The land of alternative medicine and holistic health, to be blunt, is full of a lot of crap. Over-the-counter “colon” cleanses, ridiculous parasite cleanses, weak liver/gall bladder cleanses that do not even support the hepatobiliary system, “green drinks”, and plenty of other worthless gimmicks. Much of this stuff is based on nothing and actually has no real science to back it up. It is no wonder why people question alternative and holistic health. And, if not careful, we will be able to add “adrenal fatigue” to the list of things that no one “believes” in anymore. “Adrenal fatigue” will be right up there with the terms “natural” and “organic” if the bastardization that I commonly see continues.
From the emails that I receive, it would appear that adrenal fatigue is the leading cause of everything from herpes to hemorrhoids, and the common cold to cancer. Basically, if no one can figure out what the hell is wrong with you, and Dr. Google cannot provide you with the answers you seek – chalk it up to adrenal problems.
Do not get things twisted before we even dive into this. Am I saying that adrenal problems do not cause real issues? Absolutely not. However, adrenal glands do not malfunction on their own (barring some kind of massive genetic issue).
Dysfunctional adrenal gland physiology can cause a wide array of issues in the body that can negatively impact your health and your efforts in the gym. However, the adrenal glands are pretty stupid in that they only do exactly what they are told to do. The adrenals are actually only carrying out the duties that your brain tell them to. So rather than blaming the adrenals for everything under the Sun, or throwing a bunch of pills and drops at the problem of adrenal fatigue (i.e. – addressing the symptoms), let us go after the root of the adrenal issues/fatigue shall we.
The (very) Basics of Adrenal Physiology
The adrenals sit on top of your kidneys and their primary role is to respond to the myriad of stressors that you experience on a moment-to-moment, short-term, and long-term basis. Basically, they help keep you alive during times of increased exposure to a given stressor or combination of stressors.
As an example, let’s say you’re driving to your favorite organic food spot in town and…BAM…out of nowhere, a runaway lowland gorilla jumps out in front of your car and you have to swerve out of the way only to nearly drive your car into a burning building prior to applying the brakes just in the nick of time (okay so that is not very likely, but you get the idea).
Now, when you come to your senses and stop asking questions like, “What the hell is a lowland gorilla doing in the middle of the street?” and, “Where did this burning building come from?” you may notice a few things. Your heart will likely be jumping out of your chest and racing a mile a minute; you may be sweating profusely; and your body will likely be shaking. If none of these are happening, you are probably a mutant and you should send in your application to attend Xavier’s School for “Gifted” Individuals next semester.
What basically happens here is that during the stressful event, your brain sent a message to your adrenal medulla to secrete epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline.
Epinephrine increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, increases glucose in the blood, dilates the pupils, all so that you avoid death and maintain your physical survival. This is an automatic reaction that comes straight from your brain whether you think about it or not. If you actually had to think in order to make all of these things happen, it is unlikely that you would survive a single day in the bat shit crazy world that we live in.
At the same time the brain was sending another nerve impulse which told the pituitary gland to release ACTH, which then signals the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Cortisol’s primary role is to increase blood glucose levels to provide fuel to your muscles during the experience of a stressor. This happens in case the lowland gorilla decided to follow you to the burning building and now you have to outrun the damn thing! Without adrenaline and cortisol during “stressful” events, you would likely die.
So the adrenals are not your enemy, and you need them to function properly to stay alive.
What Your Adrenals Can Effect
Adrenal fatigue, regardless of what stage is present and whether cortisol is chronically elevated or low, will disrupt the optimal Cortisol:DHEA-S ratio in the body which basically controls the following: carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism, bone turnover and connective tissues repair, muscle integrity (pretty important if you train with any kind of intensity), thyroid function, detoxification capacity, insulin sensitivity, neural connectivity, memory and learning, mucosal barrier integrity in your gut (first line of defense), pituitary function, ovarian hormone levels in females, androgen (testosterone) levels in men, immune regulation (cortisol regulates immune function and is, to my knowledge, the only hormone that can walk in and out of any cell without a “key”), inflammatory potential, quality of sleep, weight and fat distribution, and much more! From this list, it should be obvious that healthy adrenal glands are indeed a staple in optimal health.
Stages of Adrenal Fatigue
So the average client that I see who receives a functional assessment of adrenal function usually falls into the Stage II or III classification. So what the hell does that mean? Well, there are 3 stages of adrenal fatigue which look like this (largely a snag on the stages of the General Adaptation Syndrome put forth by Hans Selye, M.D. like 6,000 years ago – that’s hyperbole but you get my point):
Stage 1. Alarm — This is the body’s initial response to stress. It is typically defined by one or more elevated cortisol reading on a 24-hour rhythm.
