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Adrenal Fatigue…What is it and how do I treat it?

Adrenal Fatigue…the name makes you think of some mysterious, rare disease. But don’t let the name fool you; it is a very common condition that affects all of us at some time in our lives. Let me explain.

The adrenal glands are quite small and sit on the top of the kidneys. Although small, they are mighty! The adrenal glands make many of the hormones that the body uses each and every day. They make epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone, DHEA, androstenedione and some estrogens. The main hormone that we think of is epinephrine. Epinephrine is usually referred to as the “fight or flight” hormone. It is the hormone that our body makes when we are in immediate, immense danger. It gets our heart racing, our blood pumping and our muscles ready for a fight or to run. In other words, it helps us in times of extreme stress.

There is another stress hormone that we use everyday to handle everyday “stress.” When I say everyday stress, I actually mean everyday living. Our cortisol is also produced by our adrenal gland. It is the hormone that gets us up in the morning and gets us through our day. Cortisol levels are high in the morning and slowly decline throughout the day in sort of a bell curve fashion. At bedtime, they are at their lowest so that we can go to sleep.

In today’s hectic lifestyle, it is very common for us to have a extraordinary amount of stress. I’m not talking about “My life’s in danger! I need epinephrine!” kind of stress. I’m talking about traffic jam, I’m 30 minutes late to work stress. Or my son fell out of a tree and broke his arm type of stress. Or I’m moving to another city type of stress. All of us are experiencing all kinds of high stress almost everyday! Long gone are the days of leisurely afternoons and pleasant family dinners. We have packed our schedules to the max with work, kids’ activities and social engagements. When we top it off with a couple of life changing events, such as a new job, a major move to another city or a death in the family, we are putting our adrenal gland in overdrive. During times of constant extreme stress, our adrenal glands respond by making more and more cortisol which helps us manage this stress as best as we can. Our adrenal glands can only keep up this pace for so long though. Eventually, they become fatigued and cannot produce enough cortisol to keep us functioning.

There are two phases of adrenal fatigue. The first phase is when you are under stress and you adrenal gland is making too much cortisol all the time. The main symptoms during this phase is anxiety and trouble sleeping. Since sleep is so important to health, the lack of sleep during this phase makes the stress even worse, thus producing even more cortisol to be produced causing even more anxiety. I cannot stress how important it is to get sleep! It is the most important aspect to mental health.

After many months/years of this prolonged stress and high cortisol levels, some of us will eventually enter the second stage of adrenal fatigue. Our adrenal glands simply cannot make any more cortisol. At this point, our body can hardly function at all. We become extremely tired to the point where we can barely walk or get out of bed. We lose interest in everything, even things we loved doing before. We have to FORCE ourselves to get up to go to work and would rather skip social events that we used to look forward to. Our adrenal glands start working at the wrong time of the day. This is typically at 3am, then we wake up every night for no reason; thus disrupting sleep that we are already struggling to get. Many times our cortisol will be high in the evening to so we are unable to fall asleep, and then as soon as we do, they wake us up at 3am! It is a vicious cycle and can be very difficult to overcome.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. So how do you know if this is happening to you? You can get a simple saliva test at a physician office or pharmacy that can test for your cortisol levels throughout the day. You would simply collect your own saliva at 4 different times throughout the day, before breakfast, before lunch, before dinner and at bedtime. One you get the results, they will be plotted on a cortisol curve and we can see where you are at. I would say 95% of the time, results show some sort of adrenal fatigue! That is a lot of very tired people!

After we see if you have adrenal fatigue, there are several different ways to treat this very common condition. Thankfully, almost of the treatments are either nutrient/supplement or lifestyle based treatments that do not require a prescription. Here are some the most common treatments I use for my patients. Please note that adrenals take a LONG time to get fatigued, therefore it can take a long time to heal. Most of these treatments take about 1 to 2 months to work and the results are very subtle. I advise anyone starting a treatment plan for adrenals to not give up after only one month’s treatment; relief is on it’s way!

1. Herbals: If your cortisols are running high, a good non-conventional therapy that I recommend is the use of herbals. There are a ton of different formulations of these adrenal herbals products. My favorite product contains Rhodiola rosea, Ashwagandha and Licorice in it. All these ingredients have studies backing them up to help adrenal health, especially to help bring down cortisol. In some people that have a normal cortisol level, or low levels, these herbals can cause jitters, so I only recommend them when you are in the first phase of adrenal fatigue.

2. Glandulars: I recommend the use of adrenal glandulars in all phases of adrenal fatigue. I would even go as far to say that ALL of us, whether or not we are experiencing actual adrenal fatigue, should take these unless we do not have a stressful life (do you know anyone with no stress? I don’t!). The product that I recommend is a combination of some vitamins with adrenal and spleen concentrates. It is the best at getting our adrenal gland back to normal and keeping it there!

3. Vitamin C: Vitamin C is known for all sort of health benefits, the most popular being for immune support. Vitamin C with bioflavanoids or esterfied Vitamin C is the best for supplementing adrenal health. (And it helps us from getting sick too!)

4. L-Theanine: L-theanine is an amino acid analog that is found in plants and fungi. It was originally identified in green tea. It helps promote relaxation, which is essential to stress management. L-theanine is very beneficial taken in the evening to help your body relax enough to help you sleep. Some people with very stressful lives may want to take it in the morning to help keep cortisol levels more evened out during the day, making stress more manageable.

5. Hydrocortisone: This is the only prescription medication that I will list to help us treat adrenal health. I only recommend this in the second phase of adrenal fatigue that is strongly impacting your life. If you simply are too fatigued to do simple everyday activities, then a bit of hyrdrocortisone may be needed. Compounded hydrocortisone can be formulated in a sustained release formula so that it will last all day to keep you going.

As I said earlier, sleep is essential to adrenal health. Next blog, I will discuss sleep etiquette, prescription medications and over-the-counter nutrients/herbals and other products to help us sleep better at night. Until next time!

Wishing you well, Gail

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