If you’ve been on the health and wellness side of social media anytime in the past 5 years, you've likely heard of the term “adrenal fatigue."
For those of us who have experienced the physical effects of burnout, it feels like a very real phenomenon, but for those who haven’t, it usually results in an eye roll.
The unpopular truth? Adrenal fatigue isn’t a real diagnosis, nor is it a legitimate medical term. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid warning sign from the body and a gentle nudge to look within.
Where did the term “adrenal fatigue” come from?
Many of us are familiar with these alternative terms used to describe fatigue or gut inflammation in a way that’s easy to understand. What you may not know is that most of these terms have a medical “lookalike,” meaning another word that’s used by the medical community to describe similar symptoms.
For example, “adrenal fatigue” was originally formed out of the medical term associated with Addison’s Disease, adrenal insufficiency, which is when your adrenals don’t make enough cortisol.
According to the NIH, the most common symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are long-lasting fatigue, low energy, weight and appetite loss, abdominal pain, low libido, muscle weakness, irritability and depression, and nausea.
So, one could say “adrenal fatigue” is the mild or preliminary version of adrenal sufficiency, but not the same as having Addison’s Disease.
Still, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously, especially considering how vital the adrenal glands are for hormone production, energy levels, cognitive function, electrolyte balance, and metabolism — which support every single cell in the human body.
How adrenal fatigue may be showing up in your life
Although “adrenal fatigue” may not be considered a real phenomenon by the medical community, over-stressing the body is.
Typically what drives someone to believe they’re suffering from adrenal fatigue are symptoms like:
Limited availability or complete absence of energy
Feeling tired upon waking and, or in the mid-afternoon
Feeling “wired and “tired” aka, physically exhausted at night, but mentally unable to settle down for rest
Trouble getting sufficient sleep
Gaining weight and, or trouble taking it off (especially belly fat)
Gut issues (bloating, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea)
Changes in mood and libido
Irregular, late, or missing periods
Overall not feeling like yourself
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Especially for women, dealing with these symptoms can be problematic in light of how they’ve historically been handled in our modern medical system.
Several studies have found that women are less likely to be taken seriously in the emergency room and more likely to be overprescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications when they come to their physician with pain and/or other physical symptoms. Not only that, they can wait up to 4 years longer than men to receive a diagnosis.
Despite commonly being told their symptoms are "all in their head," and that they just need to go home and rest up to start feeling better again, signs and symptoms associated with “adrenal fatigue” are indicative of an over-stressed system.
The biology of burnout
Our bodies are deeply intelligent, and will constantly adapt based on the external inputs and environmental exposures we give them. When we expose our bodies to stress — whether it be car horns in traffic or a deadline at work — our amygdala, which controls fear and emotion, activates our sympathetic nervous system (aka, our fight or flight response).
Our adrenal glands then begin to release stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine), and our liver channels glucose into our bloodstream.
Simultaneously, our body redirects blood away from non-essential organs, like our digestive and immune systems, to our muscles and brain. In the face of real danger, such as an attack or life-threatening emergency, this is an incredible adaptation by our bodies.
However, in today’s world, our bodies have been conditioned to view a physical fire and a hypothetical fire, such as a demand from a boss, as identical threats.
Our bodies were designed to handle stress — if given ample time to recover and restore after being exposed to it. The issue is, in the modern world, we aren't.
How chronic stress affects your health
Over time, the excessive release of cortisol and glucose into the bloodstream that coincides with chronic stress can cause:
A drive to eat more calorically dense foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat in an attempt to refuel lost nutrients
Slow down our metabolism and thyroid function to conserve energy, leading to an increase in fat stores and limited energy availability
Dysregulated glucose and insulin levels influence how well every single cell and organ in our body functions, including our brain
Insomnia, poor sleep patterns
Anxiety, restlessness, headaches, and paranoia
Dampened sex hormones (e.g., estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) given the resources needed to produce these are being diverted to create more cortisol
A weakened immune system
When left unmanaged, these symptoms spiral into what’s commonly viewed as adrenal fatigue. You have no energy, you can’t think straight, your hormones are a mess, you’re experiencing stomach and sleep issues, and you feel like crap 24/7.
In this sense, your adrenals aren’t actually fatigued, but rather working too hard. They’re on overdrive.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to become strong in the face of stress and shake it off after the fact.
5 tips for "healing" adrenal fatigue
1. Rest is not just for when you’re sleeping, though that’s important, too
Rest is part of performance. A car can’t run without any gas. You have to refill your tank throughout the day if you want to have fuel that lasts.
Rest throughout your day can look like taking a break between calls and going outside, taking a 5-10 minute walk before and after lunch, or watching a show with your partner
Getting 7-9 hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep is also a major part of this equation. That’s when your body refuels its tank the most.
2. Set boundaries
This is one so many of us struggle with, but boundaries are just another form of self-care. They help you protect your peace, energy, and headspace so you can allocate those resources to the things that genuinely matter.
Setting boundaries can look like having set working hours so your colleagues and boss know when they can get a hold of you and when they can’t or removing yourself from relationships that are depleting you or energy causing unnecessary stress
3. Remove unnecessary micro-stressors
For example, if going to the grocery store is just one more thing that takes up mental headspace and causes you angst, consider using a delivery app like Instacart, Amazon Fresh, Uber Eats, Thrive Market, etc. — even if you have to pay a small membership fee, you’re getting your time and headspace back in return.
4. Support your body with nutrients, sunlight, and movement
Stress depletes your body of nutrients and when you’re nutrient deficient, not only do you feel worse, but you’re less adept at handling stress.
Magnesium, omega-3s, vitamins B, C, and D, zinc, complex carbs (e.g., whole grains and root vegetables), adaptogens (e.g., ashwagandha and holy basil), and foods that support the gut like probiotics and resistant starch are all amazing at combating stress.
Sunlight exposure aids in the production of serotonin and vitamin D, which boosts your mood, and induces a calming effect. Movement integrated throughout your day helps reduce muscle tension, promote relaxation, and alleviate excess stress.
5. Write it out, talk it out
Getting stress out from inside your head and onto paper, or out into the open through conversation, couldn’t be more vital. The more you bottle it up inside, the worse it gets. It’s like pumping more air into a balloon that’s already full. Eventually, it’s going to burst.
Having a regular journaling or self-reflection practice, incorporating routine social interaction with people you trust, and hiring a professional, such as a therapist or a coach, are all crucial for keeping your stress levels in a manageable state.
Lastly, with over 18 million views on #adrenalcocktail on TikTok, it certainly can't hurt to try.
Caroline McMorrow is a Content Manager at Rescripted.