Stage 2. Reaction — If stress is prolonged, the adrenal glands will be fighting the battle but losing the war so to speak. They will begin “robbing” other hormones in order to keep up with the cortisol production demands. They will use Pregnenolone to help make cortisol (this is called Pregnenlone Steal and/or Cortisol Escape). Cortisol levels may be low, normal, or high during this phase, but DHEA levels typically begin to drop below normal.
Stage 3. Exhaustion — Typically characterized by low cortisol readings and DHEA levels.
Now, it is important to note that an individual can jump around on this scale from day to day and moment to moment. One can go immediately from the alarm stage to the exhaustion stage and vice versa. The model is not linear at all. (Additional note: each stage of adrenal fatigue can be further broken into 3 sub-stages, so in effect you actually have 9 “stages” within the adrenal fatigue model.)
What I have seen in my experience with clients is that they have his/her adrenal function assessed; they are given a broad label (such as a Stage II or III); and then they are given a supplementation protocol that include drops, glandular supports, botanicals, vitamin/mineral complexes, etc. as a method of “supporting” healthy adrenal function.
As I see it there is only one small problem with this scenario. The adrenal assessment (or any lab assessment for that matter) is only a snapshot into what the body is responding to at any one given time. The human body is incredibly dynamic and is much more akin to a flickering flame than a stable, frozen stab of meat. As such, to base an entire supplementation protocol on any one test, is, in my opinion, a dangerous thing to do. Why? Well, I will go back to what I mentioned about the adrenal being kind of dumb. They only do what they are told to do.
Let us look at this from a slightly different perspective for a minute. From the above, we can deduce that the function of the adrenals is to respond to a stressor or combination of stressor. Pretty simple. Now for the big question –What is “stress”? I will ask that one again – what is “stress”? The answer – stress is a perception.
You can have the best adrenal supplementation support protocol designed by the smartest functional medicine practitioner, medical doctor or otherwise, on the planet, but if your mind is a wreck and you view everything as a stressor, you are going to singlehandedly keep your favorite supplement manufacturer in business because you will need your supplementation for a lifetime unless you learn to manage life stressors/events properly.
I have seen clients that have worked with many different doctors and practitioners and were given very elaborate, and quite expensive, “support/Supplementation” protocols for correcting adrenal fatigue and 3-6 months later when they are re-tested, guess what, they are worse than they were when they started!
Why Supplementation Alone is not the Answer
I recognize the possible need in some cases to support adrenal function with supplementation short-term, but supplementation should be exactly that – a supplement to a customized lifestyle and nutritional plan. You see, your supplements, whether they be for the adrenals or otherwise, can only work to the degree that your lifestyle and physiology allow them to. As well, simple physiology can tell you that if your adrenals are “fatigued” it simply means that you have not properly met the metabolic demands that you place on your body in quite some time.
The bottom line here is that the adrenals do not function in isolation – there are no isolated systems in the human Body-Mind, everything communicates with everything. The adrenals communicate with your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, thyroid gland, gut, and the gonads to name a few. To support the adrenals in isolation is a snafu process in my opinion.
What you choose to eat or not eat; how you choose to exercise or not exercise, how much water you choose to drink or not drink, etc., all dramatically affect how you perceive life and your reality. Supplements can address the symptoms (in a similar manner to the way medications do), but you will have to look at causative factors in order to fully overcome adrenal fatigue.
The clients that I have seen successfully overcome “adrenal fatigue”, many of them considered critical Stage 3’s, are the ones who pay attention to the “basics” of healthy living. Taking supplements in the presence of a dysfunctional lifestyle and nutrition is about as useful as pissing on a forest fire.
How to Overcome “Adrenal Fatigue”
As the adrenals respond to a stressor or combination of stressors, or more accurately, perceived stress, we must identify primary sources of stress and focus efforts on creating balance and harmony in those areas. Stressors basically present themselves in four main forms. Three of them are listed below (the fourth is Spiritual Stress which far exceeds the scope of this post).
1. Biomechanical / Structural Factors
- The Cranium, PRM, and Respiratory System
- The TMJ
- The Eyes
- Vestibular Function (inner ear)
- The Upper Cervical Spine (C0/1, C1/2)
- Sacrum / Pelvic Girdle
2. Biochemical Factors
- Nutritional – food choices, stimulant, processed food, and anything that impacts your ability to maintain optimal blood sugar levels
- Thyroid function – thyroid gland can actually drive adrenal physiology as it regulates the utilization and production of energy/fuel
- Fungal/Parasite/Bacterial Infections
- Gut Function – Mucosal Barrier Integrity
- Visceral Organ Function
3. Psychosocial Factors (Emotions)
- Anger (stored in the liver according to TCM)
- Grief (stored in the lungs according to TCM)
- Fear (stored in the kidneys according to TCM)
Note: Volumes can be written on any one of the above so what follows is snapshot into addressing the sources of Body-Mind stressors.
