One thing that’s been on my mind for a while now is adrenal fatigue, aka adrenal dysfunction. I first heard about this when I was visiting New Zealand in early 2015 and I visited the fabulous Little Bird UnBakery with my friend Maddie. One of the lovely waitresses was telling us that she’d ended up working there after suffering from adrenal fatigue some years previously and consequently entirely changing her life. I then read a lot more about it because I’m what someone once described as “highly-strung”(!), I work as a lawyer in a busy practice with periods of intense stress and I have pretty hectic social and exercise schedules to maintain. Therefore, I believe that I’m at high risk of adrenal dysfunction and I want to guard against it for as long as possible.
but what is it?
Basically, the adrenal glands are tiny little glands which live in the kidneys and secrete two discrete hormones when the body becomes stressed. The first of these is adrenaline (the clue is in the name!) and the second is cortisol. Effectively, both adrenaline and cortisol trigger the breakdown of the body’s reserves to release fuel for the fight-or-flight response. The difference is that whereas adrenaline breaks down body fat as its first choice of fuel, which we like, cortisol breaks down muscle as it’s fuel of choice, which we don’t like.
As a historical matter, both adrenaline and cortisol were essential for survival. However, both hormones tended to be released as a very temporary measure, generally to allow us to flee danger or otherwise fight it. However, once the danger was over, we returned to peacefully hunt and/or gather and/or chill out by an oasis or whatever we fancied doing at the time. By contrast, modern day stressors tend to be significantly less life threatening but also significantly longer lasting … we literally never stop for chillax time because even when we’re bonding with our sofas on a commitment-free day, we’ve got the TV stimulating our minds and thoughts, our smartphones next to us pinging us emails, WhatsApps and texts, Facebook and Twitter notifications flashing up endlessly and snapchat and periscope beckoning, even without the constant siren call of the interwebs. And that’s a sofa day – non-sofa days tend to involve negotiating traffic and/or public transport, scrabbling to meet deadlines, grumpy bosses and disliked colleagues, after-work commitments, trying to fit in the gym, and then significant social engagements to cram in on top of that. It literally never ends!
The main difference between the historical stressors and the modern stressors appears to be whether the stress is physical stress (i.e. you have to run for your life because a lion is chasing you) and mental stress (i.e. you have to juggle all the mental tasks while simultaneously attempting to stretch time). However, the adrenal glands cannot distinguish between the two, and simply sense a stressor on the mind and body. Accordingly, they end up constantly producing adrenaline and/or cortisol to deal with the perceived danger, which in turn leads not only elevated levels of adrenalin and/or cortisol in the body, but also to the adrenal glands simply being exhausted and unable to keep up with the demands that the body places on it.
what are the effects of adrenal dysfunction?
Adrenal dysfunction can lead to symptoms at two opposite ends of the scale – while your body is overproducing adrenalin/cortisol, you end up being hyperactive with a whirring brain, shaking, sweating and with an inability to sit still. In short, all the classic symptoms of stress. At the other end of the scale, once your adrenal glands have simply given up, you end up hypoactive, feeling sluggish, desperately craving coffee, unable to get out of bed and (when you finally crawl out of bed) unable to cope with the day. There is no true balance of mind and body where you feel able to deal normally with daily tasks.
At either end of the scale, you might feel exhausted, depressed, suffer from short term memory loss, suffer from an inability to sleep well (or at all), be unable to recover from work-outs, suffer from increased belly fat and feel unable to process food properly. Further, uncontrollable moodiness and temper flares are also linked to adrenal dysfunction.
aaaagh! what can i do about it?
Luckily, the adrenal glands themselves are not the end of the story. Because today’s stress is mental, it can be controlled by the brain – specifically, the hypothalamus. It is the hypothalamus that tells the adrenal glands whether to produce adrenalin/cortisol or otherwise, and the hypothalamus can be tricked into believing that the body is under no stress at all.
There are a number of ways to do so, starting with diet. A lot of diets claim to assist with adrenal fatigue; notably, the paleo and primal diets. There is even a specific diet set tip called the Adrenal Fatigue Diet Plan. As this is such a new area of health they do not seem to have particularly substantiated claims but a healthy way of eating is always going to assist in any health issues so it’s worth a shot! One aspect of the dietary aspects of managing the adrenal functions is the impact of caffeine in the diet. This means switching out your morning cup of joe for something a little less intense on your system. I personally find that coffee disorients me anyway – it makes me shaky and it makes my brain race to an extent that it’s not worth drinking it for me and I drink green tea (truly there are some amazing flavours out there; my favourite is this amazing Twinings mango lychee green tea which is available everywhere – even in my tiny Sainsbury’s Local). I also drink decaf from time to time although I do worry about the processes of decaffeination so I limit it. If you’re craving coffee though … well that’s a sign you shouldn’t probably be drinking it, but that aside, decaf can fool you into thinking you’re getting involved with the real thing. Similarly, sugar, alcohol and processed foods all knacker out the adrenal glands and the more you crave them, the more it’s probably a sign you should cut them out or at least cut down if you can. There are also a number of supplements which are said to assist with adrenal dysfunction; in particular, Alpha-GPC which can be found online in both capsule and powder form.
In addition, engaging in practices which assist in the reduction of stress are always going to help with adrenal dysfunction, whether it be meditation, yoga, a bedtime ritual, going to be earlier, engaging in a deep-breathing ritual, going swimming in a natural setting or simply setting aside time to be quiet and disengaged from the modern world. For me personally I like going to a yoga class or going for a long walk because frankly, sitting still and meditating/disengaging mentally from the world (especially my phone!) is all but impossible for me – but every one is different and everyone reacts differently.
Finally, sleep is definitely a key weapon in the fight against adrenal dysfunction. It’s hard to do sometimes, but just getting an extra hour or two of good quality sleep can work wonders! The tried and tested ways to get more sleep are to try and turn off electronic kit 45 minutes before bed, engage in a bedtime ritual, drink some casein-rich protein before bed and make sure that your room is sufficiently cool and dark. Personally, as one who drinks A LOT of water, I would add stopping drinking an hour before bed also helps(!) but as well as that I like to shut my brain off by listening to a chat show or comedy show on the internet or streamed radio. Obviously that goes against conventional wisdom of turning off all electronic gear before bed, but I find it so hard to clear my mind that having something to focus on really helps. Finally, filling in my happiness journal very close to bedtime is also a brilliant way to think of all the good things that have happened during the day and sending myself off to sleep with a massive smile on my face.
where can I find out more?
The above is basically a short compilation of all of the materials I’ve read over the last year or so. Dr Libby Weaver writes my favourite books about this sort of thing (together with a whole host of other health advice), but a quick google search will give you an excellent understanding of the risks and how best to keep them at bay so that you can be your shiniest, happiest, most stress free you! For me it’s totally worth it.