I was told I had chronic fatigue by a naturopath when I was 22. I could function on a daily basis, but barely, as I dragged myself through days with no energy, intense cravings for sugar and bread, a cloudy / fuzzy head and IBS symptoms which kept me guessing what to eat every day and usually left me flat on my back with abdominal cramps every night. Some days I found it even difficult to talk or think straight. I would also get hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels) daily, even though I ate like a horse and had suffered a few mild panic attacks. I also had anxiety, which I thought at the time was normal.
Now 23 years later, I look back and realise it was adrenal dysfunction, leading to adrenal exhaustion, but no one had really explained this to me, not even the naturopaths I then saw. Or that it was triggered by digestive problems, stress and EBV (Epstein Barr Virus, it causes glandular fever which I had when I was a teenager). Although, they really helped me on the road to recovery and I am very grateful they helped me. This also led me to study naturopathy later on in my 20’s, which I now practice and am very passionate about!
Adrenal dysfunction or adrenal insufficiency
Have you heard of adrenal exhaustion? Or Adrenal insufficiency? More and more commonly people are suffering from this syndrome now days. Almost everyone will experience some form of adrenal dysfunction at some time in their lives. I say ‘dysfunction’, as the adrenal glands can be overactive, underactive, or fluctuate between the two. More on these stages of dysfunction later in the blog.
What do the adrenal glands do?
The adrenal glands are our 2 glands that sit above our kidneys. ‘Ad’ ‘renal’ means over the kidneys! They are about the size of a walnut. One of the main purposes of the adrenals is to help our body deal with stressors from different sources.
There are two parts the Adrenal gland, the adrenal medulla (the main part) and it surrounds the middle part of the gland; the adrenal cortex.
Hormones produced in the adrenal medulla;
- Adrenaline and noradrenalin- the flight and fright or stress hormones
Hormones produced in the adrenal cortex;
- Glucocorticoids –mainly cortisol, cortisone and also corticosterone, include controlling inflammation, helps control resistance to stress and with glucose formation.
- Aldosterone - which increase water retention and blood pressure
- Androgens such as DHEA - the hormone involved in the production of the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen, and plays a role in cholesterol balance and bone density.
When there is too much stress to the adrenal glands…..
The adrenals react to all kinds of ‘stressors’ such as allergies, injuries and illnesses, emotional or physical stress - including exercise, not getting enough sleep or sleep problems, poor diet, high carbohydrate diets, stimulants (i.e.; caffeine, alcohol and sugar) and hormonal imbalances. The sympathetic nervous system controls the adrenal ‘medulla’; when stimulated produces adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Stage 1 - The Alarm phase.
Generally the beginnings of stress when you feel anxious and ‘stressed out’ and stuck in the ‘flight and fight’ response
Signs and symptoms of the alarm phase include-
- anxiety, racing thoughts
- rapid pulse, palpitations
- Disrupted sleep and nightmares
- easily startled
- frequent worry and racing thoughts
- loss of or increased appetite
- elevated blood pressure
During this stage Cortisol levels are high and DHEA levels are high.
Stage 2; The Adpation or Resistance Phase.
You can fluctuate between fatigue and anxiety
Symptoms can include;
- Intense anxiety
- Hormonal imbalances
- Allergies/ infections
- IBS – irritable bowel syndrome
- Low thyroid function
- Reduced sex drive
- Emotional tension
- Weight gain or loss
- Elevated cholesterol
During this stage Cortisol is high or normal and DHEA is low.
Stage 3 - The Exhaustion phase.
Your adrenals are burnt out and you’ve crashed!
The Cortisol levels and DHEA levels are both low and the adrenal glands are producing insufficient levels of these hormones. You can have;
- Decreased stress tolerance
- Depleted energy and immune system
- Back pain
- Chemical sensitivity
- Depression/ nervous breakdown
- Salt and sugar cravings
- Increased abdominal fat
- Chronic fatigue
- Swollen glands/ sore throat
- Dry skin, red palms, clammy hands
- Lowered blood pressure, and postural hypotension. Postural hypotension is when your blood pressure drops on standing quickly from a sitting or lying position causing dizziness or even fainting.
- sparse hair
- scanty perspiration
- mid back pain/tenderness which is known as “Rogoff’s sign”
- frequent urination
Other adrenal insufficiency signs
Another set of signs that someone has a tendency to adrenal insufficiency is to do with their body shape. Their arm span is taller than their height, their second toe is longer than their big toe, and their index or pointer finger is longer than their ring finger.
I think this is very interesting;
“John Tintera, M.D. was an early pioneer in recognizing and treating adrenal insufficiency. He wrote that salt is a diuretic and that hypoadrenocortics (patients with low adrenal cortex function) retain fluid because the body is trying to hold onto the salt. When enough salt is consumed, the body takes what it needs and excretes the rest. If the ankle oedema is due to insufficient salt, the oedema will usually disappear in three days after taking adequate salt. If it does not disappear in five to six days, potassium may also be needed. Vitamin B6 is also helpful for oedema not only because it has a diuretic effect but also supports the adrenal cortex.” 
