Adrenal Fatigue is one of those shadowy – is it real or isn’t it, kind of dis-eases that sort of hangs around the periphery of medicine. Sure, it’s often an accessory to the crimes of high blood pressure, back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia and allergies- but for some reason, doctors are loathe to pin the patsy on these inconspicuous perps. Nope, they’re off the hook. Sweet deal the adrenals have, unless they’re all in on the crime, they get away scot free. Blame the pancreas, blame the heart, blame the immune system! Don’t blame us! Nothin’ to see here but us chickens! Or uh, glands!
So that’s how come you can show up at your doctor’s office with a laundry list of symptoms- weak ankles and knees, muscle aches, twitches, brain fog, thinning hair and skin, fatigue, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, irritable bowels, increased allergies- and walk outta there with no diagnosis. Even if your doctor is the investigative type and decides to test your adrenal function, and even if the tests show lower than normal adrenal output, you’re most likely going to leave your appointment with a clean bill of health. A clean bill of health and weak ankles and knees, muscle aches, twitches, brain fog, thinning hair and skin, fatigue, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, irritable bowels and increased allergies. Oh happy day.
The reason for this is that the adrenal gland has to have lost 90% of it’s function in order to be considered a problem by doctors. That means having full blown Addison’s disease, a condition whereby the adrenals are so totally shot that the patient has little choice but to remain on steroids for the rest of their lives. That physicians see no grey area between optimal function and Addison’s disease is ridiculous. It would be like blowing out a spark plug in a car and continuing to drive the thing. Sure, it runs…but it doesn’t have nearly as much power as it should. Saying that someone with reduced adrenal output is “perfectly healthy” is like saying that car is running fine until it finally sputters and stalls in the middle of the freeway. But that’s the way with medical doctors, huh? I mean no disrespect, for many conditions, doctors are aces. But with this hormone stuff, it seems like the prevailing attitude is unless you’ve literally keeled over from lack of adrenal or thyroid output on the exam table, you’re 4.0.
So listen. Don’t try to get your doctor to help you out on this one. Don’t get hung up over whether or not the condition “truly exists,” and don’t get carried away with seeking out a label for your pain. If you’re experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, and you’ve ruled out other possible causes, chances are your doctor isn’t too off the money when she tells you “it’s only stress.” Trouble is, stress is not an “only.” It’s not something to be brushed off and forgotten about. If you do that, it will catch up to you and you’ll eventually develop something your doctor is more comfortable with treating, i.e autoimmune disease, psoriasis or worse.
See, once upon a miserable time, I had all the symptoms I described above. All those and more! After a tearful, protracted search for what the hell was wrong with me I finally discovered a doctor who was willing to test my adrenal glands. Sure enough, catecholamine (adrenal hormone) output was next to nil. I was scanned to make sure a tumor somewhere in my endocrine system wasn’t responsible for such a funky hormone cascade, but nay, nothing presented. My doctor scratched his head in confusion, almost apologetic for not being able to discover “the problem.” Well, to me it was pretty clear. I had stressed myself out like crazy and the systems were fried. I knew I had low functioning adrenals, and I bid my doctor adieu. There wasn’t anything he could do for me now. It was time to take a long look at my lifestyle and see what was going on that was taxing me so much.
The first thing to look at is diet. I hear a lot of alternative practitioners give advice on strengthening the adrenals, and most of them have quite a bit to say about herbs, especially adaptogens like ginseng, licorice, cordyceps and holy basil. Ok, cool. Feel free to incorporate herbs into your diet, they could surely help. But the important thing to look at is the meat and potatoes of the issue. Which is actually meat and potatoes. With salt. Taxed adrenals have a tough time holding onto sodium, so enough salt is crucial. Look, I sent myself into adrenal hell in part by my “super healthy” habits of skipping breakfast, guzzling water when I was hungry rather than let a dread calorie pass through my lips and years of various dietary restrictions- all propped up with enough caffeine to kill a small child. That is insane.
And the most insane part of this particular insanity is how commonplace it is! How often do you see health gurus on T.V peddling that bit about drinking water to “fill you up?” How counter-intuitive is that? “Hmm, my body says it wants things like calories, minerals and electrolytes- but I’m gonna flush the whole thing out with water, instead! Check out my waistline!” So you know who all this is hard on, don’t you? Your adrenal glands. Not only is it their job to compensate for the scant amounts of fuel you’re putting into the machinery, but it’s also their job to regulate fluid balance. Way to go.
