The Adrenal Glands: Not just another spleen
In my high school biology class, we gave the adrenal glands as much attention as the spleen. That is to say, we gave them no attention. We memorized the roles of the liver, the route of urine through the kidneys, and the complete lifecycle of the human egg. But the adrenal glands? Those things didn’t even appear in the Extra Credit questions of an exam.
Many of you consider your adrenal glands as just another spleen: you know you have both organs, but they don’t get any special attention. Your daily choices either abuse or support these glands, however. If your adrenals take too much abuse, it leads to adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is currently a chic diagnosis in the world of alternative medicine, although most doctors do not recognize this health issue. As someone who has struggled with adrenal fatigue, I can tell you that it is very real. Fortunately, with some straight-forward dietary and lifestyle changes, you will be on your path to adrenal fatigue recovery.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Do many of these symptoms describe you? Then adopting an adrenal recovery diet and lifestyle is a key step in reaching your optimal health.
- Low energy through the day and trouble getting out of bed
- Low thyroid function (hypothyroid)
- Inability to lose weight
- Low or no libido
- Low blood pressure
- Dizzy when standing up (this was the key symptom for me to discover my adrenal fatigue!)
- Cravings for salt and sugar
- Anxiety, mental exhaustion, and/or depression
- Reduced immunity (you get every cold that goes around)
What is adrenal fatigue?
To understand adrenal fatigue, we need to understand the role of the adrenal glands.
These two little pea-sized glands sit on top of the kidneys. They receive signals from the brain to produce hormones, including the stress-response hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
We’re going to focus on the hormone cortisol, the key hormone in adrenal fatigue. A healthy body produces a natural rhythm of cortisol, highest in the morning and lowest at night. This moderate production of cortisol monitors basic body functions, including inflammation response and immune function.
Cortisol has another key function: it provides quick fuel in the face of emergency. When the brain perceives a stress, it triggers the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol. The cortisol raises the level of sugar in the blood. This sugar is ENERGY to meet the stress. In evolutionary terms, the burst of cortisol is how we ran away or fought the saber tooth tiger.
Adrenal fatigue results when we chronic stress depletes the adrenals ability to produce cortisol. Here’s how it works:
When we face chronic stress, we’re asking our adrenals to fire constantly. At first, the adrenal are ultra-responsive to our chronic stress. They pump out cortisol incessantly, providing us with energy to meet the demands. We feel wired, even jittery and anxious, from all the cortisol in our system. But still, we manage to get s**t done with the help of all that cortisol.
Then, the adrenal glands crash. After all the excessive cortisol output, they bottom out and cannot produce the cortisol necessary for proper body functions. This leads to chronic fatigue, an impaired immune system, inflammation, and the other symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Causes of adrenal fatigue
There are numerous situations that frequently precede adrenal fatigue. Here are some common causes, according to Dr. James Wilson, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Syndrome:
- Sudden life change, such as a move or loss of a job
- Severe emotional trauma
- Single parenting
- College life
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- All work, little play
- Perfectionist mentality towards life or work
Another type of chronic stress that contributes to adrenal fatigue is blood sugar problems. When we eat imbalanced meals, high in carbs and low in fat, it causes first hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and then hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). In response to the dangerous blood sugar crash, the adrenal glands kick in with stress hormones to mobilize glucose and raise blood sugar.
The problem is that the adrenals aren’t meant to be drawn on for daily blood sugar regulation. They are only supposed to fill that role very occasionally. When it happens on a regular basis, it drains the adrenals.
How do I confirm adrenal fatigue?
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are non-specific, meaning they can relate to other health issues. So it’s difficult to diagnose adrenal fatigue with just symptoms.
I believe one key indicator of adrenal fatigue is lifestyle choices and health history. Are you currently exhausted, although you used to be a busy bee? Have you always taken on more than you can handle, but now you are unable to keep up? Do you rely on caffeine to get through the day?
A common method of diagnosing adrenal fatigue is a cortisol saliva test. The problem, however, is this test is merely a snapshot of your cortisol levels for one day. You may have normal levels, if you are stressed on the day you take the test, it may look like you have excess cortisol. Or, you may normally have low cortisol, but you’ve had a couple peaceful days before the test and so your levels are falsely higher.
