Ask An Expert: What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

With Georga Holt

If you're feeling tired and frazzled, chances are you've probably heard of adrenal fatigue and wondered if it may be the source of your constant exhaustion. But what exactly is it, and how do you know if it's what's causing your lack of get-up and go? 

We asked Melbourne naturopath Georga Holt to decode the signs and symptoms to look out for when trying to differentiate between adrenal fatigue and old fashioned exhaustion...

What is adrenal fatigue? 

“Adrenal fatigue occurs when our body enters a state of mental and physical exhaustion. This is usually caused by long term stress whether it be physical, mental, environmental or associated with chronic illness. The reason it is called adrenal fatigue is because it relates to the adrenal glands and how they are functioning. Our adrenal glands are located just above our kidneys & produce hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, DHEA-S, adrenaline and a small number of sex hormones (oestrogen and testosterone). 

The main function of our adrenal glands is to release said hormones in response to our body’s needs. For example to respond to a stressful situation, to adjust your blood pressure, to regulate your metabolism and other essential functions. 

However, when our bodies are faced with long term stress our adrenals are constantly releasing more cortisol to keep up with the body’s needs. Due to the body becoming overburdened by the amount of excess cortisol being released, it can therefore no longer produce levels of cortisol necessary for optimal bodily function. Reduced production of these hormones (particularly cortisol) can therefore interfere negatively with the body’s ability to cope with stress, causing exhaustion and making normal daily tasks impossible.”

How can you tell adrenal fatigue apart from simply being tired and run down? 

“When it comes to being tired versus adrenal fatigue, it can be very hard to differentiate as they can both feel very similar for the person experiencing it. However, when looking at adrenal fatigue, it is usually something that an individual has been experiencing for a longer period of time and presents as not only mental exhaustion but also physical exhaustion.”

What are some of the signs and symptoms? 

A few signs and symptoms to look out for when trying to differentiate between tired versus adrenal fatigue include:

  • Waking unrefreshed 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Body exhaustion 
  • Difficulty relaxing 
  • Issues with sleep 
  • Lack of concentration and memory 
  • Sugar or salt cravings 
  • Low mood 
  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability 
  • Weight gain 
  • Hormonal imbalance 
  • Aches and pains 

What are some of the diet changes you can implement to help recover? 

Food is fundamental to our health and if we don’t have this element right then we can’t expect our bodies to do what we want them to do. 

A few dietary tips that are imperative for our energy production include:

Macronutrients 

“Including a balanced amount of protein, fats and carbohydrates in every meal will not only ensure you are hitting all your daily nutrient and vitamin requirements, but will also ensure that you stay energised for longer as a meal with well-balanced macronutrients will stabilise your blood sugar levels.” 

Water 

“It seems simple but it’s true, the easiest health hack is to drink H20. Water is necessary for the body to function, from assisting with the transportation of nutrients around the body to ensuring the body is hydrated, water consumption should be your first step when it comes to your health.” 

Caffeine 

“When adrenally fatigued, we have to be careful to not rely on coffee to keep us up and about. Studies have found that consumption of coffee has the ability to increase cortisol production, which can contribute to adrenal depletion. However, we are all different and the way we metabolise caffeine differs from person to person, so it is important to pay attention to your body and see how you feel after coffee consumption.” 

And what are some of the lifestyle changes you can make? 

Sleep 

“Make sure you get around 7-8 hours of sleep when possible. Sleep not only allows our body to rest and regenerate but also regulates our cortisol levels which is important for those who are experiencing a higher amount of daytime stress.”

Screen time 

“Try to minimise screen time when it’s time for bed. Putting your phone away an hour before bed and picking up a book will help your body’s natural circadian rhythm. When we allow ourselves screen time right up until bed, it has the ability to increase cortisol levels in the body leaving us wired and tired but unable to get to sleep. This is detrimental because if someone is already struggling to stay awake during the day, proper sleep during the night is essential.” 

Light exposure 

“Waking as the sun rises and going to sleep as the sun sets is an important tool for regulating our circadian rhythm which in turn will help regulate our cortisol levels. Try to reduce synthetic light (like that from your computer, phone and television) as the sun goes down and aim to do the same the first hour upon waking, as this will allow our cortisol levels to naturally rise.” 

Stress management 

“Naturopathically, when looking at conditions of stress, not one supplement or herb will help if the underlying issue isn’t addressed. This is why putting in place strategies for stress management are extremely important.” 

  • Start journaling. Writing down your thoughts at night before bed can lift a weight off your shoulders and give your mind a rest. 
  • Write lists. Whether it be goals, to-do lists or even just what you are doing the next day, writing this down can also relieve some pressure and provide some clarity. 
  • Seek help from a professional. We are lucky enough in Australia to have access to psychologists at a subsidised cost. Speak to your GP about referring you to a trained professional who will suit what you’re after. 
  • Talk to your friends/peers/family. Tell them how you’re feeling and don’t isolate yourself. Even if they aren’t able to help, just expressing how you feel and not bottling it up can do wonders. 

Pathology 

“Make sure to regularly get your blood tests done. This will help your health professional rule out all the other possibilities when it comes to fatigue. The main blood tests to get assessed for fatigue are iron, B12, vitamin D and thyroid function.” 

Supplements wise, what ingredients should we be looking for? 

Magnesium 

“Magnesium can really do no wrong. It has the function to improve energy, promote the production of neurotransmitters (hello, stable mood), regulate cortisol levels and also help with muscular aches and pains. When we are stressed, we excrete more magnesium through our urine, therefore those who are experiencing any sort of stress will automatically have lower levels of magnesium in the body, which can cause many symptoms that individuals with adrenal fatigue experience.” 

B vitamins 

“B vitamins play an important role in our mitochondrial health. Our mitochondria are like little powerhouses that constantly fuel the body with energy. So stock up on your B vitamins–whether it be in your diet or supplements, they are underrated and can do wonders for your energy.” 

Withania 

“Also known as ashwagandha, this herb can be found in powder, tablet or liquid form and is wonderful in restoring adrenal function and calming down the nervous system.”

Rhodiola 

“Another herb that is used to restore the adrenal function but also used to improve energy via decreasing the stress response and supporting ATP (or Adenosine Triphosphate, the energy currency for cells).” 

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