Inspired living

Do you have adrenal fatigue?

Woman with adrenal fatigue

Credit: iStock

Have you ever had a near car accident or almost tripped down the stairs and then felt so shaky and hyped up that you have to steady your nerves? Blame it on the “fight or flight” response — a hangover from our cavemen days when we needed to be ready to wrestle a sabre-toothed tiger at any moment. Yet, with our modern lifestyle and substantially changed stressors, we no longer have the opportunity to burn off stress hormones through fight or flight, so they keep circulating in our bodies like an anxiety-provoking chemical soup.

As a perceived threat triggers a powerful “danger” signal, this activates the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary axis), a feedback loop between your brain and other organs such as the kidneys that causes a cascade of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. In small doses, these hormones can cause short-term health fallout such as nausea, tummy pain, headaches and perspiration. However, if you’re suffering chronic stress and releasing adrenalin repeatedly all day, you can suffer adrenal burnout or fatigue, leading to chronic health issues. This has another domino effect, making your anxiety alarm goes off too easily. It causes your flight-or-fight response to become more and more sensitive so that your body starts to respond to everything, from a loud noise to a bug on your arm, like it is an emergency.

Adrenalin overload

If you are suffering adrenal burnout, you may also be experiencing hypoglycaemia; this is because stress causes the blood glucose levels in the body to rise. Over time, instead of cortisol levels remaining elevated, they may actually drop, particularly in the morning when they should be rising. This can be why you struggle to get out of bed when you’re going through a stressful period.

With our modern lifestyle and substantially changed stressors, we no longer have the opportunity to burn off stress hormones through fight or flight, so they keep circulating in our bodies like an anxiety-provoking chemical soup.

In the long term, elevated adrenalin can predispose you to conditions like type-2 diabetes. In addition, it can impact on melatonin, which helps drop your body temperature in readiness for sleep. When your melatonin levels rise at night in readiness for rest, your high adrenalin levels may work against this potent sleep hormone, keeping you alert and preventing you from enjoying deep, good-quality shut-eye.

Over months and years, the impact of this kind of adrenalin overload can lead to many health issues including the following.

Concentration lapses
Stress-induced brain drain, where you find it hard to focus, or feel your memory is not working, is caused by the hippocampus, a little seahorse-shaped organ in the brain. When too much cortisol is chronically pumping through your system, the dendrites (the little branches that connect brain neurons) start to shrink, affecting thinking and memory, and the hippocampus can’t get through a clear message to put the brakes on your adrenalin.

Body burnout
With each adrenalin hit, your body shuts down crucial functions to preserve energy. Digestion, growth and reproductive processes all slow. The immune system also grinds to a halt, which means your defences may be down when they should be fighting disease. Research shows that the more stressed you are the less effectively your natural killer cells perform, making you more likely to pick up viruses and colds. Consequently, stress is linked to many different health conditions, including cancer, autoimmune disease, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and migraine.

Heart harm
At the Baker Medical Research Institute, Professor Murray Esler and co-workers have conducted a great deal of research around stress and found it has more of an impact on the heart than the liver, lungs, kidneys and muscles. With every adrenalin surge, fats are released into the bloodstream to provide extra energy to the heart, which uses free fatty acids as its principal fuel. So adrenal overload is a fast track to atherosclerosis, where cholesterol build-up causes the arteries to narrow.

Breaking the burnout cycle

To keep your adrenalin levels in balance, lifestyle is the key. The following strategies can help turn down the tension and reduce your trigger-happy emotional and hormonal responses, and in turn reduce your adrenal fatigue.

Slow your breath
When you lose your wallet or sit for an exam and your flight-or-fight response kicks in, you breathe in more oxygen. In the process, you also breathe out more carbon dioxide. Under normal circumstances, carbon dioxide is like the respiratory system’s green light, prompting the red blood cells to release more oxygen. But in stressful situations when your level of carbon dioxide drops, your red blood cells become like super glue, holding on to oxygen, which means that less of it reaches the body’s cells.

Over-breathing also makes the blood vessels shrink, so the little oxygen that is in circulation takes longer to reach your brain. This deprivation of oxygen has no long-term effects, but it can cause temporary feelings of light-headedness, confusion and feelings of unreality, which can trigger anxiety or cause it to escalate. A classic sign of this can be yawning when you are stressed. To counter over-breathing, learn a method like Buteyko breathing or establish a pattern of breathing in and out to the count of three. Each time you breathe out, say the word “relax” to yourself. Try to take shallow rather than deep breaths and breathe through your nose, as mouth breathers tend to gulp in more air.

Think calm, stay calm
When you find yourself treating everything as urgent or a big deal, ask yourself:

  1. 1. What is the evidence for my fear?
  2. What is the effect of thinking the way I do?
  3. What alternatives are there to what I thought?

By challenging over-reactions to situations that make you anxious and tense, you can break the vicious cycle of worry and prevent your anxiety (and adrenalin) from rising so high.

