Adrenal Fatigue: Is It Behind Your Burnout?

Jul 19, 2023 | Health

We all feel run down sometimes – but if you’re feeling perpetually burnt out, adrenal fatigue may be the cause.

Today’s high-stress lifestyle can overload our adrenal system, causing damage to our health. Between financial pressures, family life and career demands, being constantly on the go can cause irregularities in adrenal hormones.

In cases of adrenal fatigue, this hormonal imbalance can cause fatigue, food cravings, brain fog and many more disruptive symptoms.

My firsthand experience has taught me just how disruptive these symptoms can be. In my twenties, I was a trainer burning the candle at both ends and super busy in the gym. I suffered a period of repeat illness and was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. 

For me, it took six weeks of fortnightly acupuncture and a permanent change to my work hours to really feel human again. Now, I want to share what I’ve learned about this condition and to manage it. 

In this article, I’ll cover the adrenal system’s role, what causes adrenal fatigue, and the signs to look for. Finally, I’ve included seven lifestyle changes to help balance your adrenal hormones (tip: these are also great for prevention!)

Let’s get started!

What is the Adrenal System? What Does It Do?

The adrenal glands sit just above your kidneys and produce hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine. Adrenal hormones help to regulate vital functions like metabolism, immune system, energy levels, stress response, mood, and sleep.

In times of stress, the adrenal system releases hormones to prepare your body for action – also known as the “fight or flight response“. These small (but mighty) glands kick the body into high gear, and the effects include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure rises
  • Faster and shallower breathing
  • Increased sweating
  • Senses are more alert

Let’s take a closer look at the three adrenal hormones and what they do:

  • Cortisol: This hormone helps your body respond to stress. It increases blood sugar levels, suppresses the immune system, and signals the body to conserve energy in stressful situations.
  • Epinephrine (Adrenaline): This hormone is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response that kicks in when we face danger. It increases heart rate, glucose levels, and breathing rate so our bodies can fight or flee from a perceived threat faster.
  • Norepinephrine: Also known as noradrenaline, this hormone helps regulate mood and focus. It also plays an important role in alertness, motivation, and reaction time.

The adrenal system fills a vital need for our bodies and helps us adapt to challenging situations. However, it’s not all good news. When chronic stress over-activates the adrenal system, this can harm our health.

Another consequence of chronic adrenal system activation is adrenal fatigue – in other words, the poor little blighters get exhausted! Keep reading as we unpack the signs and symptoms of this condition.

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is a condition where the body has difficulty producing and regulating hormones due to prolonged stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and other factors.

When our adrenal glands are overworked, they can become depleted and unable to keep up with normal hormone production. Adrenal fatigue means the body cannot produce enough cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to stay energised and alert.

Adrenal fatigue can cause symptoms such as exhaustion, brain fog, cravings for sugar or salt, and depression. If left untreated, it can lead to more serious health problems as chronic hormone imbalance compromises the immune system. 

Without lifestyle changes, consequences can include frequent infections, chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune diseases.

Is Adrenal Fatigue a Real Condition?

Adrenal fatigue is still a controversial topic, and it has yet to be recognised as a diagnosis by the field of endocrinology. Research into adrenal fatigue has been limited, so no specific tests or biomarkers can ‘diagnose’ adrenal depletion.

However, there’s strong evidence for the effects of chronic stress on the body – and that the resulting fallout can lead to physical and mental exhaustion. Holistic practitioners commonly believe the adrenal system can be weakened over time when chronic stress and lack of restorative sleep take a toll.

Ultimately, you can see adrenal fatigue as a medical condition or a collection of symptoms linked to chronic stress. Either way, the causes and treatments are the same – so I believe there’s plenty of value we can take from the concept of adrenal fatigue.

For example, ‘burnout’ isn’t a formal diagnosis or medical condition. Instead, the World Health Organisation defines it as a syndrome or phenomenon caused by chronic stress. Many of us have experienced burnout, and identifying it is incredibly helpful in regaining control of our health.

The advice in this article will help you understand and mitigate the impacts of long-term stress on the body, whether or not it fits an ‘adrenal fatigue’ diagnosis.

So what causes adrenal fatigue? And how does it affect us? Read on to find out.

What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Prolonged emotional or physical stress: Sources of stress include work, unhealthy relationships, major life changes, unresolved grief, and chronic illness or injury
  • Poor diet: What we eat affects our hormone balance, so tucking into too many processed foods high in sugar or salt is a risk factor
  • Lack of sleep: Not getting enough quality sleep can leave the body exhausted and unable to cope with stress
  • Unhealthy lifestyle habits: Smoking, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, or using recreational drugs all increase physiological stress

Adrenal fatigue is increasingly on the radar thanks to our hectic modern lifestyles. As our body struggles to meet the high-pressure demands of a 24-hour day, we run the real risk of physiological burnout.

I’ll unpack the common symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue below.

What are the Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?

The symptoms of adrenal fatigue vary from person to person but may include:

  • Feeling tired and run down even after a good night’s sleep
  • Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
  • Relying on caffeine to get through the day
  • Extreme tiredness after exercise or stressful events
  • Food cravings (especially sugary and salty snacks)
  • Chronic allergies, inflammation or digestive problems
  • Loss of libido or sex drive
  • Hormonal mood changes, depression or anxiety
  • Illnesses (from low-grade throat infections to chronic fatigue)

Over-reliance on caffeine is one of the common adrenal fatigue symptoms I see. If you need these to function, then something isn’t right. One coffee a day won’t kill you, but if you are going to kill someone without your morning fix, you need help!

