Feeling stressed? (The sound you just heard is the hysterical sobbing from everyone who lived through 2020.) That might be worse for your health than you realize. Chronic stress can decrease your overall ability to deal with emotional, mental and physical stress. If you’ve ever gotten sick right after finals week, or you’re walking around in a fugue state after working from home and homeschooling your rambunctious seven-year-old for a year, you’ve probably experienced this firsthand.
When your body is in a constant, adrenaline-producing state, you can suffer from adrenal fatigue. This is also known as hypoadrenia—and it has some unpleasant effects when left unmitigated.
Whether you’ve been under significant chronic stress or simply want to prepare for life’s curveballs, understanding adrenal fatigue can be helpful. Here’s what you need to know about this condition and how to overcome it.
Introducing adrenal fatigue
The idea of adrenal fatigue has only been around for a couple of decades. It was originally coined by a naturopath and chiropractor who hypothesized that long-term stress overstimulates the adrenal glands, leading to irregular amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the blood stream. In other words, when you’re undergoing long-term stressful events, like divorce, family drama or, say, a global pandemic lasting over a year, your body can’t regulate hormones properly. That leads to adrenal fatigue.
Your adrenal glands sit above your kidneys and are responsible for releasing adrenaline, which creates a primal “fight or flight” response. Adrenal glands also work with the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus when a threat is perceived. Together, they cause blood to rush to your heart and muscles, and prevent your digestive and immune systems from “wasting” valuable resources in the moment. This is good in small doses—for example, when you’re running away from a mugger or you need to lift a car up to save your baby. But when you’re always in fight or flight mode, that’s exhausting.
Adrenal fatigue is hotly debated in the medical community, because its symptoms often look a lot like something else. Rising and sharply falling energy levels, moodiness, “brain fog” and more can all be signs of different issues. People who suffer from adrenal fatigue may also experience depression, muscle loss, hair loss, weight gain, food cravings and other symptoms. Your libido might plummet, or you could see an autoimmune response kick in. In other words, it’s no way to live.
Overcoming adrenal fatigue
If you think you might have adrenal fatigue, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. They may or may not be on board with adrenal fatigue as a condition, but they can rule out other causes like thyroid problems.
The best way to address adrenal fatigue, beyond Western medicine, is to address the source of stress. For example, if you’re having trouble being quarantined at home with your entire family for the 13th month in a row, it’s time to find some healthy coping mechanisms. This might be online therapy, setting up a punching bag in your garage or cutting out caffeine.
Healthy diets are also a key to overcoming adrenal fatigue. When we’re stressed, we tend to want easy, convenient food loaded with sugar and salt. The more we consume those foods, the more our body craves them. Make sure that you’re getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals—use supplements if it’s hard to get everything you need from your diet alone. This is when a medical doctor can make recommendations. As noted above, cutting down on caffeine (or cutting it out completely) can also help. Caffeine is a stimulant, and when your body is already flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, it just adds to the problem.
Finally, take care of your mental and emotional health. Get at least eight hours of sleep whenever possible and set up a regular exercise routine. Yoga is particularly great for adrenal fatigue, since it encourages mindfulness as well as healthy activity. Finally, look for ways to treat your emotional stress. Therapy, journaling and meditation are all good ways to reduce the emotional and mental impact of stressful situations.
The bottom line
Even if adrenal fatigue isn’t a medical diagnosis, it’s not so out there. We already know that chronic stress can cause or exacerbate heart problems—it’s not a stretch to think that long-term stressful situations can have a physical effect too. (Just look at photos of U.S. Presidents before and after their terms.) Talk to your doctor, and use it as a good excuse to live a healthier lifestyle.