Another test is a simple test using a flashlight to examine your own pupils in a mirrorexamine your own pupils in a mirror. This is a test that we learn as Nutritional Therapists, one that indicates adrenal function.
Finally, if you have access to a Nutritional Therapy PractitionerNutritional Therapy Practitioner, they will be able to perform a few hands-on clinical tests to determine your adrenal function.
Why it is important to address adrenal fatigue?
- Without good adrenal function, the body can’t properly regulate blood sugar. This perpetuates inflammation and weight issues.
- Without healthy adrenals, the thyroid takes a big hit. It is impossible to fix hypothyroidism without also correcting adrenal fatigue.
- Women, it’s vitally important to fix your adrenal fatigue before menopause. Healthy adrenal function can prevent most – if not all – of the unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause.
- Once adrenal fatigue corrected, you’ll feel like you have your mojo back. You will be able to wake up with energy and motivation, you’ll have your libido back and you’ll have the energy to get through your day.
Natural Adrenal Fatigue Recovery
Three important factors work together to address adrenal fatigue: diet, supplements, and lifestyle. Of all three, the most important – and challenging – is lifestyle. Diet and supplements certainly improve adrenal fatigue, but you must make the lifestyle changes.
The Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Diet
Start Primal. Immediately begin a Primal/Paleo diet. This eliminates grains, legumes, refined sugar and vegetable oils – all foods that stress the adrenals and increase inflammation. While it is possible, but difficult, to address adrenal fatigue on a vegetarian diet, it is impossible to reach optimal adrenal health on a vegan diet.
Do breakfast correctly. In Your Personal Paleo Code, expert Chris Kresser advocates a very high protein breakfast for adrenal fatigue. He suggests 40 grams of protein at breakfast, which promotes stable blood sugar through the day. I’m unable to consume 40 grams of protein at once, but I consume at least 25 grams each morning in the form of grassfed meat. Also, enjoy breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up to help balance cortisol levels. Also, I recommend consuming a very low-carb breakfast (eggs, sausage and veggies, for example). Carbs can create drowsiness due to insulin release, and carb-digesting enzymes also peak in the evening. So enjoy your sweet potato with dinner, rather than breakfast.
Unrefiend salt. Adrenal fatigue depletes salt levels in the body because it reduces aldosterone, the salt-monitoring hormone. Since adequate sodium in the blood is essential for healthy blood pressure, we can experience dizziness when aldosterone levels drop. Most people with adrenal fatigue crave salt. Liberally add unrefined salt all your foods and add a pinch of salt to any tea or water you drink.
Eat three regular meals. Don’t skip a meal with adrenal fatigue. This is not the time to practice intermittent fasting! Your body is unable to properly monitor salt and glucose levels in your blood, so you must provide those factors frequently. Meals should focus on vegetables, healthy fats and quality animal protein. Carbohydrates should come from fresh fruits, root veggies, and starchy fruits/veggies like plantains. Fruit juices, refined sugars and grains should be avoided because they wreck havoc on your blood sugar.
Understand blood sugar. On the topic of blood sugar, please spend five minutes to understand how blood sugar works. When you understand how high-starch, sugary foods stress your body, you will feel more empowered to resist.
Mindfully consume fluids. Dietary dogma hounds us to drink 8-10 glasses of water per day. This stresses a healthy persons metabolism but chronically compromises the metabolism of someone with adrenal fatigue. Too much fluid reduces thyroid function, which works hand in hand with the adrenal glands. Additionally, too much water further dilutes to imbalanced sodium in your blood, exacerbating dizziness. Follow the simple tips in my post Hydrate for Metabolic Health.
Enjoy lots of good fats. Emphasize sources of healthy saturated fats from grassfed butter and ghee, coconut oil, pastured egg yolks, and grassfed meats. Monounsaturated fats from avocado and unadulterated olive oil can also be enjoyed. Healthy fats provide long-burning fuel and help keep blood sugar in check. Strictly limit nuts and seeds, because the fatty acid profile and anti-nutrients impair thyroid function and digestion. Avoid all plant oils, including canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, and hemp oil. Do not do low fat… it will utterly undermine your adrenal fatigue recovery.