I know it’s been said before, by Matt Stone and well meaning grandparents everywhere, but it bears repeating. We ought to eat three square meals a day. Not a protein shake as you run out the door in the morning, not drinking coffee instead of having lunch, not bingeing when you get home from work. Three substantial, balanced meals with all the food groups represented. When you don’t have enough fuel, your body thinks there is a problem so it goes into stress mode, plain and simple. There was a good reason for my grandmother’s look of horror when I’d inform her at 4pm that I hadn’t eaten all day. Sure, I rolled my eyes at her old fashioned sensibilities, but which one of us exhausted our adrenals by their mid 20’s? Not her, boy howdy.
The next thing you need to look at is sleep. You’re gonna need a lot of it to recover, and that can be hard to do when you’ve got adrenals on the fritz. Panic attacks in the middle of the night, hourly trips to the potty, all super relaxing stuff, huh? Improving diet so that you are nourished enough to make it through the night without activating your body’s “uh oh, am I starving?” mode is key, and I found that a mineral supplement (especially calcium and magnesium), melatonin and collagen had a positive impact on my sleep as well. Collagen is also helpful because it’s good for connective tissue. Stress is bad for connective tissue, which is why so many folks with adrenal issues also present with weak knees, ankles and sagging skin. A great way to get collagen in the diet is through slow cooked cuts of meat which are rich in connective tissue like oxtail. Bone broth works too, as does Jell-O. Mmm, Jell-O. But as for sleep, you’re shooting for ten hours a night, or however much you physically can. Hold your calls, this is important.
Besides physical stress, we humans have a unique capacity to not only perceive imaginary stress, but to hold onto stressors long since dispensed of. Through the magic of brooding, we can relive any tense or painful moment of our past we so choose- and our body reacts like it’s happening all over again. Of course, that means activation of the adrenal glands. Lots of advice for folks with adrenal fatigue reads “eliminate all stressors,” which makes me laugh. In my particular case, I was stressed out by situations I had no control over, such as the responsibilities of caring for an aging family member, a nasty court case and the death of a favorite pet. I couldn’t eliminate them if I tried, besides maybe dropping my aging grandma like a hot potato…but that in and of itself would be stressful, unless I was a heartless baboon. I wasn’t. Life was just gonna be rocky. The real difficulty though, was learning to process that stress rather than dwell on it, and that is a skill worth learning.
Life is stressful, life has always been stressful, life will always be stressful. No doubt, some shit we need not put ourselves through. Learn how to say no and mean it, that’s useful. Don’t take on everyone else’s problems when you’ve got your own, that’s important, too. Don’t work at a job you hate if you can help it, these are all good pieces of advice. But for those of us whose stress is caused by things we’re not game to cut and run from, things like massage, walking, therapy, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, even picking up a hobby like wood crafting or gardening, all of these things can be so helpful. Anything you can do to get your mind off your worries and let your stress response take a breather is crucial for real healing.
Think of Adrenal Fatigue as your body’s warning flag to let you know that the ship has sprung a leak, but it’s not hopeless yet. You can fix it. If you don’t, systemic problems will arise down the line and your ship is sunk. To break it down, how you fix this leak is by identifying what you’re doing that is initiating a stress response in the body, and knocking it off. Cut out the stimulants, make time to eat and chill the fuck out like your life depends on it. People might look at you sideways. They’ll call you lazy. They’ll tell you it’s all in your head. To that, you will laugh. “Ha ha ha!” You will laugh as you cut into your stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes, relishing this time, this sweet moment in your life where you decided to cut the crap and treat yourself as well as you deserve. You will hang the do not disturb sign on the door, take a nap and maybe later enjoy a leisurely stroll in the sun for some fresh air. You will not put yourself through ridiculous exercise routines because you are stressed out and they are bad for you. You will not skip meals because you think something else is more important: nothing else is more important. Eat! You will calmly explore stress management strategies, you will learn that it is worse for you than it is for your boss to walk around all day wishing you could rip her head off. You will take control of your health and your life in a more deliberate way than you ever have before, seeing health as not something that just happens but something you create. Through the process of healing you will realize and cultivate strengths you never knew you possessed. You’ll be patient with yourself, this is a condition that requires time to heal. And when you come out the other end of it, you’ll be better than ever. And you’ll always have the pancakes.