While the medical establishment doesn’t fully buy it (adrenal fatigue isn’t an accepted diagnosis, although “adrenal insufficiency” is), holistic healers think we’re overtaxing our adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys and release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. “When there’s severe, chronic stress, the adrenal glands can stay in the ‘on’ position, making extra amounts of these stress hormones,” explains Susan Blum, MD, a functional medicine physician and founder of the Blum Center For Health. “If this goes on for long enough, the adrenals can become depleted.” And that throws a whole lotta things out of whack.
Originally posted September 23, 2013, updated February 2, 2018
So how do you know if you’ve got adrenal fatigue? And what can you do about it if you do? We went to the experts to get the scoop on this overachievers’ affliction.
1. You can’t sleep
“In a perfect world, we would get a great night’s sleep every night, wake up feeling refreshed, and move throughout the day with tons of energy,” says California-based acupuncturist Neka Pasquale, founder of Urban Remedy. Instead, we rush from one thing to the next, day after day, month after month, which throws off our hormonal balance, making it tough to fall or stay asleep.
Coax your body into a new rhythm. “Try going to sleep before 10 p.m.,” Pasquale says. “Even if you can’t fall asleep, lying in bed in a dark room will start your melatonin production, which can help you get into a healthy sleep rhythm.” (If sleep is seriously eluding you, try one of these 5 tips Ariana Huffington swears by.)
2. You’ve got dark under-eye circles
Sure, you might not be getting enough sleep. But dark circles crop up when stressors like fatigue, emotional stress, or dehydration (which is tough on the body) disrupt healthy circulation—and that shows through your thin under-eye skin, says Sandra Chiu, a Brooklyn acupuncturist, skin expert, and the founder of Treatment by Lanshin. If your dark circles are accompanied by a sunken, hollowed-out look, that often indicates a more serious issue with the kidneys, Chiu warns, and you should see a doctor.
Slow. Down. No amount of eye cream or concealer or will help if you’re overworked, exhausted, and overwhelmed by emotional stress. Chiu’s so-simple-it-hurts rule? “Do less, and be still more,” she says.
3. Your cycle’s off
If you have adrenal fatigue, you’re probably also having issues with your thyroid and your menstrual cycle, says Alisa Vitti, the founder of hormone-regulating practice Flo Living and author of WomanCode. One reason? The endocrine system (of which the adrenal glands are a part) are facing “unprecedented exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” she says. “A recent study showed women put 515 chemicals on their body every day.”
“You can’t spot-treat your hormones,” Vitti says. “We’re so accustomed to that in Western medicine—penicillin for an infection, ibuprofen for a headache.” Instead, you have to look at your whole lifestyle (diet, stress relief, sleep, etc.)—and avoid personal exposure to disruptive chemicals by watching what you put in and on your body, Vitti says.
4. You feel overwhelmed by life
Almost always, the women acupuncturist Chiu treats for adrenal fatigue are completely stressed by their day-to-day lives and put self-care last on their list of priorities…”at least, until their bodies finally shut down,” she says.
Learn to say no. “Get rid of the things in your life that cost you energy, but don’t give you much back, like unsupportive people and relationships,” Chiu says. Putting your own needs first, and giving yourself permission to have more fun, will help with stress which, in turn, will take a load off your adrenals.
5. You feel puffy, stiff, and sore
Your body reacts to stressful events, like giving a talk in front of 200 people, by getting adrenaline and cortisol flowing so you’re energized and focused, Dr. Blum says. But when you’re constantly stressed, your adrenals become “pooped” and your cortisol levels plummet, leading to non-specific symptoms like feeling puffy, or stiff and achy in your joints and muscles, she says.
Get your adrenal glands evaluated (practitioners can look for something called “DHEA-S” in a routine blood work-up and do a saliva test for cortisol), says Dr. Blum. But she warns that conventional docs don’t necessarily know how to recognize the symptoms or treat the condition. (In her practice, they consider a combo of vitamins and supplements and mind-body interventions.)
6. You’re exhausted after working out
If, instead of getting a boost of energy, you have what Pasquale describes as “major fatigue after working out,” it’s not necessarily a sign that your boot camp classes are too tough. It could be because your adrenal glands are sluggish.
“Try meditation, gentle yoga, walking, or whatever helps you feel less stressed,” Pasquale says. (May we recommend leaving your desk for 15 minutes of Vitamin D during the day, too?) It’ll help combat stress and give you a way to stay active, while you give your already-depleted adrenal glands a chance to rest and refuel.
7. You’re groggy into the afternoon
“The adrenal glands should emit pulses of cortisol all day,” says Vitti, but stress and exposure to chemicals can change the cortisol pattern. “We might not get energy until the afternoon or even 10 p.m.,” she says.
In case you’re not convinced yet, slow down! And ditch the lattes. “Every time you wake up and have a cup of coffee, you’re ruining your chance of having a good day,” Vitti warns, since caffeine can put tons of stress on the adrenals. “Instead, reach for foods that contain essential fatty acids, coconut oil, fish oil, avocado, and whole grains, like buckwheat.”
8. Your gut’s off
If your body isn’t getting what it needs, or if you’re eating in a way that creates drastic blood sugar fluctuations, it’s “punishing to the adrenals,” Chiu says. Plus, bloating and poor digestion are possible symptoms of adrenal fatigue—so your food choices and stomach issues and can be a cause and a sign of the condition.
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