Chronic stress. We’ve all heard of it, but many people are unaware of the damage it can do to the body on a day to day level. In a world where we’ve been taught to multi-task to get things done, live near electronics (or on them most of the day), lack on sleep, and consider ourselves last when it comes to health and wellness, it can be detrimental to your body if you don’t control your stress.
Your body has a built in stress response, which helped keep your Paleolithic ancestors alive, and these little glands on top of your kidney’s are known as the adrenal glands. These little guys help regulate you metabolism, help your body respond to stress, regulate blood pressure, and produces none essential hormones such as adrenaline.
That’s a lot of responsibility, and as a result these little powerhouses are essential to helping you stay healthy, especially if you have weight loss or wellness goals.
When the adrenal glands are over taxed they can create a set of symptoms which alone don’t add up to much, but when repeatedly brought together show the effects of chronic stress. Symptoms can include:
- Exhaustion (even after a good night’s rest)
- Not wanting to get out of bed in the morning
- PMS/Endocrine system problems
- Inability to handle stress
- Reduced sex drive
- Inability to handle the cold
- Memory/cognitive problems
- Craving for salt/sugar
- Low self-esteem due to low energy output
- Weight gain around your mid-section
- Weight loss resistance
- Chronic fatigue coupled with needing copious amounts of sleep
Do any of these sound familiar? It’s not a random bout of symptoms we’re talking about, either. Instead, it’s symptoms which someone has been fighting with for months or even years. Symptoms which in today’s hectic world are starting to appear in children including tween and teens.
I know, you’re wondering why, if this issue is so prevalent, aren’t medical doctors talking about it and counseling patients to help them head off such a problem? Well, for the most part, in western medicine adrenal fatigue doesn’t exist. If you tell your doctor you have adrenal fatigue they’ll say it’s a made up disease, or test you for an extreme case such as Addison’s disease.
And, yet, every other organ system in the body can have its own set of issues if imbalanced, but not the adrenals? Adrenals which, when overly stressed, may wreak havoc on your thyroid, endocrine system, digestive system, and sympathetic nervous system. For a better understanding of what your stress response is and adrenal fatigue check out this Mayo Clinic Article on stress response.
Read on and you’ll find the 3 stages of adrenal fatigue/exhaustion and some ways in which you can help heal yourself.
Stage 1: Alarm Phase
This is when your body first responses to stress, also known as fight or flight. It’s when stress is perceived, the adrenals rise to the challenge and aggressively respond to the stressor in your life. The adrenals don’t know the difference between a tough work meeting, the death of a loved one, or a random appearance of a grizzly bear charging toward you, mouth open intent on eating you for dinner. All three scenarios are perceived under one heading “STRESS” and the adrenals are called into action.
The anti-stress response is mediate by the one hormone we’ve heard so much about. Cortisol. In this first stage the demand for anti-stress actions is easily handled by the body, and fatigue is usually very minimal. Adrenal dysfunction is probably rarely noticeable.
In this stage you’re cortisol levels are high, and you’re under a lot of stress. Many times it can be a happy stress, like a new relationship, new baby, or new job. Something which is demanding you to move out of your comfort zone, probably keeping you up at night or on high alert during the day, but will eventually level out. Many times this level will leave you feeling charged and more alive than ever. You get a rush from the stress as you meet the challenges required of you.
The problem occurs when you don’t have enough resiliency to meet the stressor, even enjoy it a little, rise above it, and then let the stress dissipate. Instead, you stay under stress, even after it’s passed.
When you’re in stage one and you’ve finally moved past your stressor it’s important to allow yourself sufficient time (think twice what you’re initial response would be) to rest, recharge, and let your adrenals heal before throwing anything else at your body. Instead, many people throw coffee at themselves in order to keep moving forward despite the sudden fatigue. Cravings for high carbohydrate or sugar foods may begin to develop. The thing about “needing” that cup of coffee to get you moving in the morning, is that this could be a sign of stage one adrenal fatigue.
