The Organ That's Making You Tired
These days, it's pretty likely you've heard someone utter the words adrenal fatigue, most likely in an accusatory tone with their finger pointed straight at you. But what exactly are the adrenals and why is everyone talking about how lethargic mine are?
Adrenals are the two walnut-sized organs above your liver that are responsible for, amongst other things, regulating your stress levels. Healthy adrenal glands work by sparking your body’s response to physical, emotional and psychological stress by secreting cortisol and DHEA. This process, in turn, regulates everything from energy production and immune function to heart rate and muscle tone.
These glands, however, can get stressed by overstimulation and stop functioning properly, throwing the above processes out of whack. A single life event such as the loss of a loved one or traumatic injury can throw the adrenal glands into overdrive. But the more common cause is long-term stress caused by poor diet, substance abuse, lack of sleep combined with high caffeine intake, and situations in which you feel forever trapped and hopeless. Yes, cubicle life counts for some people.
Adrenal fatigue is actually the underlying cause of what most of us refer to as “burnout,” according to a June 2013 review in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. When the adrenals are fatigued, the body is less able to deal with stress and stay energized, which inherently leads to poorer work performance.
The term adrenal fatigue was officially coined in 1998, explains the book Silent Pain: How Stress and Trauma May Lead to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It can be tough to identify because there’s nothing obviously wrong — nothing besides living a lesser, duller, more difficult version of the vibrant life you once lived. In case you can’t tell, we’re pretty against that.
Our adrenals can’t differentiate between being chased by a bear, being heartbroken, and the self-defeating hateful thoughts that radiate through your body during a 9-5 grind you don’t enjoy. All of them hurt your adrenals.
Your fatigue might show up as having difficulty getting out of bed, cravings for salty foods, lack of energy, decreased sex drive and productivity, mild depression, and interrupted sleep, according to symptoms outlined in the book Silent Pain: How Stress and Trauma May Lead to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
It’s reported that up to 80 percent of adults experience adrenal fatigue during their lifetime, which is no surprise to anyone who has gotten used to sleeping with their smartphone under their bed, answering emails on a Saturday AM, or reaching for coffee number three at 3 PM (guilty, guilty, and guilty).
Identifying adrenal fatigue isn’t pushing responsibility off to an obscure organ, it actually means taking responsibility for how you treat your body and your priorities. And the best part is - once you figure out whether or not you have adrenal fatigue, there are very concrete steps to get you back on track to feeling amazing again.
At first, it might be difficult to tell the difference between the feeling of an extra long week and the consistent, ever-present fatigue that comes as a result of adrenal fatigue. It can be especially frustrating if you’re relying on a doctor, rather than your innate intuition, to tell you what’s wrong.
Dr. Kalish, who is well-known for creating a holistic protocol for healing fatigued adrenals, has stated that going to a conventional doctor to check on adrenals rarely helps as they search for specific diseases like the rare Addison’s or Cushing’s disease.
He, however, is concerned about the imbalances disrupting your everyday life with depression, fatigue and insomnia - things that many people experience today and assume is a part of life.
Now, we know that we all want to believe that we’re strong enough to overcome the 12-hour work days, daily 6 AM spin classes, and evening frivolities we can't say no to, but there’s nothing shameful in admitting that your body needs a little support in order to keep up. Rather than reach for another coffee, sending your adrenals into a tailspin, it’s time to stop and really look at what needs to be done to heal them.
How to Heal Your Adrenals
Like most imbalances in our bodies, consciously shifting our habits surrounding diet, sleep and exercise is the most critical step towards healing.
Beauty Sleep: A real dedication to getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep is critical. However, many people dealing with adrenal fatigue will awake between 1 AM and 3 AM. According to functional medicine Dr. Leila Kirdani, this is because when our bodies have run out of food stores and cortisol has dropped down to its lowest level, the brain wakes us up to literally keep us alive.
Move Your Body: When it comes to exercise, less is actually more when healing tired adrenals. Movement requiring huge amounts of energy (like running) will drain the adrenals. Instead, opt for a yoga flow or pilates that will lengthen and strengthen your muscles without overstraining your body.
Yoga and meditation also release GABA, which Dr. Kirdani refers to as “nature’s valium", and this dose of happiness will send a whole lot of love to your hard working adrenals.
Eat Clean, Eat Whole: For diet, eating a whole food, plant-based diet full of diverse and vibrant veggies (hello, Sakara Life!) is key to rebalancing your body. As important as what you put in your body is what you keep out of it when healing adrenals. Avoid caffeine, sugar, and alcohol, which provide a temporary and artificial high that replaces what should be your natural energy. Also, avoid all inflammatory foods. For all of us, this means, first and foremost, processed foods. And, for many of us, cutting back on gluten and dairy can help tremendously.
Please remember - we are not doctors! This article should not be used to replace a medical professional. If you are feeling unwell or believe you might be working with adrenal fatigue, please consult your doctor.