Body & Fitness

Feeling burnt out?

Adrenal glands are key for coping with stress; overload them, and you’re in trouble. We look at a very 21st century problem.
Adrenal fatigue.

What is adrenal fatigue?

It’s been called a modern epidemic, as constant daily stresses increase and start taking a toll on our bodies. Your adrenals are two walnut-sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys, and though they may be small, they bear a mighty burden. They control how your body intercepts and endures all types of stress, from external stressors like injury and sickness through to emotional factors like workplace anxiety or relationship conflict.

They release the stress-hormone cortisol, which affects our metabolic, cardio and nervous systems and protects our cells from damage. But when our adrenal glands can’t keep up with the constant levels of stress, they become overworked and can’t regulate the levels of cortisol, which then has a domino effect on the rest of the body. This is what is known as adrenal fatigue, a term coined by Dr James Wilson in 2001 in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.

What are the symptoms?

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning

  • Constant fatigue, despite the fact you’re getting lots of sleep

  • Craving salty foods

  • Reliance on caffeine and sugar

  • Everything requires more effort than it used to

  • Digestion problems

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Decreased ability to handle stress

  • Frequent colds and infections, which are lasting for longer

  • Low blood pressure, light-headed when standing up

  • Mild depression

  • Increased PMS and allergies

  • Not able to think clearly or make decisions, less accurate memory

Who are the believers?

If those symptoms feel familiar, you are not alone. Back in 2002, American author and nutritional medicine expert John Morgenthaler made this bold claim: “80% of Americans are suffering from adrenal fatigue, and the other 20% are in denial.”

Wilson describes adrenal fatigue as “one of the most pervasive, yet under-diagnosed syndromes” affecting us today. A 2004 study from the American Institute of Stress estimated workplace stress costs the country more than $450 billion a year in healthcare and missed work. And as anyone who’s ever suffered from burnout will tell you, the symptoms may be hard to measure but they definitely exist.

Who are the critics?

Adrenal fatigue isn’t widely supported by mainstream medicine. The trouble is, apart from being able to test cortisol levels in the body, it’s hard to prove adrenal fatigue or other stress-related symptoms. As Dr John Mayhew, chief medical officer for Sovereign, says, “Stress is not a diagnosis, it’s a response of the body. It’s very, very subjective.”

As it stands currently with our adrenal glands, doctors are only looking for two things: too-high levels of cortisol, a sign of Cushing’s disease, and too-low levels of cortisol, a sign of Addison’s disease. There’s little interest in the middle ground.

How do you treat it?

Simple – reduce the stress in your life. Not possible? Well, therein lies the rub. But the long-term risks of adrenal fatigue can be severe, and some people take years to return to normal after burning out. The best way to fix your adrenal glands is to look after your body.

This is standard stuff: a healthy diet, less sugar and caffeine, exercise, and a good amount of sleep. But identifying the main stressors in your life and looking to reduce them – or, at the very least, reduce their impact on you – is the biggest way to look after your adrenal health.

Words by: Emma Clifton

Photo: Thinkstock Images

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