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Adrenal Fatigue: What It Is, Why It's Controversial, and How To Recover

Picture this: You begin feeling tired for no apparent reason and your weight mysteriously increases, especially around the midsection. So, you do what many people would do in this situation- you put your energy into a plan that will help you shed the weight and increase your energy. And yet, after a few months on this plan, you still find yourself exhausted and the weight- well, it ain’t budging! So, you change up your fitness plan, only to discover that no matter what you do, you’re still stuck on square one. Of course, you’re frustrated- the weight keeps climbing while your mood and overall outlook starts to plummet.

As a personal trainer & hormonal fat loss nutrition coach, I see this scenario on a regular basis in the many women who come to me struggling with various hormone-related weight issues, including PCOS, pre-insulin diabetes, cortisol irregularities and adrenal fatigue or dysfunction. Many fitness professionals focus on the external, paying minimal attention to the person’s overall well-being. And, the majority of medical professionals tend to focus on treating a person’s symptoms by prescribing medication without actually digging for the root cause of the issue. As adrenal issues become increasingly common in our modern, stressed-out society, changing this dynamic is going to be crucial.

What exactly is Adrenal Fatigue and why haven’t many heard of it?

Before we can understand what adrenal fatigue is, we first have to understand what the adrenal glands are. Our adrenal glands are known as our “fight or flight” control station, and are stimulated whenever we feel excited, threatened or anxious through the release of cortisol and adrenaline/noradrenaline. Our adrenal glands are also vital in maintaining healthy blood pressure through salt regulation via the hormone aldosterone, and help the body deal with change and other stressful life situations.  Abnormal physical issues start to arise when the adrenals are constantly stimulated over a long period of time- often through chronic emotional or physical stress.

Enter Adrenal Fatigue.

This is a state of suboptimal health caused by adrenal glands that are no longer working well. Cortisol levels are also impacted, with too high cortisol levels at night and low cortisol in the morning, leading to a “wired yet tired” feeling. Conventional medicine does not currently accept “adrenal fatigue” as a medical diagnosis, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, and many endocrinologists only test for “adrenal insufficiency,” which is when adrenal functioning has already entered an “emergency” zone. However, looking at adrenal functioning as a black and white issue, rather than on a continuum, does not make much sense when we take into account the way our bodies function naturally. As a parallel, consider the diagnosis of “high blood pressure.” Given that 120/80mmHg is considered a normal and healthy blood pressure, does 121/80 automatically put one into the category of high blood pressure? It is like this with the adrenals- our adrenals work along a spectrum of functioning.

So, what are some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue?

Understand that this list is not comprehensive and that each of us can show varying degrees of these symptoms. Some of the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue can include:

·      Persistent tiredness in the early morning or mid-afternoon, despite sleeping well;
·      The need for caffeine or other stimulants to get you through the day;
·      Trouble getting up in the morning, even after a good 8 hour sleep;
·      Feeling overwhelmed by the smallest thing;
·      Difficulty in coping with life’s daily demands;
·      Recurrent infections, cough, lung-related diseases;
·      Struggling to bounce back from illnesses;
·      Craving salt in particular, sometimes sugar/ sweet snacks;
·      Feeling energetic after 6pm;
·      Unexplained back or knee or joint pain;
·      Heart Palpitations;
·      Low blood pressure / blood sugar;
·      Pronounced midsection weight gain;
·      Unable to focus and concentrate;
·      Decreased sex drive.

Generally speaking, the less the state of adrenal dysfunction, the fewer the symptoms are and subsequently, the road to recovery can be much faster with a couple of weeks of good restful sleep, eating unprocessed and nutritious food, and getting enough movement and sunlight.

Adrenal fatigue symptoms may seem confusing and contradictory but that is because they reflect the body’s way of working to returning any imbalances back to the norm -- also known as homeostasis.

Since the endocrine system is highly complex and adrenal functions are inter-related to other glands and hormones such as the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, and testosterone, it makes sense that when the adrenal glands are constantly stimulated, this will cause a cascading effect on the other functions of the body. It is not surprising then that a lot of women with hormonal issues such as PCOS, diabetes, hypothyroidism and auto-immune disease also show signs of adrenal fatigue syndrome. The conventional medicinal approach is to prescribe medicines to mask the symptoms, but this often a temporary solution, causing more damage in the long run. In some cases where the adrenals have not been functioning normally for a long time and are no longer able to produce sufficient cortisol, the person’s mental health will also take a hit in the form of depression and/or anxiety.

If you feel like you might be dealing with adrenal fatigue, don’t be surprised to find that the majority of healthcare professionals will not accept this as a possibility. As I mentioned, there is currently a black and white approach to diagnosing adrenal issues, as well as limitations in adrenal function testing.

The standard method is to perform a blood test, which is not helpful when it comes to diagnosing Adrenal Fatigue. One of the easiest ways to get around this is to get a 24-hour salivary cortisol test (not a singular cortisol test as it does not tell the whole story). Some experienced medical doctors, as well as those trained in functional medicine, may order a series of 24 hour cortisol tests over several days to get a more accurate picture, alongside testing for DHEA levels.

What Options Do I Have For Recovery?

It may seem like a doomsday scenario with adrenal fatigue, but the first steps on the road to lasting recovery are:

·      knowing what your symptoms are telling you;
·      taking ownership of your health;
·      being patient;
·      and, getting well-educated with the right practitioner on how to manage your condition.

Because we are each highly unique individuals, the key solution towards adrenal recovery will be an integrative approach towards a comprehensive lifestyle plan that work optimally for you.

Ideally, the plan will encompass:

·      the right nutrition (carbohydrate to fat amounts);
·      the right supplementation (also in the right amounts);
·      the right form of exercise or movement plan for you (this will be different from the average exercise plan);
·      other lifestyle shifts involving sleep, mindfulness practices and stress-reducing activities.

I urge you to start waking up to the signs your body is telling you and start caring for your adrenal glands through proper nutrition, rest, mind-body practices and other stress relief activities.

Even though adrenal fatigue is not commonly accepted in conventional medicine yet, this will likely to change over the years as the medical community evolves with research and clinical trials. However, there is no need to wait to until the day when “adrenal fatigue” is accepted into the mainstream.  Start tuning into the messages of your body and make a commitment to self-care as you travel on the road toward optimal health.

Integrative Oncology Essentials, "Adrenal Exhaustion and Cancer: Is This Real?"

Dr. Lam, "Top 10 Adrenal Fatigue Facts Made Easy"

Yan Huang is a certified personal trainer and hormonal fat loss specialist who focuses on complementary healing for hormonal imbalance through fitness, nutrition and self-care. If you have questions for Yan or would like to book a complimentary consultation, email her at . If you liked this post, share it! Have a comment? Leave it below- we always love to hear from you. 


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