Adrenal fatigue - it’s not “do I have it?”, but rather “how much do I have it?”
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

Adrenal fatigue is one of these terms that bounces around internet forums and Facebook groups, but when you confront your doctor with the term, saying that you think you have ‘it’, you’re told that it doesn’t exist.

Strangely, in medicine, out of the three main sets of glands that are influenced by our ‘master glands’, the adrenal glands are the only ones not widely recognised by medical professionals to go out of balance. Our thyroid gland is routinely tested by pathology labs (the analytes TSH, T4 & T3), a woman’s ovaries is tested via oestrogen and progesterone levels and a man’s testes are represented by his testosterone production. But, what about cortisol, adrenaline, DHEA and aldosterone - these are all hormones secreted by the adrenal glands and which, with the exception of the volatile adrenaline, are actually found on pathology lab forms. BUT, adrenal fatigue must be an in-house joke that conventional doctors have when talking about more alternative or complimentary therapists…

I’m here to tell you that adrenal fatigue is actually a very real thing and in most cases, it’s more important to fix than thyroid and gonadal dysfunction because if they adrenals are left in a depleted state, the other two have limited chance of restoration.

Just by telling you that your adrenal glands are your ‘stress’ glands, and that stress is causing an awful lot of disease or dis-ease these days, it’s easy to appreciate how important your adrenals are. Adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormones) wake you up in the morning, they get you through your training sessions, your meetings, your everything. Aldosterone helps you to regulate your blood pressure, so one of the warning signs of adrenal fatigue is repetitively getting dizzy when you stand up quickly. But because cortisol is a key supporter of blood glucose levels, another tell tale sign of adrenal fatigue is when you are getting these afternoon lows in energy, or if you’re struggling to get up in the morning, preferring to hit the snooze button.

The test I use for adrenal function is called the Adrenal Stress Index (ASI), which is available at specialist laboratories - it measures the circadian rhythms of cortisol over four saliva samples through the day and it also measures our so-called youth hormone DHEA. I rarely use this test now because I can pick up adrenal fatigue straight away by experience, although the test does help me to understand just how much do we need to change the person’s lifestyle and eating patterns and how strong a supplement regime we need.

I view the adrenal glands like a bank balance. Say we have a daily using account, which ultimately has R1000 in it (almost $100) - it will get you through most days quite comfortably even if you have a lavish lunch and buy presents for your kids. But, if we turn the currency into adrenal effort (i.e. stress of a physical or psychological nature), what happens if most days we’re withdrawing R100, but only depositing R90 (via good food, ‘me’ time and restorative sleep)? It won’t take too long to be sitting with only R100 in your bank account - when your balance is so low, it will only take one stressful meeting or one hard training session to push you into the red. It is then that you hear phrases such as: “it doesn’t matter what I do, I just can’t lift my energy” or “coffee normally lifts me out of my afternoon low, but now it just makes me feel worse.”

In most cases, it takes a while to hit this depleted state, but when you do, it’s usually everything else that gets blamed other than the fact that you’ve been overdoing it. I hit my first bout of adrenal fatigue a couple of years after I’d retired from a 20-year athletic career. I was working full time as a strength & conditioning specialist, I was doing my third degree on the side, and I was restoring an old flat in London - oh, and I was still trying to fit in some running! I got one of these flus that would normally just last a couple of days, but it just didn’t want to go away - it was probably something like glandular fever, but nothing was confirmed by blood test. What was confirmed though, was that my cortisol and DHEA levels were flat lined. To recover, I dropped one of my classes, traded in my running for yoga and stopped my DIY efforts for a while - it took about six months before I was feeling like my old self again.

My personal example was one of a bank balance that grounded out into the red, and I needed time to rebuild my funds. But, what if you are sitting with R100? You are very likely to have some tell tale signs like low morning energy and getting dizzy on standing and if you do something now, you will massively expedite your recovery. Clinically, I have all the tools needed to help you to rebuild your bank balance - it’s just a case of whether you recognise the need to…. yet!