Based on the above, here are some of the things that I teach my clients in order to overcome “adrenal fatigue”, which is really just a catchy way of describing a damaged metabolism:
- Have your respiratory system and posture thoroughly assessed and optimize respiratory mechanics. If you are an inverted/accessory respiratory breather, you will perpetuate postural problems in the upper quarter which are associated with a “red light” or “stressed” posture (Upper Cross Syndrome). This can actually perpetuate a stress response in your physiology and fatigue your physiology over time. Also, addressing additional structural blocking factors listed in the biomechanical/structural section above is necessary to overcome adrenal fatigue.
- Rehydrate yourself. Drink the proper amount of clean water (somewhere between 2 and 3 liters per day for most people) each and every day. Chronic dehydration is a round-the-clock stressor to the body, so overcoming “adrenal fatigue” is not possible when you are dehydrated.
- REGULATE YOUR BLOOD SUGAR! Blood sugar levels that fluctuate more than the stock market will lead to fluctuations in adrenal activity and cortisol levels (among many other hormones).
- Increase consumption of “physiology and thyroid friendly” foods. These are foods that will favor optimal energy production at the cell level: broths, gelatin, liver, tropical fruits, root vegetables, and the appropriate dairy at the appropriate time. If your energy demand exceeds the energy supply – the stress response is initiated. In other words, if your nutrition and lifestyle are inadequate for the amount of stressors that you experience on a day to day, short, and long-term basis, the result will be a stressed physiology and more fatigue.
- Reduce/Eliminate foods that are commonly known to cause inflammation and other immune reactions. Gluten, soy, corn, beans, nuts, and seeds, are pretty common here.
- Increase your quiet time. Participate in at least 30-60 minutes of relaxation exercise per day (Tai Chi, Qi Gong, traditional forms of Yoga, meditative walking, and various forms of meditation). Watching TV does not count here as television has been shown by research to stimulate the adrenals and slow your metabolism. Earthing is a very lucrative practice here. This involves having direct contact with Mother Earth (with your skin – not clothing or shoes) for at least 30-45 minutes per day. This can be done during meditation or the other forms of relaxation exercises and has been shown clinically to lower cortisol levels.
- Get at least 8-10 hours of sleep per night. The more hours of sleep you can get prior to midnight the better off you will be and do not wake before 6 a.m. if at all possible. Also, if possible you can benefit from a short 20-30 minute nap at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Energy (chi) levels naturally drop at these times according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
- Take a vacation as soon as possible. Get away from work related stressors and family pressures for at least one full week to help “recharge your batteries.” If you can afford it, make it a 2 week vacation. If you can afford it, make this happen every 2-4 months. If you cannot afford it, find a way to afford it that does not involve working yourself into a hormonal stupor.
- Remove all electromagnetic stimulation from the room you sleep in. No alarm clocks, televisions, computers, laptops, cell phones, iPads, etc. near you while you are sleeping. These things stimulate the Pineal Gland and can cause a chain reaction that will result in increased cortisol output in the body – and cortisol is an awakening hormone which will disrupt your sleep and your anabolic repair cycles.
- “Repattern” the brain and fully integrate the right and left hemispheres. This can be accomplished in a number of ways and is extremely effective at aiding the healing process, and not just for the adrenals.
- Decrease your exposure to traditional forms of cardiovascular exercise. These types of exercise will progressively drain your physiology of nutritional factors needed for optimal energy production, particularly when performed under less than ideal lifestyle and nutritional factors.
- Do more of what excites you. Most people say do what makes you happy. That’s cool, but I have seen people convince themselves that they are happy when they are actually quite miserable. In my opinion, one would be better served to d more of the things that s/he gets really excited about. It is hard to fake genuine excitement. Work to increase the amount of time spent doing those things.
None of this really has much to do with “adrenal fatigue.” It has much more to do with improving energy production and metabolic efficiency so that you can adapt to the metabolic demands you are placing on your body each day. “Adrenal fatigue” is not a problem – it is a response to a problem, or combination of problems/stressors. Taking a boatload of expensive supplements to overcome adrenal fatigue will keep you spinning your wheels and spending lots of money. You must identify primary stressors and work on the causative factors that contribute to those stressors. Basics of health – breathing, water intake, nutrition quality and quantity, movement, sleep, and the thoughts that roll around in your head on a daily basis must be addressed to regulate your physiology and maximize metabolic efficiency. The nutritional and lifestyle choices that we all make on a moment-to-moment, short-term, and long-term basis dramatically affect how we perceive life events. As Hippocrates has stated, “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
Love yourSelf, live life out loud, and enjoy the journey my friends!