Adrenal fatigue is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms that are caused by the adrenal glands not working at their optimum and as a result, failing to produce the sufficient amounts of hormones needed by the body.
You have two adrenal glands, each consisting of two parts that sit on top of your kidneys. The glands are named because of their position in the body; ad – near or at; renes – kidneys. They are triangular in shape and measure about 1.5 inches in height and 3 inches in length, and are generally walnut size. The adrenals are responsible for your body’s reaction to stress.
The outer part of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal cortex, which produces life supporting hormones such as cortisol and aldosterone. These hormones regulate metabolism, help your body respond to stress and control blood pressure. The inner part of the adrenal gland, called the adrenal medulla, produces non-essential hormones, such as adrenaline, which helps you react to stress.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
To understand the effects of stress on the adrenals, let’s first look at the main stress hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex, called cortisol. Cortisol regulates how your body uses fats, proteins and carbohydrates to convert to energy; it also helps regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular function. When hormones are balanced, cortisol is protective and burns fat; however, it’s when the hormones are out of whack that cortisol starts to have a negative impact on the body.
Cortisol has a very distinct circadian rhythm that is regulated by the central clock located in the hypothalamus. In a usual daily cycle, also known as the cortisol curve, you have very low cortisol levels around midnight; after that, levels start to build up overnight to peak first thing in the morning. And afterwards, cortisol levels slowly decline throughout the day.
This natural curve can become easily disrupted, however, when distress or stressors are added to your daily routine. When you experience stress of any kind, your adrenals are signaled by the pituitary gland to secrete cortisol. Regrettably, we are not superheroes and there is a limit to how much stress we can handle. When many different life stressors become too much for your body to handle, your adrenals work overtime to try to mobilize your body’s response to stress (whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological) by secreting more and more cortisol into your system. Eventually, the adrenal glands become depleted from pumping out cortisol all the time and symptoms of fatigue start to appear.
During adrenal fatigue, your glands are still functioning, just not well enough to consider your body in optimal homeostasis. This is due to the fact that the level of regulatory hormones put out by the overstimulated adrenals has been diminished.
Causes of Adrenal Fatigue
So what causes our adrenals to become fatigued? In today’s society, there are a number of different stressors that can affect us both mentally, physically and psychologically; basically, anything that causes stress on the body can cause you to have overactive adrenals.
Maybe you’re trying to balance being a full-time employee, working 8-12 hour days, with trying to be a good parent and/or significant other to your family at home; or you’re a full-time student, handling the stress of getting good grades and acing every exam.
Another scenario that we see all too often in the gym is someone mixing a bad diet, containing too much caffeine, with not getting enough sleep at night (at least 6-8 hours) after hitting the gym for a high-intensity workout, such as CrossFit; this combination can spell disaster for your adrenals.
Some physical stressors are completely out of your control, such as developing an infection (bronchitis or pneumonia are just a few examples) or having to undergo major surgery. Emotional crisis, such as the death of a loved one or even going through a divorce, can also put a beating on your adrenals.
The causes are endless in today’s modern lifestyle. While symptoms are nonspecific, they can include feeling generally unwell. Here are a few symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
Decreased sex drive
Craving salty or sweet foods
Feeling rundown, overwhelmed and unable to cope
Like the villagers in Aesop’s fables who eventually start ignoring the little boy who cried wolf, the hypothalamus becomes less sensitive to adrenal feedback when stress is constant, and cortisol levels essentially go rogue. When this happens, it becomes harder to keep cortisol output on its normal circadian timing, which can result in periods of inappropriately high or low cortisol. In some people, cortisol surges at night (when it should be low) so you lie there, worn out but wide awake. In others, it plummets in the morning (when it should be high), making it feel impossible to get out of bed.
The effects of this relentless cortisol dump usually first manifests as troubled sleep and fractured energy levels, but other red flags include headaches, irritability, and cognitive difficulties. A combination is sometimes referred to as “brain fog”, all due to the absence of restorative sleep. Many women also experience menstrual irregularities, before turning to functional medicine. Excess cortisol inhibits ovarian function because a habitually stressed brain thinks danger lurks around every corner. Survival trumps procreation, and your body focuses on providing energy to your legs to run—not to your ovaries.
Does Exercise Help Adrenal Fatigue?
If you have adrenal fatigue, exercise is probably the last thing you feel like doing. But before you skip this part, listen to all the good things it will do for you. And remember: dancing and making love are exercise too!