Replenish & balance minerals
When your body flicks on the fight-or-flight reaction, in addition to releasing adrenalin and cortisol, you also pump out a chemical called aldosterone. This can cause your body to retain more sodium in the kidneys so your body holds on to more fluid in case you need to run for lengthy periods or stand and fight. At the same time, excess aldosterone leads you to retain more copper and, simultaneously, increase your elimination of zinc and magnesium — both minerals that are known to promote greater calm within the body. This makes sense. When you are stressed, your body does not want any minerals that calm you, slowing down your responses, so it offloads them.

Over-breathing makes the blood vessels shrink, so the little oxygen that is in circulation takes longer to reach your brain.

In addition, as a mineral like zinc is essential for helping to remove metals like copper from the body if they are in excess, so depletion in zinc can lead to a greater build-up of copper which, in the brain, will cause excitability and agitation. These responses will then cause your body to secrete even more zinc and magnesium and result in even greater copper build-up, leading to a problematic cycle of mineral depletion.

In light of this, it’s important to replenish and replace those important minerals when you are feeling particularly anxious, rushed or under the gun. In addition to supplementation of zinc and magnesium, include more foods rich in these important minerals. Natural sources of zinc include seafood (particularly shellfish), wheatgerm, beef and lamb, spinach, pepitas, mushrooms, nuts and pulses. Good sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach, nuts and seeds, fish, lentils and beans, avocados and whole grains such as brown rice.

It’s also worth consulting a naturopath about your supplementation as in some people zinc should only be taken for short periods, while in other people taking zinc supplements could lead to a deficiency in copper, which needs to be balanced.

Move your body
Exercising does not mean you should run marathons or do exhausting Bikram yoga sessions. Listen to your body and work out which forms of exercise best serve your health without depleting you. Some people report that High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), where you do bursts of anaerobic exercise that make you breathless followed by short periods of rest, has an immediate and beneficial impact on reducing anxiety levels and induces an enduring feeling of calm after the workout. Or you might find that yoga, Pilates, qi gong or tai chi are much better choices when you need to de-stress.

Though all exercise causes cortisol release, bear in mind that higher-intensity or endurance training causes higher levels of this hormone, so during periods of intense stress, when your cortisol levels are already elevated, a more flowing, meditative form of movement may be a better choice.

De-stress with diet
Stabilise your moods by eating three meals a day. Include foods high in vitamin B6, such as Brazil nuts, avocado, cheese, carrots, oranges, lentils and peas. Vitamin B6 assists the brain to produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that helps cells in different parts of the brain communicate with each other — a great help if stress is impeding your concentration.

Eliminate foods that you know your body is sensitive to — or check whether you are sensitive to common problematic foods such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn and eggs. These can cause your body to have inflammatory reactions that can change your hormonal profile, leading to imbalances.

As a perceived threat triggers a powerful “danger” signal, this activates the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary axis), a feedback loop between your brain and other organs such as the kidneys that causes a cascade of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol.

Reduce your intake of caffeine, sugar and alcohol, which can all stimulate your body to pump out adrenalin and cortisol. Side-effects may later include shakiness, heart palpitations, difficulty sleeping and a general sense of anxiety. In addition, excess salt forces up your blood pressure and as a result your body process more adrenalin, leading to increased edginess and tension.

Processed foods have been shown in research at Deakin University to contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Higher intake of trans fats also doubles the risk of suffering depression and anxiety, according to Spanish research involving 12,000 university students over six years. So to combat adrenal fatigue it’s critical to minimise your intake of takeaway foods and aim to brown bag your lunch, cooking at home from scratch as much as possible, using fresh ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and good-quality protein.

Sing out
Put on a favourite up-tempo CD while driving home, cooking dinner or getting ready for work. Studies show that laughing and singing help release endorphins — natural painkillers that promote the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain.

Talk things over
Debrief with someone close to you who has an empathetic disposition or see a counsellor who uses an approach that suits your personality and philosophical/spiritual approach to life. The simple act of talking through your feelings and having someone listen and suggest other ways to think, act and interact with the world can be a very powerful and effective antidote for adrenal fatigue.

Take time for meditation
Meditation helps you move from a state of thinking into a state of sensing and being, which can greatly alleviate stress and lower levels of stress hormones. To help achieve a meditative state at different times of the day, try to focus on:

  • Your morning shower. Instead of thinking about what you have to get through today or how late you’re running, commit to enjoying the sensation of the warm water and how wonderful it feels on your skin.
  • Music. Close your eyes and lie still or engage in an active dance meditation.
  • Sounds. Soak up different sounds in the room and beyond, including the wind, cars passing by, people talking in another room, birds singing etc.
  • Your cup of coffee/tea. Savour the smell and each sip, noticing how it tastes on your tongue and then how it warms you as you swallow.
  • Your movements. Notice the pace of your steps when walking or your posture and level of muscle tension when sitting and typing at your computer.
  • Humming. Start humming or chanting in a rhythmic fashion and enjoy the releasing feeling as you do this.
  • Sun on your skin. Take five minutes to sit or lie in the sun and imagine its rays of light are sending golden, relaxing energy throughout your body.


Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.