Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is a serious condition that can affect your health profoundly. It can happen from a sudden severe stress, or a series of ongoing continuous stresses over a period of years (e.g., a stressful job with much travel or chronic pain). It can also be caused by other stressors happening in the body such as illnesses, a sudden serious infection, depression, or a chronic infection such as a candida overgrowth in the gut.

With the inter-connectedness of all the body's systems, anything that affects one system in the body can affect all the others.   

And yet, adrenal fatigue (including adrenal exhaustion) is one of the easiest health conditions I know of that can be fixed.  If one is going down the right path. 

How do you know if your adrenals are getting tired? If you have been tired for weeks on end and unable to get rested, then your adrenals are tired. It doesn't even matter what the cause is. What phase of fatigue the adrenals are in might require either testing cortisol (the "stress" hormone) or a practitioner who knows the signs and symptoms.

The adrenal glands (one over each kidney) help regulate any kind of stress in your body, from hunger to a sudden influx of sugar to fear (the fight or flight response) or anger. Even heat and cold are considered stressors by the adrenals. Their job is vast -- they make and secrete many different hormones that are used in other areas of the body, such as the digestive system and even the brain, to keep the body regulated and running smoothly. If you're in good health, you'd hardly notice they exist because the body's systems work in such a beautiful syncronicity -- everything working together in harmony.

Many people, however, have a distorted view of what "stress" on the body can be. For example, being constantly busy or overworked for years, even though it feels exciting and fun, can be ultimately debilitating to the adrenals. It doesn't matter how much fun it is to be busy. Also, all the stressors are additive, meaning if the adrenals are never given a chance to regroup from stress, then they can eventually give out. They keep working as long and as hard as they can, and then that's it. They give plenty of warning before they crash, however, in the form of fatigue. Often people have worsening fatigue for several years. Here are a few examples of potential "stresses" to the body that cause the adrenals to swing into action or to work a little harder:

high blood sugar
low blood sugar
lack of sleep
cold feet or hands
being out in severe cold or extreme heat
not getting enough protein or other vitamins and nutrients
emotional stress such as anger or fear
ongoing infections in the body such as a candida overgrowth that requires the immune system, liver, and adrenal's help (among others)
constantly rushing around, always too busy
being late constantly
working under pressure or deadlines
stressful home or work environment
noisy environment
chronic pain
raising small children
never resting even if tired

If your adrenals are already tired and worn down, or even worse -- exhausted -- then any small stress will be noticed. The primary symptom of exhaustion is extreme loss of energy. It's the body's way of protecting itself. When you're asking your body to do more than it has energy for, it will use energy for only the most essential activities in the body (like regulating body temperature and regulating blood sugar. Hence, nothing will be available for the body's energy.

Adrenal fatigue usually comes in stages, unless it was one severe stress that caused the problem. You'll gradually feel more and more tired, and less able to get rested. If you keep pushing yourself (which most people do), then the adrenals can eventually nearly shut down, and a feeling of complete weakness and prostration can result. This is a later stage and is called "adrenal exhaustion". Cortisol levels in this state can be next to nothing. Normally, cortisol (the adrenal cortex hormone) has a daily pattern of high when waking to low at bedtime.

It's really important to know that adrenal fatigue (or exhaustion) can accompany, or be the basis of, many illnesses! Here are a few examples:

chronic fatigue syndrome (just another way to say "adrenal fatigue")
fibromyalgia (adrenal fatigue is a huge factor here, and probably the main cause)
autoimmune diseases
candida overgrowth in the gut
chronic pain of any kind
depression or mood disorders
anything with fatigue (if you are chronically tired, the adrenals are tired)

The good news is...more and more doctors and health practitioners are becoming knowledgeable about it. Which is not to say they know how to treat it, or even help it. I know how to treat it, simply because I've had to live through, and recover from, several bouts of adrenal exhaustion. I chose to find a way to help myself, which started a quest of many years of research, collaboration and input from other practitioners, and application to myself and others. Adrenal fatigue/exhaustion, I know now, is actually fairly easy to help -- if the proper system-wide steps are taken.

My first bout of adrenal exhaustion was in 1984. After several years of working and going to college full-time, and competing in sports (sometimes two at the same time), working on horseback expeditions in the Sierra wilderness, and a bout of pneumonia -- I then had two bouts of flu in a row after which I couldn't get up. I went "over the edge" into exhaustion (and that's exactly what it feels like) and a state of extreme weakness.

At that time, no one knew what it was. There was even a "mysterious outbreak" of a fatigue-like illness going on in my area that doctors couldn't figure out. After every test imaginable, I just stayed in bed completely not knowing what else to do. For awhile, I thought I would by dying soon because that's what it felt like. I learned later this is fairly common feeling at first amongst those with adrenal exhaustion. After 6 months of complete bed rest, I was healed enough to go back to work part-time. It took about 7 more years to recover fully. The only thing I did differently was to rest, because I didn't know what else to do.

As it turns out, resting is one of the key components of recovering -- and one of the hardest things for those with adrenal fatigue to do.

Many years and several bouts later, I now know exactly what to do to help adrenal fatigue -- at any stage, and I've even recovered in a few weeks from a "crash" that previously might have taken 4-6 months of bed rest.

Important note! If you've had any kind of adrenal fatigue once, you can get it again much more easily and much faster than the first time. This is really crucial to keep in mind as you adjust your life around stresses. The way I understand it, the body has grooved a pathway to it, and has a clear road to go down, should you let physical or emotional stresses overtake you. This isn't a very scientific explanation, but it's the best way to describe it. If you've had it more than once, you'll know exactly what I mean.

For more information, see "What to do about adrenal fatigue" and "Getting your adrenals tested") (coming soon)

Please contact me if you have any questions. 

To your best health!

Adele Sonora
Nutritionist and Health Educator

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