Rapid breathing expels volatile gases out of your body which can become harmful if they build up. The increased blood flow helps keep plaque from building up in your arteries while stimulating your liver to perform its 3,000+ functions more efficiently. Cell function improves with the accompanying acceleration of carbon dioxide, oxygen and nutrient exchange. Exercise normalizes levels of cortisol, insulin, blood glucose, growth hormone, thyroid, and several other hormones and puts more oxygen into your brain.
Exercise also decreases depression, which is a common side effect of adrenal fatigue. There are studies that show that exercise can be as effective in treating depression as some pharmaceutical agents. Physical activity is empowering as well as rejuvenating.
What is the Best Exercise for Adrenal Fatigue?
Exercise should be enjoyable. It should not be highly competitive, grueling or debilitating. It should be something that increases lung capacity, muscle tone and flexibility while having fun.
Here are our favorite 11 exercises for adrenal fatigue:
Yoga with breathing exercises
Light jogging or running
Any number of team sports like soccer, tennis, or basketball
Exercise programs at your local gym to get your body moving
Pick something that is enjoyable to you. Keep in mind you are not working out to run a marathon or set new records, but to bring your body back to life and take pleasure in it again. There will be days, especially when you first begin exercising, that you do not feel like doing anything physical. When this happens, instead of forcing yourself to exercise, start slow and gently work into it.
n other words, do not let the exercise become another stressor in your life. When your body parts resist, simply treat that part with kind understanding, acknowledge its resistance, but do not let it undermine your commitment to your health. People with adrenal fatigue often feel too tired to exercise. However, if you set a routine time to exercise, no matter how you feel, you will soon experience the rewards of your self-discipline.
RELATED ARTICLE: 11 Best Foods for Adrenal Fatigue + Adrenal Fatigue Diet Plan
The key to a successful Adrenal Recovery Exercise Program involves a well thought-out strategy that helps you regain control of the core functions of the body. In the analogy of the car, it is not only about putting more gasoline in the tank. You can have fuel in the car and still be unable to get to where you want to go if the steering system is not functioning. The goal is a complete rebalancing of the internal systems so they can operate smoothly together to get you where you want to go hassle-free. This involves a total mind-body approach incorporating lifestyle, diet, mental, nutritional, and physical components. Exercise is a significant part of the total recovery plan. If done correctly, it helps the adrenals boost their function, and thus the energy state.
Energy State and Over Exercising
Those in early adrenal fatigue (stages 1 and 2) may only feel tired intermittently and tend to recover from any low energy state quickly. Those in advanced adrenal fatigue (stage 3 and 4) are characterized by a constant low energy state and fatigue, only to worsen over time. Because the total energy in the body is finite, it is important to custom tailor an exercise program for the best use of limited energy resource for those with advance weakness.
Overutilization of energy and over-exercising, even if it is good for circulation and has other health profits, may activate adrenal crashes. The right intensity, amount, and frequency are paramount. Many accidentally cross the threshold from good exercise into over exercising and become drained. The tendency is to avoid it. Total nonexistence is also undesirable except during an adrenal crash. Others would do the opposite, forcing themselves into over exercising, and thinking that it is beneficial. Both approaches can be wrong. The key is not to avoid exercise totally, but to have a personalized program designed specifically for the level of adrenal function you have.
It is important to provide and have a consistent and maintained energy stream for vital organs to overcome a low energy state. Any excess energy can be channeled into exercise as a healing tool. The amount of exercise must be adjusted to avoid over exercising and overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and trigger adrenaline release. Risk of the adrenal crash must be carefully monitored and preventive steps must be taken at the right time consistently. The right thing done at the right time will be of tremendous benefit. Conversely, the right thing done at the wrong time will make things worse.
Experienced clinicians will want to conserve energy as much as possible during the initial healing process. This means exercises that do not reduce energy but increase energy flow in the body. After a calm level of reserve is accomplished and established in the body, a gradual progression is effected so that the system can reverse its catabolic condition into an anabolic condition in which muscles start to rebuild and strengthen. This has to be done on a stepwise fashion deliberately and gradually. Doing this might help avoid one of the most common recovery errors among those self-navigating as well as inexperienced clinicians – over exercising leading to retarded adrenal recovery.
