Signs of Adrenal Fatigue and What to Do About It

The burnout is real.

By Riley Reed
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Lately, I’ve been experiencing burnout, and turns out, adrenal fatigue may be partially to blame. It took me a while to accept it. I was raised to be an exceptional athlete in a home with high standards. I was taught: “While you are sleeping, other people are working. So when you are working, you have to do double the work.” Work ethic has bred a lot of rewards. I believe it’s a key ingredient to success. But without rest and recovery, it’s a slippery slope.

At the onset of the pandemic, I saw the risk of losing the traction I’d worked so hard to gain in my small business. I knew I had to pivot with fervor. Over the past six months, I have hit the pavement harder than ever before. 

In this day and age, exhaustion and overwhelm is a collective experience. On a societal level, we are experiencing a racial reckoning, political unrest, virus fighting and over extending. These components are largely out of our control and thus they resonate on a cellular level. Per Audre Lorde, we must resist with self-preservation. We must self-soothe.

A few weeks ago I posted a video on my Instagram Story, asking my audience if they had any recommendations for “feeling less tired.” My inbox was flooded with advice, and adrenal fatigue kept coming up. I decided to do a deep dive to discover how adrenal support could help me rebound.

I know firsthand that sometimes, taking care of yourself can feel like a chore. I’m hopeful that the below antidotes will make the process a bit easier. If you incorporate them into your daily regimen long enough, I promise they’ll become automatic. 

featured image: graceson todd

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The definition of burnout.

After accepting and acknowledging my feeling of exhaustion, I googled the definition of burnout and found this incredible definition that resonated. It said, “to be burnt out is to be completely consumed and thus no longer a flame.

That really hit me. And it made me think of one of my favorite quotes by Leonardo da Vinci, “Art is never finished. Only abandoned.” I have to remind myself that I’m not ever finished. I just have to let it go; to let the art breathe.

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What is adrenal fatigue and how is it related to burnout?

There is a lot of conflicting information on the internet about adrenal glands. Per usual, there seem to be two camps debating various claims: western medicine versus functional medicine. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but after spending an excessive amount of time reading and reflecting, I found that both sides are essentially arriving at the same conclusion: exhaustion is dangerous. Take care of yourself.

The adrenal glands are two triangle-shaped glands above the kidneys. They regulate the body’s stress reactions by managing hormones released during stress. The most notable hormone produced is cortisol. Stress hormones are generally good for you. They build resilience and keep you safe. However, if stress becomes constant and chronic due to poor management, adrenal glands overproduce cortisol which can lead to adrenal burnout.

Adrenal fatigue can also be defined as a miscommunication between your brain and your adrenals. If your brain isn’t functioning healthily then it will struggle to tell your adrenal glands what to do or how to respond. Health measures must be taken to recover, regardless of the explanation.

Why has adrenal fatigue been debunked by the medical field?

Many different medical issues can cause fatigue which makes it difficult for professionals to conjure up an accurate diagnosis. Lack of explanation, despite seemingly endless testing, can be frustrating for patients. Adrenal fatigue is a relatively new theory studied and explained largely by functional health practitioners. It is an appealing diagnosis that includes holistic treatment.

However, the Endocrinology Society and many other medical specialties do not believe the condition actually exists. In fact, Endocrinologists argue: “no scientific proof exists to support adrenal fatigue as a true medical condition.” Most studies conducted find that there isn’t any scientific evidence that proves the association between adrenal malfunction and exhaustion. However, the studies themselves have limitations and are notably unreliable.

Ultimately, it’s just hard to diagnose adrenal fatigue through standard testing. But personally, I’m not really sure that matters. The disparity between conventional and complementary practices only leads to more frustration. The chase for diagnosis continues while what we really need is treatment. Responses developed by functional health practitioners are relatively safe and efficient for optimal human performance. Frankly, that’s all I really care about.

How do you know if you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue?

For me, adrenal fatigue has felt like a general lack of motivation and increase in overwhelm. Tasks appear daunting. Passions I typically enjoy are uninteresting. I’m super forgetful. Like: I step out of the shower and can’t remember if I washed my hair. I search for my keys only to find they’re in the fridge. I put my supplements in my wallet. Eek.

Typical signs of adrenal fatigue are:

  • brain fog
  • feeling exhausted
  • anxiety
  • mood swings
  • autoimmune issues
  • body aches
  • lightheadedness
  • afternoon slump with a ‘second wind’ in the evening (and thus Netflix till midnight?)

Be sure to check in with your body and mind and do your own research to see what might resonate.

How do you manage adrenal fatigue?

It’s equally important to understand what causes adrenal fatigue in order to be proactive in the future and to alter habits for recovery. A lot of ‘quick fixers’ and ‘feel good’ habits can actually spiral into adrenal fatigue or make symptoms worse: poor diet, excessive work, lack of exercise and alcohol intake to name a few. There are also life components out of our control that can contribute such as: mold exposure and emotional trauma.

The fact is, we need stress and stress hormones to build resilience. We need to do the work to maintain a high level of resilience to manage stress so that we carry it with strength, rather than getting rid of it altogether. I once attended a cognitive behavioral therapy class. I heard a beautiful quote that said, “To experience the entire universe at once is transcendence.” Transcendence is essentially a non dual state. To live in harmony is to unify whatever life brings your way. If you say that you are apart of everything, then instead of facing stress or burnout, you take ownership over it. Thus, you can work with it rather than against it.

Stress management is a skill. It’s something you can strengthen. Healthy ways you can prevent adrenal fatigue or manage it consist of:

  • A clean diet void of sugar, refined carbs and foods that cause inflammation.
  • Decreased alcohol and caffeine intake.
  • Sleep hygiene including a sleep schedule and quality sleep.
  • More nutrient dense protein, a colorful array of vegetables and healthy fats.
  • Practicing mindfulness such as breathing techniques, meditation and yoga.
  • More time outdoors.
  • Natural medicine such as adaptogenic herbs, gaba support and vitamin B.

Be gentle with yourself.

I know this list can feel overwhelming and ironically, overwhelm is a symptom of adrenal fatigue. I urge you to start slowly and incorporate just a couple of treatments at a time. In the beginning, keep it simple: cook colorful meals, get good sleep and go on a walk outside every few hours. If symptoms persist or you find even in this moment that you simply can not deal; please see a functional medicine practitioner or other qualified professional. Sometimes, asking for help is actually the very first step.