A few ways to help reverse stage one adrenal fatigue is by making some lifestyle changes.
- Get to bed by 10pm
- If you’re okay to use salt, make sure you’re using a high quality sea salt
- Limit coffee
- Remove processed foods and sugar
- Exercise regularly (nothing too taxing, think movement and a little sweat)
Be patient and give yourself plenty of time to heal.
Stage 2: Resistance Phase
In this stage you’ve stayed under stress for a considerably longer amount of time than your body expected, and it’s beginning to show. It’s also where many people begin to realize “there is something wrong” even though they may not know what it is, or where to get help.
At this stage you may begin to develop a dependency on coffee or other caffeinated drinks to help you get through the day, being able to muster of the energy for your obligations, but crashing hard when you get home at night. Another symptom is “being wired, but tired” – the problem of being exhausted, but unable to sleep.
In this stage your endocrine system is still pumping out the hormones needed, but in order to keep up DHEA and other sex hormones – mainly testosterone – are down regulated. If tested you’ll see the levels begin to substantially drop, along with your sex drive. The reason for this is the body is using all the materials it can to produce cortisol, stealing the needed building blocks from the sex hormones, putting additional stress on the endocrine system.
You can also see problems in digestion at this point and the body starts to slow metabolism and other bodily functions in order to conserve energy. Sugar imbalances and insulin sensitivity can begin in this stage. At this point your cortisol levels are starting to fail. You’ll see weight gain, and suddenly have more sleepless nights than before.
In addition to the points covered for healing stage one adrenals, you can make sure you add in a few more lifestyle changes to help yourself heal.
- Choose nutrient dense foods
- Eat regularly
- Avoid intermittent fasting
- Turn off electronics an hour before bed
- Give yourself space to unwind
- Take naps and listen to your body, extra rest helps with healing
- Support with adaptogenic herbs as appropriate
- Practice grounding or earthing
- Put routine stress-management practices into place
- Make self-care and the pleasure principal a priority to help you relax and heal
Stage 3: Exhaustion Phase
At this point the body is breaking down due to the amount of chronic stress it’s under. Cortisol levels are failing, sleep is nearly none existent, and fatigue is a constant friend. On top of it, when you’ve reached this point the body is trying to compensate in every way possible, which means multiple organs and/or system failure is completely possible.
The body has run out of ways to develop the stress hormones it needs to counteract the chronic pressure it’s under. Now the sex hormones are low and the stress hormones are low. This phase is also often called the “Burnout phase”. Aside from a fatigue and low libido someone in the burnout stage can suffer from
- Sluggish thyroid
- Compromised mental function
- Hormonal imbalance
- Bed ridden
It seems extreme, but when your adrenals have reached exhaustion the body has slowed as many functions as possible, including metabolism and food digestion. Much like the domino effect, the body will keep down-regulating internal functions until it reaches a point where it no longer feels threatened.
For many this could be bedridden, for others the breakdown in the body happens first resulting in issues such as stroke, kidney conditions, or severe hormonal conditions. Each body reacts differently, but it’s always in an attempt to protect itself. For a better understanding of the effects of adrenal burnout read this article by Dr. Lam.
At this point a trained professional is your best option to help you heal your suffering and damaged adrenals. Some basic things to implement though.
- Moderate exercise, with twice as much rest. Too much exercise can cause you to crash harder.
- Dietary control to help manage and balance blood sugar levels
- Electrolyte balance
- Vitamin/mineral support
- Rest. Rest.
- Prayer, massage, meditation, and other relaxation techniques
Keep in mind, healing whichever stage of adrenal fatigue you might find yourself in, can take anywhere from six months to 24 months depending on how bad your adrenal fatigue is, your dedication to getting better, and application of lifestyle changes to prevent it from happening again.
For more information on adrenal fatigue and ways to heal it, check out the pages below.