Say no to low carb. Expert Chris Kresser recommends a moderate carbohydrate diet for adrenal fatigue. He suggests aiming for about 20% of calories from carbohydrates. Favor fresh fruits and starchy vegetables for carb intake. A low carb diet exacerbates adrenal fatigue. During my short stint on a low carb diet (yes, I did try it before I knew better!) my adrenal fatigue symptoms drastically intensified.
Eliminate caffeine and alcohol for the recovery period.
Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Supplements
Adrenal glandular. Glandular treatment, the ingestion of small amounts of animal glands, is a traditional treatment practiced by ancient healers from across the globe. When it comes to glandulars, less is usually better and quality counts. I recommend Cytozyme AD from Biotics.
Herbal adrenal support. After sifting through the hundred of herbal adrenal supplements on the market, I take Gaia Herbal Adrenal Health and highly recommend it. I follow the dose recommendation on the bottle.
Vitamin C. Experts widely recommend vitamin C for adrenal fatigue recovery. Ascorbic acid, the popular choice for vitamin C supplementation, is a synthetic compound usually made from GMO corn. It also kills the good bacteria in our digestive tract, so it is not a good option for the long term (read more). I use plant-sourced vitamin C, either these acerola powder or camu camu capsules.
Pastured Beef, Chicken or Pork Liver – Gram for gram, pasture-raised liver is the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. It provides true vitamin A, an essential nutrient for adrenal fatigue recovery and hormone balance in general. (Vegetables do not provide the body with useable vitamin A). Eat sautéed liver a few times per week or consume liver pills daily, either homemade or Radiant Life Desiccated Liver Capsules (2-6 per day).
DHEA, Progesterone, and Pregnenolone – think twice. I am extremely cautious of using hormones or pre-hormones for therapy because they can do much more harm than good, especially in the long-term. Some experts say that DHEA and/or pregnenolone is necessary in cases of severe adrenal fatigue. I am not disagreeing with their experience, but I had severe adrenal fatigue and dedicated myself to healing through diet and lifestyle, without the need for expensive and potentially harmful supplements. If you do look into the option of DHEA, progesterone or pregnenolone, seek the guidance of the most experienced professional you can find.
Lifestyle Changes for Adrenal Fatigue Recovery
Sleep. Just sleep. More often than not, those who have adrenal fatigue have pushed sleep down low on their list of priorities. It’s time to move sleep to a number one priority. Be in bed, ready to sleep, by 10 pm each night for at least one month. It’s just one month, you can do it! After the month, depending on the severity of your adrenal fatigue, you may be able to have a more lenient bedtime but for best results, stick to a 10 bedtime.
Stop the intense exercise for a month. Avoid cardio and all other forms of strenuous exercise for 30 days. This is very important, because intense exercise wreaks havoc on exhausted adrenals by spiking cortisol. Short, slow walks (30 minutes) in nature are beneficial, however. Strength training may be incorporated slowly.
Practice Lunaception. Did you know that women can help balance their hormones by manipulating the light while sleeping? I recommend this simple technique, called Lunaception, to every woman, but especially those who struggle with hormone imbalances including adrenal fatigue. I explain Lunaception with step-by-step directions.
Make time for constructive rest. Allocate at least half an hour each day to simply rest. One of my favorite “constructive rest” practices is doing gentle stretching while listening to an audiobook. Visualization exercises and guided relaxation tapes aid recuperation.
My own adrenal fatigue recovery
My struggle with adrenal fatigue began during a year of intense emotional trauma followed by the development of an autoimmune disease. For years, before I discovered the healing power of food, doctors gave me huge doses of corticosteroids (Prednisone). This medication undoubtedly saved my life, but it utterly disrupted my already compromised adrenal function. At one point, my adrenal fatigue was so severe that I nearly fell over each time I stood up, due to the dizziness.
My focus on healing my adrenal fatigue began a year ago and it continues today. Although I’ve made a world of progress, I continually learn and experiment with gusto.
In this post, I’ve attempted to explain adrenal fatigue in plain English and give you a quick-start guide for adrenal fatigue recovery. I discussed what I wished I had known when I discovered this thing called adrenal fatigue.
I encourage you to seek information from other sources because, as long as it is, this single blog post will not provide you with all the answers to your unique health situation. For further reading, I recommend:
- Your Personal Paleo Code by Chris Kresser
- Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Syndrome by Dr. James L. Wilson
Are you working on adrenal fatigue recovery? What are your symptoms?