Adrenal fatigue is often misdiagnosed as depression, burnout or chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s important to seek medical advice if you suspect you may have adrenal fatigue, as other causes of low energy or burnout may need to be addressed.

If these symptoms sound familiar, there’s some advice below to help you tackle the issue.

7 Tips for Adrenal Fatigue Recovery & Prevention

If you think you might suffer from adrenal fatigue, it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible. Even if you’re not experiencing adrenal fatigue, these tips are still for you! It’s not too late to intervene if you feel like chronic stress is taking its toll – and these strategies will help break the cycle.

Lifestyle management is the priority when it comes to treating adrenal fatigue. Sticking to healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits helps your body regain a healthy hormone balance. Plus, regular exercise and plenty of rest will increase your natural energy levels, helping to fight fatigue.

Slow yourself down and fight adrenal fatigue with these helpful tips:

1. Adjust Your Work-Life Balance 

When you reach burnout, adjusting your attitude isn’t enough. You need to slow down and cut back on time-consuming commitments.

Don’t continue to overextend yourself. Set professional and personal boundaries and learn to say no – after all, your health depends on it! Take regular breaks during the day and schedule time for restorative activities, like meditation or breathing exercises.

2. Make Exercise a Must

First and foremost, exercise! Working out can sound counterproductive when you’re feeling exhausted – but it’s a powerful tool to rebalance your adrenal hormones. By moving, you are doing what the adrenaline flood is intended for – taking action!

If you suspect you have adrenal fatigue, your workouts should be restorative, not exhaustive. I recommend walking in nature, swimming, dance, gentle pilates, mobility moves, light resistance training, and yoga. Avoid hot yoga as it can trigger a stress response.

The key to regulating your adrenals is 5 to 10 minutes of cooldown stretches and deep breathing after each workout. This triggers the body to move into a more parasympathetic state – also known as ‘rest and digest’ mode – for an immediate calming effect.

3. Eat a Hormone-Balancing Diet

Eat nutritious foods high in B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients are all essential for healthy hormone production, which helps support your adrenal system and restore your energy levels. 

Choose complex carbs such as whole grains, beans, and legumes instead of sugary snacks, which can worsen fatigue. Avoid inflammatory foods, caffeine, alcohol and sugar which tax your adrenals even further.

Finally, ensure you eat regularly throughout the day rather than skipping meals. Eating consistently helps to regulate your blood sugar levels and reduce spikes in cortisol production that can lead to fatigue.

4. Schedule Time to Unwind

Start and end the day with a relaxing ritual – whether it’s meditation, yoga, gentle stretching, a warm bath, or something else inspiring and calming. This helps improve sleep quality and regulate your physiological stress levels.

Take a break from technology for a set time every day and put your computer and phone on hold. Engage your creative side and take up a fun new hobby that distracts you from daily stresses.

5. Optimise Your Sleep Routine

In order to recover, it’s essential to get plenty of quality sleep. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour and keep a consistent sleep schedule. Messing with your body clock plays havoc on your adrenal glands! 

Before you go to bed, it’s also important to unwind mentally so your body can rest and recover. Skip screens for one to two hours before bed – instead, read a book, meditate, listen to slow, calming music, or anything else that will quiet your mind. If your mind is racing when you hit the sack, it triggers the adrenal glands even while you sleep.

6. Cut Back on Caffeine

Lay off the caffeine and energy drinks – no matter how rough it is at the start! The caffeine in these drinks artificially stimulates your already exhausted adrenal glands. Think of it like flogging a dead horse!

Like any addiction, the more you use something, the more of it you need to get your fix. The more coffee you drink, the more you need to get the same effect. It’s a vicious cycle wearing you down, perpetuating the damaging cycle of adrenal activation. I suggest one month off all caffeine/energy drinks to allow your hormones to return to normal.

7. Try Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an amazing way to stop the adrenal avalanche. Over about 3-5 treatments, it realigns the body’s energy systems and balances hormones

When I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue in my twenties, acupuncture was what made the biggest difference to my recovery. I’ve been a convert ever since! Some people feel more tired before fully recovering, but it’s important to let the body rest once the adrenaline mask has been removed.

If you’re too squeamish about needles, regular massages can also be helpful – especially at night, when you can go straight to bed afterwards.

Adrenal Fatigue FAQs

How long does it take to recover from adrenal fatigue? 

Recovering from adrenal fatigue depends on how long the symptoms have been present and whether key lifestyle changes are made to minimise stress. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months before you’re back to feeling energised. It’s important to be consistent and ensure you’re supporting your body’s recovery with the strategies above. 

Personally, it took around six weeks to feel like I was back to normal. My recovery involved fortnightly acupuncture sessions, and I had to make changes to my work-life balance to regain my health. 

Are there supplements for adrenal fatigue?

There are supplements aimed at supporting the adrenal glands, including vitamins B, C & D, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Adaptogens such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, licorice root and holy basil are also believed to help the body recover

I always recommend nutrition as the first port of call – but it’s worth speaking to a qualified health practitioner, who can indicate if any practitioner-grade supplements may help you.

Next Steps 

Adrenal fatigue is an issue that’s becoming increasingly common as our lives become more hectic. It can be tough to manage when you’re already run down, and recovery often means making some big lifestyle changes.

However, stress-related health issues can also be the wake-up call we desperately need. If we’re “burning the candle at both ends” it’s only a matter of time before it takes a toll on the body.

If you’re struggling with adrenal fatigue, it’s time to make a change and prioritise your health. With the steps above, it’s possible to rebalance your hormones and return to feeling energised. You may even find you bounce back better than ever!


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