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Without a doubt, we are experiencing more burnout and fatigue today than ever before. In some ways, it’s an epidemic in and of itself. Many of us are facing some level of challenges due to social isolation, financial strain, health challenges and increasing mental health struggles. Very likely you, or someone you know, has said more than once, “I’m totally exhausted. No matter what I do, I never feel rested.”
Severe and prolonged fatigue can be looked at in two ways: (1) Adrenal Fatigue and (2) Adrenal Insufficiency. Adrenal Fatigue describes a clinical presentation of symptoms that is not (yet) a medical diagnosis by current standards in conventional medicine. Adrenal Insufficiency is a serious, potentially life-threatening medical diagnosis. It’s important to understand the job of the adrenal glands in the body.
What do the Adrenal Glands Do?
The adrenal glands are small organs in the endocrine system that sit on top of the kidneys. The adrenals are part of a system called the HPA Axis (hypothalamic-pituitary axis), which is involved in numerous physiological events within the body, most notably the stress response.
Each adrenal gland has two parts: the cortex (outside) and the medulla (inside). Each part secretes different hormones. The medulla, which is a smaller region of the adrenal gland, secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine (catecholamines). Catecholamines are the “fight or flight” hormones that are secreted in response to acute stress. These hormones get your heart racing and palms sweaty.
The cortex is the larger region and it secretes several hormones: cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone, and DHEA (glucocorticoids). Glucocorticoids play a role in regulating blood sugar, metabolism, insulin levels, sexual function, anti-inflammatory responses and immune system suppression.
When the Mind and Body Recognize Stress
When you perceive something as stressful, the brain makes a decision in nano-seconds as to whether or not that stressor is a real threat to your wellbeing. If it is a threat, your body must decide to fight it, flee from it, or somehow adapt to it. This comes in handy when running away from a bear, in the face of a mental-emotional crisis or even being bombarded by fear-based news. Regardless of the stressor, the HPA Axis is engaged, triggering various hormones to be secreted to prepare the body for action. Ideally, once the stressor is removed, the body and mind get feedback that the stress is abating and the goal becomes to restore balance (called homeostasis). However, if the stress persists at a high level for months or even years, the HPA Axis thinks it is constantly in “fight or flee mode.” When that happens, adrenal dysfunction (fatigue) can occur.
Natural Approaches to Restore Balance to Adrenal Function
When we talk about restoring adrenal function, always go back to the basics of health:
- Detoxing the body from the physiological impact of emotional, physical and environmental stress
- Identifying and addressing nutrient deficiencies
- Dietary changes that include removing foods the body is reacting to, such as food sensitivities and sugar, and increasing foods that act as medicine, such as whole foods, dark leafy greens, colorful veggies, lean meats, etc.
- Sufficient hydration
- Coaching/ counseling to recognize, prevent, and manage stress
- Stress reduction techniques (yoga, meditation, mindful movement/walking, breath work)
- Enhancing social support
- Supporting healing through the use of individualized supplements and botanicals
- Therapies such as hydrotherapy and craniosacral
- An individualized exercise routine
Life can be challenging. It doesn’t have to wear us down. If you understand that chronic stress of any kind eventually takes a toll on the body– and can even be life threatening if not addressed properly–then you can do something to protect your health and wellbeing.
Sometimes the solutions can be difficult to see on our own and may be impossible without medical testing and advice. If you are experiencing persistent and ongoing fatigue, talk with your doctor.