Adrenal Fatigue

The following is an adaption of an article written by Functional Medicine Naturopath Jabe Brown.  Working with an inspired naturopath to deal with the nutritional/hormonal aspects of your health can have amazing results not only in recovering from injury but also in getting the most out of your training.

What is Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is just what it sounds like, your adrenal glands becoming fatigued. Generally things become fatigued from overuse, and adrenal fatigue is no exception.

The adrenals are perhaps best thought of as your survival glands, those that deal with the ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived danger.

The adrenal glands help prepare the body for action, largely by excreting a hormone called cortisol.

What does Cortisol do?

In a dangerous or stressful situation, the body has a predictable set of needs.  A spike in Cortisol levels will increase blood flow.  This in turn provides more energy for your muscles, your lungs and your brain.

When your body is getting amped up for battle, the ‘resting time’ functions such as digestion and reproduction get their needs sidelined. This makes sense, because if a lion is chasing you, who cares about reproductive capacity, or how well you can digest your dinner; your brain is laser-focused on you surviving the next 5 minutes.  It can get back to the other stuff once you are safe and sound.

At the heart of understanding this function of the body is to acknowledge that your brain has no ability to distinguish between a perceived threat (psychological) and a real threat (lion).

Our adrenal function has been tweaked and fine tuned over an obscene amount of time.  Now we find ourselves in a predicament where our bodies are reacting to a deadline at work, the same way we would react to a lion in the room. When we are stressed, cortisol spikes, regardless of how real the danger actually is.

Even worse, our adrenal function is really only designed to last a short amount of time (you either get away from the lion quickly, or you are dead).  Adrenals have a very limited tolerance to being ‘always active’.  When there is near-constant stress in our lives, our adrenals struggle big time.

Cortisol and Inflammation

When we see prolonged adrenal activation, the cortisol levels in our blood also interact with our inflammatory processes.  If a Lion is chasing you, the likelihood of you getting a cut/scratch/injured in the process of escape is pretty darn high.  Your body therefore ups your inflammatory markers, getting ready to attack germs that may be about to invade.

The problem here is that high levels of inflammatory markers not only have the potential to damage tissue, they also increase your pain signalling.  Imagine something is a 5/10 on a pain scale.  Add some stress – cortisol – inflammation and suddenly that same pain is reading as an 8/10.

How does this tie in to exercise?

Exercise is – to put it frankly – a stress.  It is a stress that we place on our bodies to achieve an ideal adaptation.  I stress my muscles, they grow back stronger.  I up my heart rate, my heart becomes conditioned to work at higher levels.  When we exercise excessively what we are doing is applying more stress than our body can handle.  This then spikes cortisol levels, as the body prepares itself for battle and/or pump class.  At best, we are wearing out our adrenals and making our work outs less effective.  Remember, building muscle is a ‘resting job’.  Cortisol levels turn off our resting jobs.

Signs of Adrenal Fatigue…

Over time, the effects of adrenal fatigue start to take their toll.

1) physical fatigue

2) brain fog

3) bags under your eyes

4) sugar cravings + a tendency to reach for stimulants

5) disturbed sleep

6) inflammation

7) weight gain

8) immune dysfunction

As the situation becomes more and more dire, other systems become involved.  The gut, thyroid, cardio-vascular systems all struggle under intense adrenal load.

The moral of the story

If you are working 40+ hours per week in a stressful job, eating not too bad but not too well either,  slept an ok amount but could have slept better, all the while trying to smash 6 sessions a week in the gym, then you are looking at a less than positive situation long term.

Anyone can train hard for 3 months, very few people can train consistently for 2 years.  Take out the people that are sitting at the Physio’s every week and you aren’t left with many exercise role models these days.

The problem is the ‘go hard or go home’ approach that is encouraged in the fitness industry.   It simply does not take into account the body’s physiology.  Accordingly, people don’t get the results they want and either give up or get injured. The ability to train hard is earned, with good nutrition, good sleep and stress management.

N.B. while this may sound a little depressing, read between the lines.  The real moral of this story is that working your butt off is not always the fastest way to the body you want.  If we can back off the focus of constant intense exercise and realign ourselves with a more holistic approach to health, we open up the door to better results, from less time and effort.

If you are interested in learning more about adrenal fatigue and how you can treat it, check out this fantastic podcast by the guys at Vitality Hackers.