On a scale of one to 10, how stressed do you feel? Work, financial strains and relationship issues can add to everyday pressures and responsibility – making us tired, worn out and feeling low. But is feeling highly overstressed and fatigued normal? How do we recognise the difference between general stress and unhealthy stress, and what are the long-term effects? In a Southern Cross survey, 30 per cent of New Zealanders were unsure if they were overstressed, while 30 per cent ticked the stressed box.
That statistic alone is enough to cause anxiety. Dr James Wilson, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome says prolonged periods of fatigue are not normal. If you’re tired for extended periods of time, feeling run down, struggling to keep up with daily life and unable to bounce back from illness, you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue.
What are your adrenals?
Adrenal glands are commonly known as the ‘glands of stress’. These two walnut-sized glands are perched on top of each kidney in your lower back area and are responsible for helping you deal with mental stress, physical injury, illness and emotional strain. Your adrenal glands secrete more than 50 hormones into the body including cortisol, oestrogen, testosterone and epinephrine (adrenaline).
These hormones have many roles. They turn fats and proteins into energy, help your body utilise carbohydrates, regulate blood sugar and more. In short, the quality of your adrenal glands reflects your quality of life. Too much negative change or pressure on the body can deplete your adrenal glands, causing a decrease in the output of hormones. This results in adrenal fatigue.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue can appear often in day-to-day life, but it’s the combination and extended presence of these symptoms that suggest the presence of adrenal fatigue. Symptoms include difficulty getting up in the morning despite having a good night’s sleep, craving salty or sugary foods, feeling lethargic to the extent where small activities feel like a chore, decreased sex drive, light-headedness, mild depression and a fuzzy, unfocused mind and memory.
“These symptoms indicate defective adaption of your adrenal glands to the stresses you are experiencing,” says Dr Wilson. “They are warnings that something needs to change if you want to feel well again.”
Adrenal fatigue is not recognised as a medical condition. The more extreme (and less common) cases of adrenal fatigue are known as Addison’s disease (see below), but this leaves a large number of sufferers in a state of limbo – their symptoms aren’t severe enough to be officially recognised, but they still struggle through day-to-day life.
“Low adrenal function is one of those problems that has become invisible in common medicine,” says Dr Wilson. “Addison’s disease is covered in medical texts and lectures, but adrenal fatigue, a condition that affects more people than Addison’s, is rarely mentioned.”
How to test yourself
Assessing yourself for adrenal fatigue can be done in the comfort of your home. Firstly, try the iris contraction test. In front of a mirror, shine a flashlight over your eye. The pupil should contract immediately as the light hits your eye and remain contracted in the increased light. Adrenal fatigue is indicated if your pupil is unable to remain contracted.
The line test is another way of testing for adrenal fatigue. Using the dull end of a pen, scrape a 15cm line down your forearm or torso. In healthy people, the line turns white and then reddens; adrenal-fatigue sufferers may find the line stays white for a few minutes and widens.
Our blood-pressure levels are also an indicator of adrenal fatigue. Dr Wilson says although there are other causes associated with low blood pressure, low adrenal function is often a common reason.
If you’re concerned you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, consult your GP. If you don’t see improvements after this, try consulting a naturopath.
How to cure adrenal fatigue:
In most cases, sufferers don’t recover from adrenal fatigue by taking prescription medicine. Dr Wilson says recovery is dependent on a variety of factors including lifestyle, diet and mindset. “One of the first principles in healing adrenal fatigue is to remove the cause and the aggravating factors,” he says.
Figure out what in your life is causing you anxiety. Write a list of the things that are beneficial to your life and make you happy, along with a list of things that make you feel low. If a particular relationship or your job depresses you, it’s time to take action. Small stresses may seem insignificant but they can accumulate over time, so learning to remove yourself or adapt will also help you mentally recover.
Dr Wilson suggests scheduling ‘unstructured time’ in your week, where you have no obligations or plans. This will give you an emotional and mental break.
Sleep is vital for recovery. Many sufferers find they get a second wind after 11pm, so it’s important to be in bed well before this happens. And while most people’s schedules don’t allow it,
Dr Wilson says being able to sleep in until 8-9am helps sufferers regain energy.
Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing, but the benefits are substantial. Increased blood flow helps your liver to function more efficiently, while normalising hormones and providing oxygen to the brain. If you feel you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, choose exercise that isn’t highly competitive or gruelling – have fun! Try yoga, paddleboarding, walking or swimming.
There is a strong connection between adrenal fatigue and low blood sugar. Avoid low blood sugar by eating high-quality food at regular intervals during the day. Dr Wilson says eating breakfast between 8-10am is important to replenish blood-sugar levels and increase energy. Avoid eating sugary foods and stock up on healthy fats, protein and whole grains. Make sure you eat lunch and dinner, and snack between meals. “Make regaining your health a major priority,” says Dr Wilson. “Don’t sacrifice it for the cheap gratification of a favourite unhealthy snack or beverage.”
What is Addison’s disease?
The most extreme level of adrenal fatigue is known as Addison’s disease (also known as hypocortisolism or chronic fatigue). This occurs when the adrenal glands are producing extremely low hormone levels and is not usually apparent until more than 90 per cent of the adrenal cortex has been destroyed. In many cases, lifelong steroid treatment is required to repair adrenal damage.
Tips to help prevent adrenal fatigue
- Reduce your coffee and alcohol intake: fill up with water instead
- Don’t smoke. This places stress on your body; it can accelerate adrenal fatigue and prevent recovery
- Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veges
- Exercise regularly – but don’t overdo it. It’s also common for athletes to suffer from adrenal fatigue because of the mental and physical stress high levels of activity place on the body
- Eat regular meals every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks between each meal
- Sleep! Get to bed before 11pm as often as possible
From the editors of Good Health Choices