The place beyond tired: demystifying adrenal fatigue

Ever been to that place beyond tired? Not just after a long day, but a place of deep exhaustion for weeks on end. A place where a third cup of coffee by noon is not enough, the simplest of tasks seem mammoth and you need a hit of sugar before you even consider doing a workout.

I arrived at that place early last year. I had simply done too much, of everything, for too long. Every month there was a new challenge – physical and emotional. I ran back-to-back ultra-marathons and was knee-deep in my business with demanding deadlines. And for a while, I smiled and kept it up. I prided myself in overcoming my limits.

Until I found them, and they hit me hard.

Adrenal fatigue

Newsflash: we all have limits. They rest in two small hormonal glands, triangular in shape, around five centimeters wide by two centimeters high which sit above our kidneys. They’re called our adrenal glands.

Our adrenal system, made up of the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla, forms an incredible part of our human machinery. These two parts perform different but vital functions: the adrenal cortex produces cortisol which regulates our metabolism and responds to stress, as well as aldosterone, which helps control our blood pressure, while the adrenal medulla produces adrenaline which responds to stress – otherwise known as our “fight or flight response.”

As cavemen and women we tapped into this function so, for example, after an unsuccessful day out hunting we could still summons the energy for that last kill to feed ourselves, even when we had nothing left. But back then we got “stressed” maybe once or twice a week.

Today our stress responses are triggered all the time. We don’t get enough sleep, we miss the bus, we get a stressful call from a client, we do a hard workout, we drink too much. The list goes on and multiplies. We call on this vital piece of machinery constantly. Our adrenals (or more accurately, the entire hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) are more stressed now than ever.

Understanding the causes of adrenal fatigue

Not all stress is bad. Stress affects our hormonal, neuro­chemical, nervous systems, muscular and energy producing systems differently. Some stress is positive, causing the system to compensate and adapt while other types, amounts or combinations of stress, flood our system and overload our adrenals.

Take the example of a hard workout: for some, this might cause a stress response in the body which causes the muscles and cardiovascular system to strengthen, making us stronger and fitter in preparation for our next challenge. For others, combined with a sleepless night, a sniffle, a stressful workload or a business trip, and such a workout may actually overload our systems, doing more harm than good.

It’s not just about one stressor, but the sheer magnitude and consistency of stressors in our life over a prolonged period: inadequate or unrestful sleep, a compromised immune system, environmental pollution (including light pollution), lowered nutritional intake, emotional and psychological stress, as well as physiological stress from exercise, to name just a few.

Simply put, we have only a certain amount of ‘stress’ that our physiology can buffer. That amount is different in different people, due to their genetics, the environment, their ability to manage stress or recovery psychologically, their nutritional intake and their life practices.

It’s not just about one stressor, but the sheer magnitude and consistency of stressors in our life over a prolonged period… Simply put, we have only a certain amount of ‘stress’ that our physiology can buffer.

There is no one cause or formula that will lead to adrenal fatigue. But what we do know is that it occurs where there is a complete overwhelming of the stress managers on an individual’s body. When this happens, the adrenal system stops functioning like it should; it gives up.

Avoiding the deep fatigue

As women and mothers, doing too much is simply what we do. But don’t worry — simply doing too much won’t bring on adrenal fatigue. It is a complicated syndrome. The point that experts in the field make is that doing too much, all the time, and never finding time for rest and renewal, can send you down a path of self-destruction.

Stress is inevitable, but what stress can you avoid or minimize? What can you push back on? Where can you delegate and ask for more help? Is what you are doing, eating and practicing now nourishing you, or taking from you? And how can you best manage the stress that you can avoid?

Stress is inevitable, but what stress can you avoid or minimize? What can you push back on?

Taking time to pause gives us an opportunity to listen to our bodies. When you feel like it’s all too much, realize that it really is possible to overdo it, and do what you need to do to pull back.

My recovery took months, not weeks. It required a complete break from an overtaxing physical routine for several weeks before easing back into it. I quit coffee and avoided other stimulants like sugar and alcohol. I also overhauled my diet and incorporated supplements to nourish my system.

More than anything, recovery required a shift in perspective and a change in approach. Rather than oscillating between overindulgence and compensating with overexertion, I now have a more sensible training regime which invigorates and rejuvenates, rather than exhausts me. I’ve learned to say no. I make less plans. And I’ve finally worked out how to enjoy time on the couch, rather than feeling the need to do something.

Ultimately, I finally put me, my body and my health first and stopped fighting the urge to do everything, all the time.

Does this all sound too familiar? Perhaps it’s time to pause, take a deep breath, and put you first too.


Photo: Björn Bechstein/Flickr (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

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