You might have heard the term “Adrenal Fatigue”. If so, you may be confused about what it really is (or isn’t). You’re not alone. In fact, there is an ongoing debate as to whether or not such a thing even exists or can be accurately diagnosed. The collection of symptoms and systematic problems that are attributed to “adrenal fatigue” are wide ranging and a bit non specific. But there is a serious self-induced fitness related problem that has effected an enormous amount of very dedicated people.
You don’t have to know the biochemical or physiological changes that take place, or the neurological reactions that occur for you to burn your hand when you touch a hot stove. It hurts! You feel the pain and know that some type of damage has been done. You certainly don’t want to repeat the same mistake if you can avoid it. By the same token, you can avoid the symptoms and problems that are associated with “adrenal fatigue” simply by understand how and why they might develop.
We all have to deal with stress, it’s unavoidable. From our job, to our relationships, finances, and just life in general, stress is with us every day to some degree. Our bodies are used to managing stress and the adrenal glands are a key part of this. Some stress is even beneficial, causing us to change and adapt in a positive direction, like exercise for example. But if stress becomes excessive and beyond our ability to manage, it can have a damaging effect on our health and how our bodies function. The effects are cumulative and individually unique in terms of how much is too much. Few things can throw your adrenal hormone system out of balance more than excessive stress.
The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys and produce a number of hormones including cortisol, aldosterone, and adrenaline. When functioning properly they play a critical role in metabolic regulation and how your body deals with stress. Your appetite, fatigue level, blood pressure, mood, reproductive ability, anxiety level, memory and overall immune system are all directly or indirectly influenced by your adrenal glands. Your blood sugar levels, fluid balance, estrogen levels, sodium levels, etc. are all regulated by adrenal hormones. Adrenaline is the emergency, “fight or flight” hormone that is released in response to a variety of different stressors which prepares your body for action. Properly functioning adrenal glands ensure that this delicate hormonal balancing act remains an ongoing process. Anything that upsets this balance can have a detrimental effect on your entire system.
We can’t simply make all the stress in our lives disappear. So we have to manage it as best we can and be in-tune with how well we’re dealing with it. From a fitness perspective, a regular exercise program and proper diet can help us manage stress better, even reduce it. But too much of a good thing can easily become part of the problem. If you push your fitness program too far beyond your body’s capabilities for too long, then you are setting yourself up for disaster. Training too long or too hard, or dieting too extremely on too few calories has and will continue to cause serious physical and emotional problems for fitness advocates. This goes beyond normal overtraining when just a few days off can have you feeling yourself again. This level of self-inflicted stress can leave you struggling to simply feel “normal” for months. Your body loses its ability to effectively manage stress and since your adrenal glands are a key player in this, they become part of the issue. They will over or under produce hormones, fighting to get your body back to where it should be. And the longer and harder they have to fight, the less capable and effective they can become, leading to greater and greater issues!
Think about it. You’ve been training and dieting. You had good results for a time but now progress has slowed. So you step up your game, reducing your calories even more and you start training longer and harder. It works, for a couple of weeks, but since you’re in even better shape now your body soon plateaus again. So you step up your pace even more. Now your recovery is effected from all the extra work and too few calories. You start to feel tired all the time. But you need to see results so you push through. Maybe you add an extra cup of coffee or an energy drink, or maybe you try that new fat-burner you saw on TV. You feel better during your workout and push even more. But that extra stress from the stimulants and the training leaves you even more tired than ever. Now you need help just to get through the day, let alone your next workout. Then boom, something happens at work or in your relationship, or just life in general catches up with you and you feel even more under the gun. Your system has been overtaxed for so many weeks it’s on red alert. Your adrenals are on overtime and your hormones are all over the place. Your metabolism is slowing, your body holding water, your energy is down, your weight is up, you’re emotional and irritable, and you’re really starting to worry. A couple of days off no longer seems to help and even double the amount of caffeine or fat burners doesn’t do anything as the only direction the scale ever moves is up. Now you’re starting to get scared!
You crash and finally take a break. You go see your doctor and seem to be fine, just in need of rest. So you bite the bullet and take a couple of weeks off. Even though you try to eat healthy you still gain more pounds. And now you’re craving things you don’t even like. So you charge back into the gym, ready to get your body back. But you’re still way too tired and can barely get through an old workout. Plus, you’ve lost all enthusiasm for trying. You push through because you’re afraid to stop. If you can just get back to where you were before, that would be enough for now. But nothing’s working. You’re eating half the calories and doing twice the work it should take for you to improve and it just won’t happen. You head back to the doctor, exhausted and depressed. Do you have “adrenal fatigue”?
Don’t let this be you. Long before you get to this point of helplessness you can prevent it.
Pursuing a fitness lifestyle should never be the cause of “adrenal fatigue”, and if it is you are doing it wrong and need to make some immediate changes. Exercise is a form of stress. Our bodies adapt to stress and can become more capable and efficient. But our bodies can also be over-stressed and you have to be in tune with how you’re feeling as it relates to what you are doing. Exercising 3-5 hours a week can be great for your body. Exercising 2-4 hours a day can be disastrous for your body. Training hard while following a healthy fitness diet with proper nutrients and sufficient calories for fuel is a good thing. Training while being so far below your caloric equilibrium that your body is chronically nutrient deficient and forced into survival mode to try and conserve energy is a very bad thing.
It’s one thing to try and lose weight, but you have to be smart about it. The longer and harder you push on a program that is too extreme, the more likely you will create the types of problems associated with “adrenal fatigue”. Yes, if you’re an athlete or peaking for a particular event you may need to temporarily push a bit beyond the norm. But the key is “temporarily”! You can’t continue this excessive pace indefinitely, and it should be followed up with adequate time for rest, recovery and systematic healing. Your body will only change and improve so fast. But it can go south on you quite rapidly if you don’t take care of it.
Manage the stress in your life as best you can. Feed your body the proper nutrients with an adequate amount of calories. Don’t make excessive or radical changes in your program that won’t allow your body to properly adapt. Take regular time off before you start to become fatigued and extra time off when you become fatigued. Maintain as much balance in your life as possible. Your mental and emotional attitude, things like patience and positivity, can play a huge role in your fitness progress.
If you suspect you are having any type of medical issues or problems that could be related to your adrenal glands not functioning properly then you should see your doctor. Whether or not you get “adrenal fatigue”, or something the mirrors this condition is largely up to you. Manage your stress, manage your life and manage the components of your fitness program. Stay patient, positive, and in control. You don’t have to ever deal with this problem. Don’t touch the pot when you know it’s hot!
Photo: Terry Goodlad Model: Ana Tigre