So when you see a person being licked by a dog next time think of that person maybe having adrenal insufficiency! If you do add salt to your diet, make sure it is a good quality mineral salt such as Himalayan or Celtic sea salt.
So which phase are you?
You can fluctuate between all three phases, but when people generally get to the exhaustion stage they generally stay there until they have treatment/ change their lifestyle and diet and they will gradually improve. Some people, if they are at the exhaustion stage take up to a year to feel better and to get the adrenals back to normal. If it’s taken a year or two, or even ten years to get your adrenals to exhaustion stage then you can’t expect them to restore to normal function overnight! Each stage is treated very differently with diet and supplement suggestions and lifestyle changes.
Rebuilding your adrenals and your energy
To rebuild the adrenals, you should avoid all stimulants where possible. This includes caffeine in chocolate, coffee, cola and guarana in supplements, sugar, alcohol, and white flour products/ refined starches. Reduce stress and get plenty of sleep.
Eating for your adrenals
- Eat within 2 hours of waking up
- Eat frequently through the day to regulate your blood sugar levels, at least every 4-5 hours. This will prevent a drop in your blood sugar levels and will make a difference to your adrenal health and energy levels.
- Eat good quality protein at every meal. These can include organic free range eggs and chicken, fish and nuts and seeds.
- Eat a wide variety of whole, natural foods
- Combine a healthy fat, protein and carbohydrate source with every meal
- Eat lots of vegetables, especially the brightly coloured ones and preferably organic
Nutrients for adrenal health
Magnesium is a very important mineral for adrenal gland function. It is estimated that at least 80% of the population are magnesium deficient. Please be aware that there are many forms of magnesium and they are not all the same! Practitioner ranges have the most bio-available forms, meaning they are very efficiently absorbed. Potassium and magnesium together are the ‘nervous system Nutrients’. (2).
B complex vitamins are important but may be too stimulating for some people when they are extremely adrenally fatigued. In these cases, magnesium, potassium and vitamin C are the best nutrients to nourish the adrenals glands. ‘Activated’ B vitamins should be used for more efficient absorption. Vitamins B5 and B6 especially help to restore adrenal function. Always take a B- complex if you are taking singular B vitamins to avoid an imbalance occurring. Be careful during intense anxiety as the B vitamins maybe too stimulating, also when there is Chronic fatigue, take small amounts to begin with and see how you feel.
Herbs for adrenal health
There are many herbs for the adrenal glands that can help strengthen the adrenals, but also act as adaptogens. Adaptogens help your body adapt to stress and protect the adrenals from any ongoing stressors. An example of an adaptogen are; siberian ginseng, panax ginseng, withania and Rhodiola. I use other herbs simultaneously to strengthen the adrenals glands, such as Rehmannia and licorice. When there is anxiety, herbs such as withania, skullcap, magnolia and ziziphus, are great to reduce the flight and fright hormones. It is important to check your Thyroid function through a basal body temperature testing or a thyroid function test. The thyroid gland may need support also. The adrenals and thyroid work together to help regulate the nervous system.
Relax and meditate
The adrenals cannot rebuild themselves when they continually stimulated. It’s like whipping a dead horse! If you are tired, avoid ‘soldering on ‘, as this will only make the adrenals weaker. De- stress often, by meditating or doing yoga or Tai chi. Have regular massages and enjoy some time to yourself every day. During times of anxiety more intense exercise may be needed to help the body rid the stress hormones and relieve tension.
Have an Epsom salt bath before bed to get you into a deeper sleep. If you haven’t got a bath, have a warm shower and afterwards rub some lavender oil on your temples. Magnesium oil can be rubbed on the tops of your feet before bed to give the same effect as the Epsom salt bath (Epsom salt is magnesium). Sleeping well and for at least 8 hours a night is an integral part of helping the adrenals recover.
Try and practice breathing from the lower part of your diaphragm. Too many people shallow breathe when they are stressed or have anxiety. Breathe in for a count of 3, and out for a count of 5, when you feel anxious or finding it hard to get to sleep.
Also, our adrenals are patterned from birth, we pick up stresses in utero (the womb) and during childhood, which can have long term effects on our adrenal glands. In families, there may be a genetic pattern, where the all of family members have a similar weakened adrenal response.
No matter what stage you are in, there is a sure road to recovery! I am here, better than I have ever been in my life, to help you recover also!
Please contact me if you feel you have a problem with your adrenals
1; an excerpt From Angela Hywood on ‘The Adrenal insufficiency syndrome’
NLS Salivary hormones training manual, 2009