This month I thought I would write about adrenal fatigue. It's known by lots of different names (eg burnout, or even overtraining), but is not a medically recognised or diagnosed condition. True adrenal insufficiency is Addisons Disease, and this is not what this article is about. 


Lisa wrote about her battle with weight issues, allergies and poor energy and was found that adrenal fatigue was the issue. I myself have burnt out my adrenal glands and am in the process of rebuilding their function. A couple of well known trainers/figure athletes from NZ have also been on a recovery program for adrenal burnout in the past few years. I see the same cluster of symptoms come through my office so frequently that I believe it is important to educate people on stress and what that can actually lead to. Adrenal fatigue is not a fun time.

To explain the symptoms of adrenal fatigue is to put it into a scenario - let's call this person Jo. Jo's alarm goes off at 6.30am every day, but she hits a snooze button about 5x before she actually gets up. She starts the day with a coffee to "get her going" in her words. She packs the kids off to school and heads to work. By the time she gets to work she's looking for another coffee. She does her job well, but she feels like she has no energy or motivation for it, she can't understand why as she actually loves her job. Mid afternoon, Jo is looking for another coffee and a sugar hit. By around 4pm she is zonked and at 6pm could just curl up and go to sleep. There was no exercise for Jo today, she just felt she could barely lift a feather. 10pm rolls around and all of a sudden Jo has a second wind and can't get to sleep until 2am. Even if she does get to sleep earlier, she keeps waking in the night, sometimes in a sweat. Her hubby thinks, great, Jo's up, so we can have a little "fun", but unfortunately Jo's libido is rock bottom right now. Not to mention the fact that she has quite a bit of gas and stomach cramps and bloating which is not making her feel very sexy or well, and she's always concerned about the weight she can't seem to lose, no matter how well she eats.

Jo has been to the doctor numerous times for depression, IBS, menstrual issues, iron deficiency and female sexual dysfunction. Nothing has made her feel better.

Adrenal fatigue can contain all or some of these symptoms, along with others not mentioned here. The severity of the symptoms can vary, and they can come and go.

The reason for these symptoms is simple. Our body is run by hormones, when these hormones are not functioning in balance, then our body function becomes unbalanced also. We, as humans should be able to wake at sunrise, sleep at night, digest and assimilate food and nutrients well, eliminate waste daily and be sexually active. We certainly should be able to at least make it through a sedentary work day without needing coffee or sugar for energy, and we should be able to experience a healthy stress response.

Remember, this is in lieu of any medical condition - so always use caution when attempting to diagnose yourself. We'll talk about adrenal fatigue indicators shortly.

The mechanism by which the hormones are thrown out of balance is not simple. All hormones are derived from cholesterol, this important fat sits at the top of the heap when it comes to the right ingredients needed for a healthy functioning body. Through a series of reactions, this cholesterol is converted to pregnenolone, and onwards it goes to become things like estradiol, testosterone, cortisol, DHEA etc. Much of this happens in the adrenal glands and is regulated through mechanisms including the Hypothalamus-Pitutary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and Hypothalamus-Gonadal-Adrenal (HGA) Axis.

If I made a volcano with baking soda and vinegar, and left out the vinegar then nothing would happen. If I only added a pinch of baking soda, then I would only get a small reaction. Consider this analogy when thinking about chemical reactions in the body, if one ingredient isn't at its optimal level, then there is a less than optimal reaction.

So how do we fatigue our adrenals and throw the balance out? The answer is unique to you. A divorcee may have experienced 2 years of chronic stress, a baby may have started their first 6 months of life in hospital, a bodybuilder may have chronic physical stress through training or supplementation, someone else may have excessive toxicity...the list goes on.

Every time our brain perceives stress (whether it be real or imagined, physical or mental) it fires up a hormone response, if that stress response becomes chronic, or if our threshold is low then our adrenals are taxed until the point that they become hypoactive and hormone production slows down. If we're not producing hormones effectively, then our entire body and mind suffers - just like our hypothetical lady, Jo. If your symptoms have been going on for years, it may not even be recognised how you got there in the first place, and it may not matter, what does matter is treating you...the entire person, not just isolated pieces of you.

When we talk about hormones, we are talking about all of them. They all speak to each other, cortisol, adrenalin, noradrenalin, DHEA, T4, T3, TSH, insulin, estrogens, testosterone and progesterone are the main ones you are all familiar with.


The question is, how do we deal with this? This is my recommended course of action:

· Find a practitioner who deals with adrenal fatigue properly. Liquorice root from the health food shop for a month is not an acceptable recommendation, so make sure your practitioner knows what they're talking about.

· Keep a list of ALL body out of balance symptoms. Make sure your practitioner asks you about your entire body function from top to toe.

· Get the right labs done. A blood test from the Doctor is not going to cut it.

· Be prepared to change your diet, lifestyle and take the appropriate supplementation and be prepared to do it for the length of time required to heal your body.

· Have a 10 out of 10 desire to feel well. If you are only 50% committed the road to recovery is going to be very tough. Nutritional, Lifestyle & Exercise tips for recovering adrenal fatigue

· No caffeine (coffee, tea etc) - it encourages cortisol to be released from adrenals, which are already taxed and not so keen to keep giving you cortisol that it doesn't have.

· Small meals containing protein, low GI carbs and good fats. Big gaps between meals encourage cortisol release to help sustain blood glucose levels.

· Eat clean and avoid all sports supplements. Additives and supplement compounds elevate adrenalin and cortisol levels. They also tax the liver as it processes these substances which adds another stress to the body. Eating clean is veg, fruit, unprocessed meats and wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Don't use dairy if it causes you digestive issues.

· Exercise in accordance to your recovery. Exercise releases catabolic stress hormones, this is normal. But if you have adrenal fatigue, again you are emptying a tank that is already empty. Be prepared to adjust your training, and be prepared to adjust it long term to avoid a relapse.

· Get on to a supplement program to repair your adrenal function. Be prepared to be on this for at least 6 months minimum.

· Adjust your sleep habits for optimal hormone output. That doesn't really include doing cardio at 3.30am. Above all, you will start to feel better long before your adrenal function is optimal, you will also get improvements in some areas quicker than others.

Whatever you do, keep going on your recovery program and keep seeing your practitioner to chart your symptom scores and make sure that the protocol is working.

For more information about adrenal fatigue visit this website: And for blokes, it's a little less common but still you can experience the same symptoms ranging from mood and digestive issues, low libido, fatigue, coffee to keep you going etc.

Stacey Hancock
March 2012

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