A properly designed Adrenal Recovery Exercise Program needs to factor in the following technical components as well: breathing, muscle toning, stretching, strength training, motion fluidity, control, and systemic circulation. It needs to take into consideration the state of adrenal function (Stage of Adrenal Fatigue), the amount of reserve remaining, the biological constitution, age, metabolic issues, past medical history, and injuries.
Can Exercise Cause Adrenal Fatigue?
While it's true that ALL kinds of exercise elevate cortisol (with the exception of some very gentle, specifically designed Adrenal Recovery Exercises), the duration, frequency, and intensity of your workout will determine whether this is a good or a bad thing for your health, well-being, weight and body shape. The question is how much stress you already have in your life (from work, relationships, finances...) and how well your body is still able to handle it. And also, whether you are frequently burning more energy and/or nutrients than you are taking in over a day, or in other words, whether you are repeatedly depleting your body, thus ending up with negative energy and nutrient balance.
For a healthy person (not someone in an advanced stage of adrenal fatigue) the following can be observed:
During a short and intense sprint or during resistance exercises, cortisol tends to rise very fast, very high but then falls again very fast. If you repeat this procedure several times (intervals of 30-60 sec, with double the recovery time), your body is trained to adapt to these strong ups and downs of cortisol and to recover quickly. (If you are already adrenal fatigued, this type of exercise will further deplete your energy, though, because you don't have the cortisol reserves anymore to allow for the required spikes).
However, during a long duration run at high intensity, cortisol is elevated consistently and will stay high even after the workout. This is partly due to inflammation and the need for more sugar/carbs in your diet (see below). If you don't give your body enough time to rest in between sessions (the nervous system needs about 48 hours to recover from high intensity, energy depleting workouts), don`t eat enough and/or not enough essential proteins and fats (as many long distance runners are guilty of) and/or lead a stressful life, you quickly get chronically elevated cortisol.
Short and intense sprints or other kinds of "bursts" and resistance exercises release the human growth hormone which heals the slightly damaged muscles and makes them even stronger for the next burst. On top, it tells your body to burn fat - even post-workout.
During long cardio sessions, the human growth hormone necessary for muscle building and repair is not produced, since the bursting intensity necessary to trigger its production is not reached (even if you feel very exhausted). As a rule of thumb, as soon as you are able to repeat one exercise for more than 30-60 seconds, the intensity is not high enough.
Frequent and intense endurance training can create systemic inflammation
Overused joints, overloaded hearts and insufficiently repaired muscles (in the legs, but also in the heart) increase inflammation and oxidative stress in your body. This further increases your cortisol levels and weakens your immune system, making you susceptible to injuries, infections and all kinds of degenerative diseases (in the long run). Microscopic damage to your heart and blood vessels can lead to scar tissue, hardening of tissue and plaque build-up.
Frequent and intense endurance training makes you crave more carbs
Many people (esp. protein or mixed metabolic types) are more efficient in burning fats for energy than carbohydrates. In general, the human body only has a relatively limited capacity of storing carbs in the liver and muscles (about a 1 day supply). If, as a hunter-gatherer, we had to rely on this limited capacity, we would never have been able to survive during periods of shortage (or even a few days without finding food).
Evolutionary, it was meant as a reserve for those cases where we needed quick and immediate energy for a short time (e.g. to escape that lion). For all other activities at low-intensity, fat was (and is) the preferred fuel. This is why our requirements for dietary carbohydrates are relatively low (depending on your metabolic type of course - carbohydrate types need more than protein types) and why excess carbs are transformed into saturated fat and stored around the belly and the liver. In fact, eating lots of fruits during summer, when they were available, was meant to make us store fat for the scarce winter times!
A person engaging in lots of low-intensity cardio (such as walking, hiking, low intensity biking, running, swimming...) and occasional "bursts" (sprints, resistance exercises at high intensity, not more than 60 seconds each) will heavily rely on fat burning. The occasional bursts will use up the carbohydrate stock (glycogen), but this is immediately replenished by a process called the ATP-PC system. The human-growth-hormone released during these exercises will make the body even more efficient at burning fat afterwards (by building up more fat-burning muscle and accelerating metabolism). Such a workout-scheme doesn't require very high amounts of carbohydrates. Lots of non-starchy vegetables and some high-fiber, low glycemic starchy carbs (e.g. legumes/pulses, sweet potato, fruit) will do the job.
If you have questions about what exercise you should be doing while suffering from adrenal fatigue, give us a call to schedule your appointment today at 734-847-4700.
Related Articles: What is Adrenal Fatigue? Adrenal Fatigue Definition
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