You know how it goes? You’re working hard. Clocking deadlines. Meeting targets, aiming high and achieving. You are managing your fitness, your exercise schedule, keeping the kids happy and maintaining the work/life balance. Then gradually you start to just not feel the spring in your step. The bounce in your bungee starts to sag. Waking tired, you find it difficult to get the body going and the bed seems like such a more enticing option than getting up to make your 6am gym session. And when you do get to gym, you’re just not performing. Your run times start to dip, recovery is slow and you feel – sluggish.
The onset of small sniffles and flu’s no longer come and go easily, but they hang around for longer and the malaise of not feeling spritely becomes a more permanent state than just having a bad week or two. This is probably normal and true. Eventually you bounce back. But what if these issues start to become a little too regular. And rather than gradually making your way back to the superhuman that you are, you meander around your daily schedule like a Leunig cartoon with an imaginary rain cloud over your head.
There can be a hundred causes or reasons for general health malaise but one element that is the burden of the ‘power individual’ that can sneakily creep upon you is adrenal overload. If you go at it day after day, for months on end, burnout is a real concern. It won’t necessarily hit you straight away either – you will have a bout of a small flu and you just won’t ever fully regain your Peter Rabbit Power.
Adrenal Fatigue is a very real concern for people who may usually act the superhero. “How can they keep going so strongly? How can one maintain such a frenetic pace? They are always up and at ‘em.” This personality is the type of person that can be at risk of Adrenal Fatigue.
The adrenal glands are endocrine glands that produce hormones used throughout the body. The lie above the kidneys (like little hats), and are responsible for regulating the production of Cortisol and Corticosteroids as well as Adrenalin (epinephrine and norepinephrine) that acts on the ‘fight or flight’ response. They act directly on levels of sodium and glucose, vary blood pressure, mobilise fat cells, suppress the immune system, increase heart rate and influence the supply of blood to various systems.
The Adrenals deal with stress. They are the front line when you are threatened, having to perform, need extra energy to mobilise actions (physical and mental) and deal with stressful situations such as work issues or even personal issues like relationships and financial worry. Overexposure or over stimulation of the adrenals in response to these stimuli can result in over taxing the Adrenal Glands and result in under or over production of the vital hormones that help to regulate our bodily function.
Is it Real?
Technically Adrenal Fatigue is not a medical condition. It has even been coined a a dubious medical condition in alternative medicine.
“There is no scientific evidence supporting the concept of adrenal fatigue and it is not recognised as a diagnosis by the medical community
Shah R Greenberger
Thus it is not possible to definitively say you ‘have adrenal fatigue’. It is a syndrome - as many conditions are. Usually when they can’t be explained. However there is a clinical history of disease that DO relate to under production of the adrenal glands (Addisons Disease, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency) or over stimulation (Cushing’s Syndrome, Primary Aldosteronism) and these conditions have very real and measurable diagnosis of potassium/sodium levels, electrolyte imbalance, hyperplasia (skin growths) thinning skin (causing stretch marks) and hyper pigmentation of skin. It is most likely that Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency is the path to investigate as it acts upon the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal-Axis (HPAA) that is directly associated with the function of the adrenal cortex - the outermost layer of the adrenals that actually produces the hormones for the Adrenal Gland.
Long term exposure to under/over producing adrenal glands can create a variety of symptoms which is one of the reasons why it is not possible to definitively and conclusively say you have ‘adrenal fatigue’. But the symptoms of;
· disrupted sleep
· slow wound healing
· decreased muscle mass
· lowered immune function
· blood sugar imbalances
are all consistent with the vital balance maintained by the adrenal glands. It is obviously a very difficult process to test and analyse these generic conditions with singular hormonal imbalances. But there are tests that can be performed on Cortisol levels that could be the key to unlocking the malaise.
Cortisol: Why it is so dangerous
Cortisol controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, reduces inflammation, retains memory function and acts on water/sodium levels in the body. Excessive amounts of Cortisol in the body interferes with blood sugar regulation, weight gain, and most importantly immune system suppression. The effects this can have over the long term means that vital inflammatory function of the immune system becomes downgraded and thus any healing that has to occur from injury and infection can be minimised and thus, recovery from illness becomes compromsied. This marries well with the lethargy and fatigue symptoms mentioned earlier. The highest level of this imbalance is Cushings Syndrome, where pigmentation changes and excessive weight gain in the torso is the result.
Under-regulation of Cortisone can equally be a bad thing as adrenal glands can become damaged and thus the HPAA is compromised resulting in weight loss, mood swings, muscle loss and lethargy. Addison's Disease, whilst rare is the condition to beware of here and is a medically recognised condition.
Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system. It flushes our muscles, brain, eyes and 'stimulated' state to be active. This doesn't allow for the para-sympathetic system to regulate immune function, downgrade cortisol and prevent hyper stimulation. Without this in check issues in the gastro-intestinal tract, cardiovascular system and other hormonal axis (thyroid/cognitive/sexual) suffer and have the potential for damaging effects. Ulceration in the gastrointestinal lining, tumors forming on endocrine glands and heart disease to name a few.
Usually, inexplicable fatigue is not normal. Decrease in output that has no reason needs to be investigated at many levels to determine cause. This falls into the category that has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyaglia. It is hard to categorise them but it doesn't mean a person isn't suffering from it. So when you are the gung-ho personality that fires on 12 cylinders and maintains the frenetic pace that is the envy of the workplace, be wary of keeping this pace and lifestyle unchecked. If after a sustained period you find yourself not functioning, or just having periods of down-rated performance with the occasional suppression of immune function - recognising the importance of the Adrenal Glands and the role of Cortisol in the body is something to be aware of.