Laura Thompson is a local Nutritional Therapist, Acupuncturist and creator of the Healthy Gut Plan, offering advice on a range of health issues
Adrenal fatigue is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms, mainly tiredness, nervousness, disturbed sleep and even digestive disorders.
Many of the symptoms are somewhat similar to chronic fatigue, the difference being that many sufferers complain of being ‘tired but wired’, with an inability to relax combined with constant fatigue.
It is not recognised by many in the medical profession but is widely accepted in alternative and complimentary medicine. So what are the functions of the adrenal glands ?
Our adrenal glands are the size of almonds and sit on top of the kidneys. Even though they are small they have a huge role and are responsible for many bodily functions. These small glands produce hormones that help regulate our metabolisms, immune systems, blood pressure and our response to stress.
They produce hormones that you can’t live without, including sex hormones and cortisol. Cortisol is mainly released in times of stress, but it has many important functions. Cortisol regulates how the body converts fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to energy. It also regulates blood pressure and is important for cardiovascular function. It is also responsible for reducing inflammation, many of you may have used cortisol based creams for skin conditions such as eczema.
However, having the right cortisol balance is essential for good health and problems arise if your adrenal gland releases too much or too little.
What happens if you produce too much or too little cortisol?
Too much cortisol can result in weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face; fragile and thin skin which is slow to heal; acne; and, in women , facial hair and irregular menstrual periods.
Too little cortisol can result in constant tiredness; nausea and sometimes vomiting; weight loss; muscle weakness; pain in the abdomen.
If you experience any of these symptoms, your doctor will often do a blood test to check your cortisol levels. Many holistic practitioners like myself will do saliva tests taken at different times of the day as cortisol levels change as the day goes on.
These tests are often a good starting point to see if you have proper adrenal function.
So what causes adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue may occur as a result of chronic ongoing stress. We all experience stress at some time in our lives whether it is sitting an exam, bereavement or family issues. When we are experiencing stress, our bodies go into fight or flight mode, releasing a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
These send the body into emergency action, heart beats faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens and your senses become more alert.
Our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress. But we are not equipped to handle it long term, chronic stress without ill consequences. Long term stress causes these glands to become fatigued and unable to keep up with the demands of the body. This leads to adrenal exhaustion.
So what can we do to prevent it?
It is important to get a healthy work/rest balance; most people who suffer from adrenal fatigue push themselves too hard.
Learn to pace yourself; the world wont stop just because you haven't cleared your to do list.
Don’t sweat the small stuff; stop letting little things get to you.
It’s good to exercise, but try not to over exercise; exercise is a form of stress on the body and if you’re already under a lot of stress, it can be too much for your system to handle. Try to practise yoga or meditation to chill you out.
Eat a healthy diet, reducing sugary foods and excessive caffeine and alcohol.
Eat at regular times; going long periods between meals can increase cortisol levels and so, increase stress.
Eat some protein with your carbohydrates to stop sugar spiking and keep you sustained for longer.
Increase you intake of healthy fats like avocado, coconut, oily fish and nuts. These are important for making hormones in your body and you want to get those back in balance.
Consider supplementing your diet. Vitamin C helps the body to produce more cortisol.
Magnesium becomes more depleted the more stressed you are and is responsible for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. It benefits not only the muscles but the nervous system as well. It really is nature’s tranquilliser.
When we are stressed, B vitamins get depleted; they are so important for the nervous system and are not stored in the body so regular intakes is essential.
Rhodiola, Ashwanganda and Siberian Ginseng are some great herbs that can really help.
Finally, be smart and listen to your body - it’s the only one you have. Always check with your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements.