Answer yes or no to the following:
- You spend every morning in a "fog" and just can't seem to wake up
without excess caffeine.
- You frequently feel overwhelmed.
- You have trouble falling or staying asleep at night.
- You feel unusually cranky, emotional, or frustrated.
- You're lethargic most of the day.
- When you get sick it takes a long time to recover.
- Did you answer yes to any of these? These are the most common symptoms
of adrenal fatigue, a controversial subject practically ignored by the
medical community, but a very real condition that requires your
attention... especially if your answers were mostly yes.
- As we get busier, eat more crap, rest less, and live in constant
states of stress, it's no surprise that this condition is so common. But
if you can optimize your adrenal glands and fix this condition (or
prevent it), you'll have one less roadblock to deal with in your quest
for physical perfection.
Defining Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal fatigue is a collection of symptoms that occur when your level
of stress – be it physical, emotional, mental, or a combination –
overwhelms your body's ability to compensate for that stress. The
adrenal glands are two endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidneys.
When you encounter stress, the adrenals produce adrenaline
(epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol. This
hormonal release is often called "fight or flight" and is designed to
prepare you for immediate physical challenges. Your body is made to
handle stress quite well when it's acute and short lived, as there are
strong homeostatic mechanisms in place with our sympathetic (jack you
up) nervous system, and parasympathetic (calm you down) nervous system.
The whole system is beautifully designed and worked well for our
ancestors, who typically faced intense but brief stressful situations
like warding off a hungry predator. Now think of what stress is
today: A strange number on your wife's caller ID, Junior coming home
smelling like Keith Richards' tour bus, your boss warning you about
irregularities in your expense report... the stress adds up. It's
chronic, low-grade stress that never quite goes away that leads to
physical problems. And still the same stress hormones whether you
are in combat or cannot pay a bill at the end of the month.
A Medical Perspective
Adrenal fatigue is often described in
the medical community as hypoadrenia or low-functioning adrenals. This
is largely a result of the adrenals being overworked by chronic stress
so that they literally start to wear out. A worst-case scenario would
lead to Addison's disease, a condition where the adrenals fail to
produce sufficient cortisol. Asking your physician to check you out for
adrenal fatigue can be frustrating. Your doctor will most likely use a
test to look at your cortisol levels. There's a range they consider
normal; let's say that's 20-60. If you are 19, you're low, so you have
Addison's Disease (not enough cortisol). If you're 61, you're high, and
have Cushing's Syndrome (too much cortisol).
But if you're clearly low (around 21-25), although not quite into
Addison's territory, most doctors will stop there and call you "normal."
According to some progressive doctors, what you really have is adrenal
fatigue, but because there's no formal recognition of it, there's no ICD
code (International Classification of Disease). To most doctors, no ICD
code means that adrenal fatigue doesn't exist! The take-home
message is, don't just assume your typical doc will be helpful if you
think you suffer from adrenal fatigue.
Tests For Adrenal Fatigue
Here's a quick guideline to the most
Saliva Testing: Adrenal expert Dr. James Wilson advocates this,
as saliva hormone levels are more reflective of hormone levels within
cells, where hormonal reactions take place. They're easy to do – spit in
a vial and you're in business.
Blood Testing: You can measure aldosterone and cortisol this way,
but the knock is that you'll only see levels that are circulating in
your blood, not in your tissues or cells.
Hair Mineral Testing: This is a method advocated by Dr. Lawrence
Wilson. He looks at various mineral levels in the hair such as sodium,
potassium, and magnesium.
Ragland Test: A simple test you can do at home. Lie down for 3 to
5 minutes and then measure your blood pressure with a blood pressure
gauge. Now get up and retest it. If it drops, it's a classic sign of
adrenal fatigue. Normally your blood pressure would rise or at minimum
stay the same.
Iris Contraction Test: This was discovered in 1924 by Dr. Arroyo
and is another easy test you can do at home. Shine a light across your
eyes and have someone watch your pupil dilation carefully. If you have
adrenal fatigue, your pupil will stay contracted, and even when it does
start to dilate, it will alternately contract and dilate.
Fixing Adrenal Fatigue
The good news is that part of the
issue is easy to fix through diet and sleep. The bad news is that there
are lifestyle changes that you may have to take on, and that can be
easier said than done.
Improve your Diet
you eat is of utmost importance for those suffering from adrenal
fatigue. Going long periods without eating is a mistake because it
results in a perpetual cycle of adrenal stress. The adrenal hormone
cortisol helps keep your blood sugar at adequate levels to meet energy
demands. If you have adrenal fatigue, your adrenals aren't making enough
cortisol, making it harder to maintain normal blood sugar levels. Most
people with adrenal fatigue have hypoglycemia as well. What's
especially important is to not skip breakfast. Between 6 and 8 AM,
cortisol levels usually rise, peaking around 8 AM for most. This can
kill your morning appetite, but you must eat by 10 AM at the latest and
begin to restore glycogen supply. Have an early lunch, a snack at 2 or 3
PM, a healthy dinner, and then another snack later. There are many
popular styles of eating in the bodybuilding world, but frequent, small,
nourishing meals are the best if you have adrenal fatigue.
What to Eat
What you should eat is quite simple.
You want meals to be balanced with fats, carbs, and proteins.
These foods are all converted into energy at different rates, and will
supply a steady supply of energy for a longer time. Eating all three of
these at each meal lessens the strain on your adrenals. Forget the low-carb
or low-fat approaches to eating. For the guy or gal with adrenal
fatigue, balance is the key.
Protein – Eat grass-fed beef, whole eggs, poultry, or
high-quality protein shakes at every meal. I'm not a believer in soy
protein because of the anti-nutrients in it, and vegetarians do seem to
have a harder time recovering from adrenal fatigue.
Carbohydrates – Eat unrefined grains such as brown rice, oatmeal,
buckwheat, and quinoa as opposed to refined carbs, which cause your body
to cannibalize nutrients to metabolize them. Don't go into "nutritional
bankruptcy." You'd be sucking all the nutrients out of your body to
metabolize the crap you're eating, as opposed to putting nutrients into
Fats – Your adrenal glands love essential fatty acids. Make sure
you're getting adequate omega-3s by way of EPA and DHA from products l
or from food sources such as wild Alaskan salmon. (I don't care for flax
seed oil because your body has a tough time converting the alpha
linolenic acid to the usable form of DHA.)
Cook in saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, and cocoa butter to
avoid eating rancid oil, and include monounsaturated fats like those
found in olive oil. The value of placing these fats in each meal is not
only for the nutritional benefit, but to slow down the digestion of the
Note: Don't forget about salt!
Overworked adrenals have a hard time
producing adequate amounts of aldosterone, and as aldosterone levels
fall, sodium is removed from the blood and excreted through the urine.
Be sure to add Celtic sea salt to foods or even a few pinches to 2-3
glasses of water daily. Drinks with low sodium and high potassium are
not the answer – this is the exact opposite of what someone with low
cortisol and sodium depletion needs.
What Not to Eat
Alcohol, coffee, and sugar – You have to let your adrenals fully
recover from the stress that hammered them. When you take in caffeine
and sugar to get energized, it prevents the adrenals from producing the
right level of energy naturally. The same is true with alcohol. Drinking
to relax inhibits the adrenals from performing that task on their own.
Certain fruits in the morning – Fruits that are high in potassium
and fructose should not be eaten in the morning.
Remember, too much potassium isn't good for someone who's already sodium
depleted. Dr. James Wilson recommends that you limit bananas, raisins,
dates, figs, oranges, and grapefruit, opting for
papaya, mango, plums, pears, kiwi, apples, grapes, and cherries instead.
Trans fats – Healthy fats help to build cell membranes, but trans
fats use up enzymes that the good fats would be using to help make
healthy cell membranes, nerves, etc. Not good.
Refined sugars – Remember the relationship between hypoglycemia
and adrenal fatigue: the quick surge you get in blood sugar from eating
these items will result in a massive insulin dump leaving you with low
blood sugar. Avoid this stressful cycle to your adrenals.
Change Your Lifestyle
The first thing that comes to mind
when solving the riddle of adrenal fatigue is to sleep more and get more
rest in general. Those are great things to change, but you need to go
Ditch the Life-Suckers
Life-suckers are the people in your
life that give you a sense of uneasiness, anger, or frustration when
you're around them. They're constantly negative, always complaining, and
never see the bright side of things. You have to make it a point
to limit these interactions as best you can (if it's not a spouse or
family member). I'm not suggesting to run away from your problems, as
they're usually opportunities for growth, but if someone has been
dragging you down for months, maybe even years, you may want to take a
little "break" from that relationship. Or expect less from them in
I've adopted some rules here that have definitely lowered my
day-to-day levels of stress:
- Don't even talk to the "life-suckers" for a while. Maybe they'll go
away, and if they don't, at some point you can talk to them and tell
them why their behavior is sucking the life out of you. If it's someone
you have to talk to, set and stick to a time limit with them. I have a
five-minute rule. After whatever time limit you set is up, just let the
person know you have to go. Don't get sucked into an exhaustive two-hour
- Don't be afraid to say no. You can't please everyone, and
always saying yes could lead to overextension or putting yourself in
stressful situations you just don't need.
- Make tough decisions. Not only can people suck the life out of
you, so can situations. Many times it's a job. I knew a guy who would
continually talk about how much he hated his job. Finally, I said
bluntly, "Just quit, dude. Your other two choices are to just stop
worrying about the tedious bullshit or start looking for a new job. But
just do one of those three things, please!" The next time I saw
him he was Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. He'd changed positions, and thanked me
for giving him a kick in the ass. The lesson here is to do one of the
following: accept and adapt, change the situation, or walk away.
- Laugh. Laughter increases the parasympathetic supply to the
adrenals. When you're laughing and having a good time, free of stress
and enjoying life, your adrenal glands are usually at rest and can
repair. Talk more to people that make you laugh, go to places that make
you smile, and just don't take life too seriously.
When I'm laughing and happy, I sleep better, my appetite is better, and
I train harder.
- Sleep more. I remember Mike Mentzer talking about how he didn't
sleep because sleep was time he wasn't being productive. If you
subscribe to that philosophy, you may want to reconsider it.
The prevailing thought is that the sleep between 7 and 9 AM is extremely
restorative. If you suspect you have adrenal fatigue and work an 8 to 5
shift, try to sleep in until 9 AM on the weekends. When you consider
that cortisol levels normally rise between 6 and 8 AM, those with
adrenal fatigue won't have the rises and drops that a person with
healthy adrenals would have. There are other things you can do to
improve sleep, such as having a snack of high-quality protein, unrefined
carbs, and healthy fat right before bed. Again, a strong relationship
exists between adrenal fatigue and low blood sugar, which may plummet so
low at night you might awaken. You should also make sure to retire
before 10 PM, as most people with adrenal fatigue have a pattern of
"waking back up" at 11:30 PM or so, and then going to sleep can be very
Use Nutritional Supplements
Supplements can be a great aid in
your efforts to beat adrenal fatigue. Here are a few to try:
Melatonin: Helps reestablish better sleep patterns. Try 2 mg
Vitamin C: This should be your number-one supplement if you have
adrenal fatigue. There's a direct relationship between how much cortisol
is made and how much Vitamin C is used. If you're constantly under
stress, the resulting cortisol will deplete Vitamin C levels. Try 2
grams daily. Be sure your supplement of choice includes bioflavonoids in
a 2:1 ratio of ascorbic acid to bioflavonoids.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E works closely with Vitamin C to neutralize
free radicals. (When the body makes adrenal hormones, free radicals are
generated.) I'd caution you against taking just any Vitamin E
supplement. Too much of the d-alpha form can do more harm than good.
Look for a supplement with mixed tocopherols. Shoot for 800 mgs a day.
Food-wise, red palm oil has all the E tocopherols in an extremely usable
form. I highly recommend it.
Magnesium: Magnesium is responsible for hundreds of enzymatic
reactions in your body. Magnesium (and other minerals) are best absorbed
at night and with a digestive aid such as betaine HCL.
Licorice Root: This is the herb that's best known for helping to
combat adrenal fatigue. It can also be used to decrease symptoms of
hypoglycemia. Don't eat the candy; drink the herbal version of tea.
Small Stressors Add Up
Your body is good at dealing with
acute stress, not daily chronic stress. It'll wreck your best efforts in
the gym, or even worse, lead to degenerative diseases such as diabetes.
Whether your goal is a mammoth squat, bodybuilding mastery, or just
outrageous health, respect your body and protect your adrenals. You
won't regret it.
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H. Raff, "Utility of Salivary Cortisol Measurements in Cushing's
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Wilson, J. (2001) Adrenal Fatigue the 21st Century Stress Syndrome.
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