Stress is like the plague of the modern age, with 52 percent of people reporting that they experience fatigue in relation to stress. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of doctor visits are stress related, either directly or because of symptoms arising from chronic stress.
It’s an unfortunate byproduct of our Western society — there is a go, go, go, sleep-when-you’re-dead mentality that encourages hard work, achievement and progress, with little emphasis or value put on rest, downtime or rejuvenation.
Stress management techniques like meditation and yoga are only now becoming more widespread. In the meantime, most of us have been getting by with a cup of coffee in hand and our butts dragging on the ground, so to speak.
What is adrenal fatigue?
If you feel like you just can’t quite get off the ground and you’re constantly riding a merry-go-round of exhaustion, you might be experiencing adrenal fatigue. This is a physical syndrome that is perpetuated by both psychological factors and lifestyle habits.
In a nutshell, external stress, or the perception of stress, stimulates the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called cortisol (often called the stress hormone). Adrenal fatigue involves the chronic overproduction of stress hormones and therefore a kind of “system overload” whereby the stress response is fried and fatigue becomes the norm.
How the stress response works
Let’s break it down a bit more. The stress mechanism originates from the fight-or-flight response, which was important for the survival of ancient humans in times of life-threatening stress.
The problem is that we modern-day humans now have “paper tigers” chasing us. Our lives are not in danger (at least not most of the time), but we have bills and board reports riding on our backs. The average person does not engage in adequate stress-relief practices to diffuse the tension of everyday modern life. This means that the rise in blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate brought about by that fight-or-flight mechanism stays with us on a chronic basis.
While running from a tiger (real or paper), the body also diverts blood and resources from nonvital functions such as digestion, fertility and immunity. So we’re gradually painting a picture of a chronically-stressed population: high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic constipation, infertility and vulnerability to illness. Sound familiar?
There is a complex hormonal mechanism which is stimulated in order to keep this stress response firing. Since fight-or-flight is only intended to occur in short bursts on an emergency basis, the hormonal cascade is very taxing to the body. A lot of resources are needed to bring about the full-body response that was originally intended for use only in life-threatening circumstances. This becomes increasingly difficult when stress continues over the long term.
Side effects of chronic stress
Once these precious bodily resources become depleted, adrenal fatigue sets in. Many symptoms and full-blown illnesses can result.
Cardiovascular and coronary artery disease is strongly correlated with chronic stress, as is poor immune system function and an increased likelihood of developing cancer.
The feeling of fatigue, specifically, is due to the disruption of normal cortisol rhythms. You see, cortisol is not only a nasty stress-related substance, it is actually required for everyday functioning. Usually, cortisol levels should be fairly high in the morning, corresponding with the time to wake up and be alert. Exposure to natural sunlight supports this healthy higher cortisol production.
During the day, cortisol levels should fall gradually and reach their lowest point in the evening, when it is time to wind down and go to sleep. Exposure to warm yellow or red-spectrum light (as from a fire or low-blue light source) and the darkness of night supports these intended low cortisol levels and facilitates deep and restful sleep.
When cortisol is constantly being pumped out by the adrenal glands due to perceived stress, or artificial stimulation by caffeine, the healthy cortisol curve (high in the morning, low in the evening) is disrupted. As a result, your body doesn’t know when to feel alert or when to feel tired.
Natural remedies for adrenal fatigue
There is no magic pill to fix adrenal fatigue, but holistic therapeutic measures can reverse it over time. It’s important to eat a healthy whole-food diet, get adequate sleep, exercise, and take good care of yourself in order to recover from adrenal fatigue. This includes taking the time to rest and unwind from daily stresses.
There are also many helpful natural remedies:
Adaptogens: These botanicals improve the body’s ability to respond to stress. Options include ginseng, ashwagandha and rhodiola.
Cortisol modulators: These supplements temper the production of cortisol to prevent adrenal burnout. Some examples are fish oil and alpha-lipoic acid.
Sedative botanicals: These plant extracts can help combat anxiety and improve sleep. Some good choices are valerian, passionflower and German chamomile.
Neurotransmitters: These brain-signaling chemicals are available as supplements, which can help put the brakes on a runaway stress response. Some examples are GABA, L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP and L-Tyrosine.
We encourage you to be gentle with yourself and allow time to recover from chronic stress and adrenal fatigue. Take the process one step at a time and adopt healthy changes gradually so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Improving your sleep and ditching caffeine are excellent places to start.
—The Alternative Daily
Opstad K. Circadian rhythm of hormones is extinguished during prolonged physical stress, sleep and energy deficiency in young men. Eur J Endocrinol 1994;131:56-66.
Leproult R, Van Reeth O, Byrne MM, et al. Sleepiness, performance, and neuroendocrine function during sleep deprivation: effects of exposure to bright light or exercise. J Biol Rhythms 1997;12:245-258.