Your adrenal glands don’t often get the attention they deserve and you’ll know when yours aren’t happy. These small layered glands reside on top of your kidneys. As a matter of fact, these little guys are critical for healthy kidney function and the production of hormones—particularly stress and sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone). In fact, the word “adrenal” comes from the Latin for “near the kidney”.
The core of the adrenals (medulla) produces neurotransmitters that receive input from the brain and releases hormones so we react accordingly (1). Adrenaline and norepinephrine push the body to action (fight/flight/freeze), increasing heart rate and blood flow. On the other hand, dopamine is the pleasure hormone, regulating emotional responses and body movement.
The middle layer (cortex) is responsible for sex and steroid hormone production. In fact, steroid hormones regulate the sleep cycle and blood pressure and are involved in the metabolism of food into usable energy. The outer part of the adrenals (capsule) is composed of adipose (fat) tissue to protect the adrenal glands.
More often than not, we hit the adrenal glands too hard and too often. “First World” lifestyles are, to a large extent, driven by emotional stress (school, work, finances, relationships) and our food, water, and air all contain harmful chemicals that apply physical stress on top of that.
Left unattended, adrenal fatigue can lead to adrenal insufficiency.
Signs of adrenal fatigue include (2):
- Multiple allergies
- Blurry vision
- Body aches or chronic muscle pain
- Brain fog and memory loss – excess cortisol over time affects the hippocampus, where memories are stored
- Extreme fatigue
- Cold hands and feet
- Chronic dry skin and/or brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Heart palpitations
- Low blood pressure
- Low sex drive
- Muscle weakness
- Salt and/or sugar cravings
- Poor sleep/mid-afternoon sleepiness
- Thyroid problems
- Uterine fibroids
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
The Stages Of Adrenal Fatigue
There are four identifiable stages of adrenal fatigue (3):
One – Beginning of Alarm
This is a normal state of heightened reactivity. In response to a stressor, from something simple like taking an exam to something serious like an automobile accident, your adrenal glands will release cortisol and other hormones so you can deal with the immediate situation. Most Stage One activity subsides once the hazard has passed and normal cortisol levels return.
Two – Alarm Continues
The stressor doesn’t quickly go away and your body must remain in an elevated state to meet the challenge. Stress-related hormones may increase while sex and sleep hormones drop. You might feel wired but tired. If this stage goes on long enough, adrenal fatigue can set in.
Three – Resistance
The endocrine system—including the adrenals—continues to produce excess stress hormones and fewer sex and sleep hormones. You can still function normally but you feel symptoms of exhaustion. Lethargy and an impaired immune response lend themselves to catching every bug that’s going around. As a matter of fact, you may find yourself unable to get rid of a simple yeast infection. This phase can last months or even years.
Four – Burn-out
None of us is superhuman. If we don’t take good care of ourselves, eventually even day-to-day living can become a chore and your systems begin to shut down. Stress hormone levels finally drop in stage four and low cortisol levels aren’t enough to get you going. Anxiety, depression, weight loss or gain, irritability, and apathy can result. If you get to this stage, it will take conscious effort (and patience) to support your adrenals and restore balance. It’s at this point that adrenal fatigue moves into adrenal insufficiency.
After the crash, when the adrenal glands aren’t producing proper levels of hormones, the condition is referred to as “insufficiency”. Fatigue isn’t the only cause of adrenal insufficiency; it can occur due to other lifestyle factors (e.g., diet or toxin exposure), disease, or autoimmune reactions.
The primary causes of adrenal insufficiency are:
- Chronic emotional stress
- Addison’s disease
- Poor diet – the vitamin B complex is essential for proper adrenal function, acting as catalysts for enzymatic processes throughout the body (4)
- Disease – diabetes, asthma, inflammatory-related conditions, autoimmune disorders, and any chronic illness (and their treatments!) can put undue stress on adrenal glands
- Lack of sleep
- Toxicity caused by environmental pollutants
- Emotional or physical trauma
- Adrenal gland disorders – genetics, chronic infections, larger endocrine system imbalance, tumors, and some pharmaceuticals affect how our adrenals function
If you feel your adrenal gland function is impaired, look through these simple ways to support them.