What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
Written by Jaimie Bougie
Do you find yourself reaching for a second or third cup of coffee within hours of waking each morning? Do you get at least eight quality hours of sleep each night but find yourself craving naps every day by mid-afternoon? Are you following a healthy diet and exercise plan but find that you still can’t get your body weight down to a normal, healthy weight or get rid of the fat around your midsection ? Have you found that your sex drive has diminished or that you are constantly craving salty foods? If any of these symptoms sound like a part of your daily life, then you could be suffering from adrenal fatigue.
I remember thinking to myself a few years back that I was doing everything right on my path to being healthy; I was getting roughly 8-9 hours of sleep a night, I was on a dairy-free, alcohol-free, and gluten-free diet (aka – removing inflammatory foods from my life), and I was exercising on a daily basis. I had also escaped the stressful life of the corporate world and was now working my dream job at Invictus, so my stress level was at an all time low and my happiness level was at an all time high. I also live in sunny San Diego, where the threat of seasonal depression is next to none (unless you desperately miss the rain and snow, of course).
On a whim, I had my adrenals tested to see how well they were functioning and to make sure I was on the right track with my health. You can imagine my shock when the results came back and I was told I had an advanced stage of adrenal fatigue. Whereas I thought my overall health was at an all time high, in reality my body was far from functioning optimally. Over the past two years, I’ve made it my goal to not only try to reverse the fatigue on my adrenals but also to educate myself so that hopefully I won’t make the same mistakes again.
What and Where Are Your Adrenals?
You have two adrenal glands, each consisting of two parts, that sit on top of your kidneys. The glands are named due to their location in the body; ad – near or at; renes – kidneys. They are triangular in shape and measure about 1.5 inches in height and 3 inches in length. The adrenals are responsible for your body’s reaction to stress.
The outer part of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal cortex, which produces life supporting hormones such as cortisol and aldosterone. These hormones regulate metabolism, help your body respond to stress and control blood pressure. The inner part of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal medulla, produces non-essential hormones, such as adrenaline, which helps you react to stress.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
To understand the effects of stress on the adrenals, let’s first look at the main stress hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex, called cortisol. Cortisol regulates how your body uses fats, proteins and carbohydrates to energy; it also helps regular blood pressure and cardiovascular function . When hormones are balanced, cortisol is protective and burns fat; however, it’s when the hormones are out of whack that cortisol starts to have a negative impact on the body .
Cortisol has a very distinct circadian rhythm that is regulated by the central clock located in the hypothalamus. In a normal circadian cycle, also known as the cortisol curve, you have very low cortisol levels around midnight; from there, levels start to build up overnight to peak first thing in the morning. From there, cortisol levels slowly decline throughout the day .
This natural curve can become easily disrupted, however, when distress or stressors are added to your daily routine . When you experience stress of any kind, your adrenals are signaled by the pituitary gland to secrete cortisol. Unfortunately, we are not superheroes and there is a limit to how much stress our bodies can handle. When many different life stressors become too much for your body to handle, our adrenals work overtime to try to mobilize your our body’s response to stress (whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological) by secreting more and more cortisol into your system. Eventually, the adrenal glands become depleted from pumping out cortisol all the time, and symptoms of fatigue start to appear .
During adrenal fatigue, your glands are still functioning, just not well enough to consider your body in optimal homeostasis. This is due to the fact that the level of regulatory hormones put out by the over-stimulated adrenals has been diminished.
Causes of Adrenal Fatigue
So what causes our adrenals to become fatigued? In today’s society, there are a number of different stressors that can affect us both mentally, physically and psychologically; basically anything that causes stress on the body can cause you to have overactive adrenals.
Maybe you’re trying to balance being a full-time employee, working 8-12 hour days, with trying to be good parent and/or significant other to your family at home; or you’re a full-time student, handling the stress of getting good grades and acing every exam.
Another scenario that we see all too often in the gym is someone mixing a bad diet, containing too much caffeine, with not getting enough sleep at night (at least 6-8 hours) after hitting the gym for a high-intensity workout, such as CrossFit; this combination can spell disaster for your adrenals .
Some physical stressors are completely out of your control, such as developing an infection (bronchitis or pneumonia are just a few examples) or having to undergo major surgery. Emotional crisis, such as the death of a loved one or even going through divorce, can also put a beating on your adrenals .
The causes are endless in today’s modern lifestyle.
In future posts, we’ll look at the different effects of our lifestyle choices on our adrenals (such as caffeine use), the effects of adrenal fatigue on our bodies (such as the hindering of weight loss) and the different ways to either prevent or reduce the effects of adrenal fatigue and it’s symptoms.
 Sargis, Dr. Robert M. An Overview of the Adrenal Glands, http://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-adrenal-glands
 The Adrenal Glands: Nature’s roller coaster or the source of your fatigue? http://www.precisionnutrition.com/what-do-the-adrenal-glands-do
 What is Adrenal Fatigue? https://www.adrenalfatigue.org/what-is-adrenal-fatigue
 Nine Secrets to Losing Belly Fat Fast by Poliquin
 Brooks, KA, Carter, JG (2013): Overtraining, Exercise and Adrenal Insufficiency,
 W. B. Cannon, The Interrelations of Emotions as Suggested by Recent Physiological Researches, The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1914), pp. 262
 Rosmond, R; Dallman, M.F.; Bjorntorp, P. (2013) Stress-Related Cortisol Secretion in Men: Relationships with Abdominal Obesity and Endocrine, Metabolic and Hemodynamic Abnormalities: http://press.endocrine.org/doi/abs/10.1210/jcem.83.6.4843
 Understand Your Hormones by Poliquin http://www.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/PrinterFriendly.aspx?ID=1314&lang=EN
 Chan, S., & Debono, M. (2010). Replication of cortisol circadian rhythm: new advances in hydrocortisone replacement therapy. Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1(3), 129–138. doi:10.1177/2042018810380214 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3475279/
 Ten Simple Rules for Balancing Cortisol to Get Lean & Muscular for Life by Poliquin
 Kathleen A. Head, ND, and Gregory S. Kelly, ND; Nutrients and Botanicals for Treatment of Stress: Adrenal Fatigue, Neurotransmitter Imbalance, Anxiety, and Restless Sleep, Alternative Medicine Review Volume 14, Number 2 2009; pgs 115
I have this 🙁
Great post! If one suspects to have Adrenal Fatigue, what should be the next step? Should it be a lifestyle change or could it be medically treated?
I would definitely get tested first to see if you do have adrenal fatigue and if you do, which stage you are at. From there, you can figure out some lifestyle changes and maybe a hormone protocol to help reverse some of the affects of having the fatigue.
We’ll talk about the different stages and what you can do to help or prevent it in future blog posts!
Did you ever write the follow on articles to this one? I am in the exact situation you describe above, and now trying to figure out a plan to get back on track. The idea of removing high intensity training is somewhat depressing, so now trying to get some advice from those that have been down the path. Total Crossfit abstinence? or how to do you stay fit while giving your adrenals a chance to recover?