By Gary Merel
Adrenal Fatigue: What is it?
With more and more stress at home and at work, it is unsurprising that adrenal fatigue is on the rise. The pressures of life put many in a constant state of “fight or flight,” leaving our adrenal glands working overtime until they can no longer keep up. Adrenal fatigue is a direct result of this overworked, stressed, and rushed lifestyle, and can result in some serious health consequences in both the short and long term. Unfortunately, some medical doctors only treat patients for adrenal fatigue when these patients exhibit symptoms of Addison’s disease (extremely little adrenal function) or Cushing’s disease (hyperactive adrenal function). Addison’s and Cushing’s disease are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and only affect 2% of the population. However, some experts believe that over 80% of the population suffers from some level of adrenal malfunction. In the following article we will describe what the adrenals are, their role in the body, and some simple methods for determining how effectively your adrenals are working for you.
What are the adrenal glands?
The adrenals glands are walnut-sized glands located above the kidneys. Each gland is composed of two separate functional entities. The outer zone, also known as the adrenal cortex, is comprised of roughly 80-90% of the glands size and secretes adrenal steroids (Cortisol, DHEA(S), estrogen, testosterone, and Aldosterone). The inner zone, or medulla, accounts for roughly 10-20% of the gland, and is responsible for secreting adrenaline. Cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline are the three main adrenal stress hormones.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol helps us meet the big challenges of the day. It converts proteins into energy and counteracts inflammation. In short bursts, it is very useful. In urgent situations, cortisol can increase heart rate, blood pressure, release energy stores for immediate use, slow digestion and non-emergency functions, and sharpen senses. Our bodies are not meant to maintain these states for very long, nor enter into them very often.
It can be very detrimental when cortisol release is sustained at high levels for long periods of time. Over-production of cortisol means the underproduction of other necessary hormones. We remain stuck in a state of overdrive while our energy levels, bone health, muscle production, mood, joints, sex drive and immunity all suffer.
The Adrenal Rhythm
The human adrenal gland releases cortisol in a cycle with the highest value released in the morning, the lowest value released in the evening. This 24-hour cycle is known as the circadian rhythm. These hormones help supply us with the necessary energy we need throughout the day.
How Modern Life Contributes to Adrenal Malfunction
Unlike our ancestors, we live in a state of constant stress. Instead of sporadic, immediate demands followed by rest, we live in a world of constant communication, fast food, environmental toxins, and worry. It’s no wonder that many adults suffer from adrenal malfunction. That’s why it’s important to keep on the watch for these 7 common signs and symptoms of abnormal adrenal function.
9 Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Abnormal Adrenal Function
1. Low energy. Abnormal adrenal function can alter the cells ability to produce the correct amount of energy for the day’s activities. People who struggle to wake up and keep themselves going through the day often have abnormal adrenal rhythms and poor blood sugar regulation. Additionally, cortisol levels control thyroid hormone production. Fatigue and low body temperature, symptoms of hypothyroidism, can be attributed to adrenal malfunction.
2. Behavior, mood, and memory problems. Cortisol regulates the electrical activity of neurons in the brain, greatly influencing behavior, mood, and memory. Symptoms include depression, decreased tolerance, clarity of thought, memory, and memory retrieval.
3. Muscle and joint pain. Abnormal adrenal function can compromise tissue healing, often leading to breakdowns and chronic pain.
4. Weak bones. The adrenal rhythm determines bone health. If our cortisol levels are too high, our bones will not rebuild well and will become more susceptible to osteoporosis.
5. Poor Immune System Health. The immune system’s white blood cells follows the cortisol cycle. If the cycle is disrupted, the immune system cells will not receive the conditioning, nourishment, and instructions necessary to protect the body. These immune system failures can be seen in the lungs, throat, urinary and intestinal tract, leading to increasing susceptibility to infection and allergy onset.
6. Asthma, bronchitis, or chronic cough. The lungs react poorly to stress. Asthma is often considered an emotional disorder because stress can trigger attacks.
7. Un-restful Sleep. When cortisol values are high at night, REM sleep cycles are more difficult to achieve. Chronic lack of restful sleep reduces mental vitality, bodily strength, and can induce depression.
8. Skin problems. Human skin regenerates when we rest at night. High cortisol values during the evening reduce skin regeneration.
9. Food allergies, specifically to gluten. Genetic intolerances to grain can inflame the gut and spur an adrenal stress response. Since almost ¼ people living in the U.S. suffer from gluten intolerances, this is a common cause of adrenal malfunction.
What to Do if You have Abnormal Adrenal Function
If you or a loved one experience any of the above symptoms, it is crucial to visit a health practitioner. Here are some suggested supplements that can help with adrenal fatigue:
1. Ashwaganda is part of a class of adaptogenic herbs, known for their ability to generally strengthen the body and protect against daily stress. Ashwaganda is often referred to as the Indian ginseng. Prevalent in Ayurvedic medicine, it minimizes anxiety by lowering cortisol levels and boosts the immune system. It also helps combat stress-induced sleeping problems. Ashwaganda is available in tablet, capsule, and liquid forms.
2. Eleuthero Root. Also known as “Siberian ginseng,” this adaptogenic herb reduces stress hormones, improves athletic performance, speeds up recovery time post-illness, sharpens memory, minimizes fatigue, and generally enhances feelings of well-being.
3. Vitamin B5 or Penicilic Acid. All 8 of the B vitamins help the body convert food into fuel so we are energized to go about our days. They also keep our skin, hair, eyes and liver healthy, and make sure our nervous system functions properly. In addition to the work listed above, B5 plays a critical role in regulating the production of stress hormones. A deficiency in B5 could lead to fatigue, insomnia, depression, and irritability, among many other symptoms.
4. Vitamin C is used at higher rates during times of stress, so getting enough is crucial for keeping the body healthy in the face of life’s challenges. Since the body does not produce vitamin C itself, our body depends on our diet and supplements to provide this crucial support. The typical dosage for vitamin C is between 2,000 and 4,000 mg per day, though it does vary.
Gary Merel, M.S., L.A.C., has an acupuncture and holistic health, nutritionally based practice in Ann Arbor. For more information about his practice, go to www.annarborholistichealth.com or call (734) 222-8210.