actually acknowledge this sh** is REAL…and who can help them get on the right treatment plan that will neither exhaust their already dwindling energy reserves and that will get them on the path back to feeling like themselves.
“Why Do I Have Adrenal Fatigue?”
The adrenal glands are a pair of glands that sit on top of our kidneys and produce “stress hormones” – cortisol and adrenaline, in response to stress. We need a normal spike of cortisol first thing in the morning to get us going and give us stamina for our day. Cortisol levels normally decline until evening when they reach their lowest. Under times of “acute” stress – say you are startled by a loud noise – adrenaline is immediately produced. These hormones are nature’s way of ensuring we survive stressful and life-threatening situations.
Participating in typical modern life today means we are chronically running on higher stress settings than nature intended. Never in history have we been exposed to so much information in a single day (day after day). Never in history have our nervous systems been continually stimulated by screens, beeps, and notifications so that we never fully let go and relax. Never in history have women been so active and powerful in workplaces WHILE also STILL holding up twice the household duties and three times the child care as their co-parenting spouses. We are continually comparing ourselves to others – in reality or in constructed online profiles and media. We are over scheduled and overworked. We live in separation from the rhythms of nature. We don’t let ourselves stop thinking, beating ourselves up and feeling guilty for all the ways we’ve been imperfect. We stay late at work and rush through or skip meals. We skimp out on sleep, caffeinate or overexercise our way to squeeze out some more energy. We push through PMS, suppress our periods, numb our headaches, and pretend in every way like we’ve got our stuff together, always.
Enter: adrenal fatigue. It’s an inevitable consequence of extended periods of high stress. In the 1940s, Canadian researcher Hans Selye identified what happens when we’re under stress (using poor stressed-out rats to demonstrate this). The thymus gland and lymph tissue (immune system!) shrinks up and atrophies, rendered nearly useless at fighting infections. The adrenal glands enlarge, almost like a goitre develops when the thyroid can’t make enough thyroid hormone. They’re trying to keep up to the constant or increasing demand for stress hormones to sustain you and ensure you survive the threats your nervous system is perceiving. (In more recent studies it’s been shown that specific nutrient supplementation helps reduce those adrenal glands back to normal, functional size).
How Is Adrenal Fatigue Diagnosed?
“Adrenal fatigue” is a diagnosis of exclusion – which means you’ll work with your naturopathic doctor to rule out other reasons why you could be feeling this way. We’ll need to find out if you have a chronic infection, allergies or sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, a primary sleep disorder, an autoimmune condition or a hormonal condition that can be causing similar symptoms. We’ll look at your physical, emotional, and epigenetic history for clues about where these symptoms are coming from so that we can help your body with the 2 main features of our treatment plans. Your naturopathic doctor will take your blood pressure and complete a few other physical tests to assess for what degree of adrenal fatigue you may be dealing with. She may also order specific blood tests, such as a 4-point cortisol test or blood work to look at hormone balance and nutritional status.
The Body Can’t Lie
Your body is designed to heal itself. How we approach treatment at Two Rivers Health is simple. We’re either (1) Removing obstacles to your body’s ability to self-heal or (2) Providing missing resources that are currently missing from your plan. We help you listen to the wisdom of your body that is conveyed through the very symptoms you’re struggling with. We will help you understand the meaningful pieces of this puzzle so you can choose the next steps in your healing journey and get back to experiencing your most abundant life and healthy self. We know you’ve got important things to go and do in this world. Let’s make a plan to get you back out there.
Feel Like Yourself Again
Once your assessment is complete, your naturopathic doctor will help you identify the couple of (seriously – 1, 2 or 3 most important incremental steps!) for you to take to start getting you back to feeling like yourself again. Remember – healing is always possible.