Originally published April 6 2006
Recovering from adrenal fatigue: How your body can overcome chronic stress and feel energized again
by Dani Veracity
The easy, relaxed lifestyle experienced by our ancestors no longer exists, and we're not even aware of how much stress we're under. The problem? "Our lifestyles have changed, but our bodies haven't," Dr. James Wilson said in his November lecture at the First Arizona Choices Exposition in Tucson, Ariz. A large portion of our population is feeling tired and stressed out, and we want to know why.
The adrenal glands sit over the kidneys, where they play a significant role in the body, secreting more than 50 hormones necessary for life, including epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), progesterone and testosterone. Since they produce so many essential hormones, the adrenal glands are responsible for many of the functions we need to stay alive and healthy, including:
One hormone in particular, cortisol, is extremely important for keeping our body systems in balance, as well as protecting our cells. For example:
- Energy production -- carbohydrate, protein and fat conversion to blood glucose for energy
- Fluid and electrolyte balance
- Fat storage
These small but mighty glands also work with other hormones and systems in what Dr. Wilson calls a "symphony." As he points out, when one part of this symphony drops out, such as what happens after menopause for women and andropause for men, the adrenal glands have to pick up the slack by producing larger amounts of sex hormones. Because of this, Wilson claims, good adrenal gland function is linked to longevity.
- It controls the strength of the immune system: Too much cortisol weakens the immune system, setting the motions for increased susceptibility to infections and cancer, while too little leads to an overactive immune system and autoimmune disease.
- It normalizes blood sugar.
- It regulates blood pressure.
Unfortunately, the adrenal glands' health is paradoxical. As the manufacturer of adrenaline, they are the "glands of stress," but are also the first glands to fail during prolonged or intense periods of stress. The problem with stressors is that they are "cumulative," in the sense that their impact tends to add up in the body over time until your adrenal glands (and probably your mental state) just can't take anymore. "One more stress is the stress that breaks the camel's back," Dr. Wilson says.
Some people call the time when the "camel's back" finally breaks a "nervous breakdown." However, nerves really don't break down; adrenal glands do. A "nervous breakdown" is actually adrenal fatigue, or when the adrenal glands can't deal with the amount of stress they're given. Adrenal fatigue used to be rare, but is now all too common because of our lack of relaxation and other lifestyle factors, such as smoking, sleep deprivation, poor eating habits and excessive caffeine intake, as well as allergies.
Diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) adrenal fatigue
To make matters worse, doctors often don't diagnose this problem. Dr. Wilson offers the example of a woman who has been to 37 doctors before finally receiving proper diagnosis and a renewed sense of hope. So, why don't doctors recognize adrenal fatigue? In medical school, they are only taught to look for extreme adrenal malfunction -- Addison's Disease, which occurs when the glands produce far too little cortisol, and Cushing's Syndrome, which stems from excessive cortisol production. They check adrenal function by testing ACTH levels, using a bell curve to recognize abnormal levels. This is where the problem occurs. ACTH tests only consider the top and bottom 2 percent of the curve abnormal, yet symptoms of adrenal malfunction occur after 15 percent of the mean on both sides of the curve. In other words, your adrenal glands can be functioning 20 percent below the mean and the rest of your body experiencing symptoms of adrenal fatigue, yet most mainstream physicians won't recognize that you have a problem.
Fortunately, there are ways you can test yourself for adrenal fatigue. To start off, go ahead and "check off" the symptoms you have been experiencing.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
In addition to noticing these symptoms in yourself, you can objectively check for adrenal fatigue by using the following three tests:
- Morning fatigue -- You don't really seem to "wake up" until 10 a.m., even if you've been awake since 7 a.m.
- Afternoon "low" (feelings of sleepiness or clouded thinking) from 2 to 4 p.m.
- Burst of energy at 6 p.m. -- You finally feel better from your afternoon lull.
- Sleepiness at 9 to 10 p.m. -- However, you resist going to sleep.
- "Second wind" at 11 p.m. that lasts until about 1 a.m., when you finally go to sleep.
- Cravings for foods high in salt and fat
- Increased PMS or menopausal symptoms
- Mild depression
- Lack of energy
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Muscular weakness
- Increased allergies
- Lightheadedness when getting up from a sitting or laying down position
- Decreased sex drive
- Frequent sighing
- Inability to handle foods high in potassium or carbohydrates unless they're combined with fats and protein
Though the ACTH laboratory exam doesn't effectively test for adrenal fatigue, a salivary cortisol test can. You don't need a prescription for the exam. In fact, you can even buy the test online, do it at home and send in your sample to a lab for the results. Dr. Wilson is very positive about the effectiveness of the salivary cortisol test in diagnosing adrenal fatigue. It is so valid and accepted that Plan B Medicare covers it and "they don't want to cover anything they don't have to," he quips. If you don't have insurance, rest assured that this non-invasive test is also very affordable.
- Ragland's sign (blood pressure test) -- (Equipment required: Home blood pressure kit) Take your blood pressure while sitting down. Then, stand up and immediately take your blood pressure again. Your systolic (first) number should have raised 8 to 10 mm. If it dropped, you probably have adrenal fatigue.
- Pupil dilation exam -- (Equipment required: Flashlight and a mirror) Look into the mirror and shine the flashlight into the pupil of one eye. It should contract. If after 30 seconds, it stays the same or, even worse, dilates, you most likely have adrenal fatigue.
- Pain when pressing on adrenal glands (located over kidneys)
Treatment of adrenal fatigue
"Optimal adrenal health is one of the major keys to the enjoyment of life," according to Dr. Wilson. If you have adrenal fatigue, you can fully live life again by making the necessary lifestyle and dietary changes to treat your disorder.
Treating adrenal fatigue is as easy as:
- Lying down during your work breaks (preferably at 10 a.m. and again anytime from 3 to 5 p.m.)
- Sleeping until 9 a.m. as often as possible
- Minimizing stress
- Taking negative people out of your life
- Eating regular meals
- Chewing well
- Doing something fun each day
- Combining unrefined carbohydrates with protein and oils
- Avoiding junk food
- Eating five to six servings of vegetables each day
- Taking calcium and magnesium supplements
- Adding sea salt to your diet
- Taking 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams of vitamin C each day
- Supplementing vitamin E with mixed tocopherols
- Taking B-complex supplements that are high in B6 and pantothenic acid
- Adding licorice root extract to your dietary supplement regimen
Taking back your life
If you take your treatment plan seriously, you can expect your adrenal fatigue to heal in:
For help along the way to taking back your life, you may want to read Dr. Wilson's book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. You can learn more about this informative book or about adrenal fatigue in general by visiting Dr. Wilson's web site, AdrenalFatigue.org, or by calling 1-888-ADRENAL.
- 6 to 9 months for minor adrenal fatigue
- 12 to 18 months for moderate fatigue
- Up to 24 months for severe adrenal fatigue
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