When Your Adrenals Knock You DownMarch 9, 2015
Who knew that two little glands so small could wield so much influence?
Have you ever heard of the adrenal glands? Do you know where they are located in your body? Do you know what their function is?
Your adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system, they sit on top of your kidneys, and they are responsible for the production of several hormones.
I won’t go too deep into the anatomy of the adrenals, suffice it to say, they are very complex glands. To simplify, the adrenal glands are made up of two distinct parts; the adrenal medulla and the adrenal cortex.
The adrenal medulla is the inner part of the gland, and it is responsible for the production of the hormones adrenaline and nor-adrenaline and small amounts of dopamine.
If you are familiar with the term “flight or fight” or the emotions of stress, then you know that adrenaline is the key player in this role, and is released when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is a good thing. It gives our bodies the energy we need to deal with whatever stressful or emergency situation we need to deal with.
The adrenal cortex is the outer part of the gland, and it is responsible for the production of vital hormones such as cortisol and aldosterone and helps mediate the stress response.
These hormones are referred to as corticosteroid hormones and they are classified as glucocorticoids and mineralcorticoids. The glucocorticoids can be broken down further into hydrocortisone (cortisol) and corticosterone, which works with cortisol to manage immune and inflammatory responses.
Aldosterone is the mineral corticoid, and it is responsible for helping your body maintain the right balance of salt and water, and helps control your blood pressure.
The adrenal cortex is also responsible for releasing androgens, mainly DHEA, which is the precursor to our sex hormones.
I realize I have gone deeper than I said I would, but I want you to have a good picture of how much these little glands are responsible for.
So, how do these little guys knock you down? By being overworked and giving out. It’s called Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome. It has become an all too common scenario for many; including myself.
There are two illnesses that are associated with your adrenals that are very serious and are recognized in the medical world. Cushing’s and Addison’s disease. Cushing’s is when your adrenals produce way too much cortisol, and Addison’s is when your adrenals do not produce enough cortisol and aldosterone.
When I am talking about adrenal fatigue, I am not talking about one of these, but about adrenal fatigue in its own category.
Adrenal fatigue is when your adrenal glands poop out, in a sense, runs out of steam. How does this happen? Stress.
“Handling stress is like handling a bank account – your adrenal bank account. If you have a lot of adrenal reserve, it means you can spend on the account. Therefore, many people can spend early in life; however, as we grow older, we have to pay more attention to our reserve and replenishment so as to increase those adrenal reserves. Therefore, you need to live within your means. Living outside your means is a problem. We have to learn to manage our adrenal account.” ¹
I blogged about stress not too long ago and the effects it has on our body. In that post I talk about how stress is additive and cumulative, and how stress can come at you in many different forms. Work, family, illness, emergencies, happiness, exercise, food sensitivities, infections, injuries, finances, dieting, toxin exposure, EMF’s, etc. You get the picture.
Our bodies are constantly at work trying to keep us at homeostasis (balanced), and when we are stressed, our bodies have to work that much harder to maintain homeostasis. Our adrenal glands keep up with this demand by releasing the hormone cortisol. If adrenaline is our “fight or flight” hormone, cortisol is our “vigilance” hormone, helping maintain the emergency response to back up adrenaline.²
Cortisol in normal circumstances is the hormone that helps break proteins down for energy, plays a role in blood sugar regulation, fat storage and helps counteract inflammation. However, too much cortisol is where the trouble begins.
Since cortisol is a catabolic hormone (meaning it breaks things down), when there is too much of it, unnecessary catabolism occurs. Muscle and bone begin to break down, digestion becomes impaired, healing and cell regeneration slows down, it interfere’s with other endocrine functions, messes up your mental function and metabolism, and last but not least, weakens your immune system.
There is no one symptom of adrenal fatigue, in fact, there are many, and that is why it gets overlooked so often. There are also three stages of adrenal fatigue, so that makes it even easier for this syndrome to be overlooked. The stages start with Stage 1 where one feels wired all the time. Stage 2, one feels wired and tired at the same time, and Stage 3, one is just plain tired all the time.
Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue are as follows but not limited to:
Mental – brain fog, forgetfulness, inability to stay focused, moody, feeling overwhelmed, a short fuse, a gloomy outlook.
Immune – frequent illness or takes one longer to recover from an illness or a trauma.
Body – weight loss or unexplained weight gain around the middle and/or thighs. Joint pain, muscle pain, digestive distress, uncontrollable food cravings for sugar or salty foods.
Sleep – unable to fall asleep at night, wake up during the night, wake up feeling drained, insomnia.
Hormonal – PMS, night sweats, hot flashes, low libido, hormonal imbalances.
The best way to uncover whether you are dealing with adrenal fatigue is through an ASI (Adrenal Stress Index) test. I use this test with my clients to determine if they are in adrenal fatigue, and if so, what stage.
The test requires the client to take four vials of saliva throughout the day at pre-determined times. The samples are then tested to measure the clients total cortisol output, and whether their output follows the optimal circadian rhythm. The test will also test the DHEA level, which is an anabolic hormone the adrenals also produce.
The graph above shows you what normal cortisol output should look like. Mine did not resemble this at all. If one is dealing with adrenal fatigue their graph can be reversed, cortisol low in the a.m. and high at bedtime. It also can be normal in the a.m., but spike and lower during the day. Cortisol can also be low and stay low throughout the day, but these are just three scenarios of many.
It was through my own testing that I discovered that I was in the beginning of Stage 3 adrenal fatigue. Looking back over the course of several years, it should have come as no surprise.
My life has been riddled with moments of intense stress, and over the course of the last 4-5 years the stress in my personal life has been CRAZY! Add in my decision to go back to school, not once, but twice, plus I was Crossfiting, an intense workout.
On their own, each of these experiences probably would have been ok for my body to handle. However, like I mentioned above, stress is additive and cumulative, and over time my body could not keep up.
In this time period, I started experiencing intense pain in my knees and wrists. Over time, the pain in my wrists became so painful and I was diagnosed with arthritis.
Early last Spring, I started noticing that my energy during Crossfit classes just wasn’t the same anymore. If you are familiar with Crossfit, then you know what the whiteboard is. Over time, I was consistently at the bottom of the whiteboard. Not being competitive in nature, this did not bother me. What did bother me, was when out of the blue, running 200m felt like I was dragging an elephant behind me. This progressed to my heart racing so fast during runs or WOD’s that I had a really hard time catching my breath.
Did this stop me? No, I continued on regardless that the pain in my wrists hurt more than ever, and it felt like torture to work out. I did, however, begin to suspect that something was not right with me and had a complete thyroid panel done. Though not perfect, not bad either.
About this time, I signed up for an intense certification course, which in hindsight I believe was my tipping point. I began to not sleep well. I would wake up several times throughout the night, or be wide awake from 2 a.m. onwards making for a hard day ahead.
Did this stop me? No! What finally stopped me, was hurting my lower back working out and having to move very slow for two weeks. I finally was ready to listen to what my body had been screaming at me for a long while.
The certification course I was enrolled in, required me to have an ASI test done, and imagine my surprise when I received the results. Was I really surprised? I guess not considering all my history.
Though my cortisol levels were in the tank, I was relieved to see that my DHEA levels weren’t as well, close but not quite there.
My motivation behind writing this post is to bring awareness to this subject. It is not isolated to just women, men deal with adrenal fatigue as much or more than women. I believe it is the underlying issue with so many people not feeling well.
The good news, is that adrenal fatigue can be tackled without pharmaceuticals. Through diet, supplementation, herbal remedies and lifestyle changes, one can bring their adrenal fatigue under control and get back to feeling normal.
Several months later, I am feeling somewhat better. I changed to gentler type of exercise and incorporated yoga. The pain in my wrists only occurs every so often. My impatience and scatterdness is still present, but my sleep has improved a little as well.
If any of this sounds familiar or is hitting too close to home, consider having an ASI test performed. The information the test provides can hold the clue and it is not very expensive.
Have you experienced adrenal fatigue? If so, please share your experiences below in the comments.
Would you like to know more? Let’s talk and explore whether this an avenue for you and your health.
To your health,
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