Our adrenal glands produce hormones that help balance blood sugar levels, manage our energy levels, and help us handle stress. If a person is under constant physical or emotional stress, their adrenals may become weak and unable to produce adequate amounts of critical hormones, especially a hormone called cortisol. This creates an illness commonly known as adrenal fatigue.
Cortisol increases to wake us up in the mornings, then gradually declines throughout the day so that we're tired when it's time to sleep. When we are stressed, our adrenals produce extra cortisol, which activates the body's stress responses. When stress, which can be physical, mental or emotional, continues over a long period of time, the adrenals become unable to keep up with the increased demand, and cortisol levels can drop.
Low cortisol levels can cause symptoms such as severe fatigue, hypoglycemia, muscle aches, sugar or salt cravings, and shakiness that is relieved by eating. Low cortisol can also bring on symptoms such as moodiness, low blood pressure, allergies, recurrent infections, decreased ability to handle stress, brain fog, and swollen ankles that are worse at night. Patients often complain of muscle weakness, difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings, being wiped out and taking longer to recover from exercise, and being unable to tolerate thyroid hormone replacement.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
- Intensified stress reaction
- Emotional sensitivity
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty waking in the morning
- Muscle stiffness, weakness
- Nausea, especially in the mornings
- Low blood sugar
- Heart racing or pounding
- Shaking or trembling
- Craving salt
- Needing sugar or caffeine to get through the day
Since optimal amounts of cortisol are required to convert the thyroid storage hormone T4 into the active thyroid hormone T3, patients with low cortisol find themselves with hypothyroidism at the cellular level. This becomes a vicious circle. Because the adrenal glands need T3 just like every other cell in the body, they continue to function less adequately, causing thyroid hormone conversion from T4 to T3 becomes even less.
How Can You Determine if You Have Adrenal Fatigue?
If you start to feel some of the symptoms listed above, it could be a sign that your adrenals are starting to get stressed or weakened. Saliva cortisol testing can measure cortisol levels at four key times during the day - morning, noon, evening and night - which allows a doctor to tailor any treatment that might be needed, whether it's herbal adaptogens or even hydrocortisone.
Here are some things you can do to help your adrenals heal and avoid adrenal fatigue.
Treat Underlying Causes
Work with your doctor to address underlying issues that could be stressing your adrenal glands, such as chronic infection, mitochondrial dysfunction, abnormal immune activation of coagulation issues, and untreated or undertreated hypothyroidism. Each of these things can put added stress on the entire body, especially the adrenal glands.
Adequate, restful sleep is critical to keeping your adrenal glands healthy and functioning properly. Allow adequate time to get a full eight hours of sleep each night. Keep your bedroom cool for improved sleep. And make sure your bedroom is free of unnecessary light, noise, or other distractions.
Eat frequent, small meals that are low in refined carbohydrates and sugars, but high in protein and healthy fats to help stabilize blood sugar levels. Also, since caffeine stimulates the adrenals, limiting or eliminating caffeine intake may be wise.
Don't Limit Your Salt Intake
The adrenal glands also make another important hormone called aldosterone. Aldosterone is the principle regulator of salt and water in the body. When the adrenals are overworked, aldosterone levels may fall. This can result in sodium being removed from the blood and excreted through the urine, causing mild dehydration. One of the best sources of sodium is Celtic sea salt, as it also contains many other important minerals.
Exercise is important in healing the adrenals. However, depending on the severity of a patient's adrenal fatigue, strenuous exercise may need to be avoided. Moderate to light exercise, such as walking or yoga, can be very beneficial.
Stress Management Techniques
Tools like deep breathing and medication can be helpful in lowering stress. When the body is relaxed, the adrenal glands receive less stimulation and are able to rest. Plan for unstructured time to just enjoy the day, and don't skip on vacations.
Treating Adrenal Fatigue
If adrenal fatigue is caught early enough, patients can often feel better when treated with adrenal glandulars, vitamin C, pantothenic acid, and licorice. Patients with more severe adrenal fatigue may need low doses of hydrocortisone to improve adrenal function and improve quality of life.