Fatigue, belly fat, brain fog? It could be your adrenals
Do you suffer from one or more of the following: fatigue, stubborn weight, belly fat, brain fog or insomnia? If “yes,” then you might need to pay some attention to your body’s stress response system, otherwise known as your HPA axis. HPA stands for Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal. Our stress response is governed by the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. Stress activates the HPA axis and leads to the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that prepare our body for the flight or fight response. While our body’s response to stress is protective in the short-term, the longer the stress response stays activated, the more damaging it is for our health. A commonly used term for this chronic stress response is “adrenal fatigue.”
Modern life comes with many stressors. Studies show that when one’s adrenal glands are under constant stress, problems such as obesity, high blood sugar and insulin resistance are associated. Adrenal fatigue, or its more scientific term “HPA axis dysregulation,” describes the physiological changes that occur as a result of unrelenting stress.
Our adrenal glands are not made to be in constant red alert and they get tired. The adrenals start to produce cortisol at the wrong time and in the wrong quantities. When cortisol works as it should, it spikes in the morning to help us wake up, and then tapers off during the course of the day so we can fall asleep at night. Chronic stress can cause the adrenals to misfire, creating an inverted cortisol pattern (low in the morning and high at night). You will then wake up tired in the morning and can suffer from insomnia at night. Poor sleep eventually leads to fatigue, poor moods, anxiety and weight gain (especially around the belly).
Warning signs of adrenal fatigue:
- Feeling achy
- Brain fog
- Belly fat
- Salt cravings
- Heavy legs when climbing stairs
- Low tolerance levels
- Dizzy when standing up from lying down
- Sinus, allergies and congestion issues
- Low libido
- Breathing issues
- Sex hormone imbalances
- Feeling overwhelmed and anxious
- Muscle weakness
- Thyroid issues
- Excessive thinking (brain is always on)
Adrenal fatigue can, as indicated above, manifest as a variety of symptoms, but the primary tell-tale symptom is unexplained fatigue. The good news is our adrenal glands can heal and it can be done naturally. The first step is to understand the triggers that cause this dysfunction in the first place.
Triggers for adrenal fatigue:
- Stress – either emotional and/or psychological.
- Blood sugar imbalances including both high and low blood sugar, or alternating between the two.
- Circadian disruption, which includes sleep deprivation, too much exposure to light at night, not enough exposure to light during the day, shift work and frequent travel across time zones.
- Inflammation caused by poor diet, physical inactivity or overtraining, leaky gut and autoimmune disease.
All of these stressors impact the HPA axis, which in turn affects nearly every organ and system of the body, including the gut, brain, thyroid, metabolism, as well as the male and female reproductive system. This explains why the symptoms are so diverse. Here are some nutrition and lifestyle strategies you can implement which can assist in getting your HPA axis back into balance.
Focus on nutrition
- Remove all sugar, alcohol and caffeine from your diet, as they are significant adrenal disruptors.
- Follow a low carb, healthy fat diet to stabilise blood sugars. VERY low carb diets tend to worsen symptoms of adrenal fatigue so try having some starchy veggies like butternut or sweet potato at dinner. This helps to lower cortisol in the evening and encourages the release of melatonin and serotonin, which facilitates relaxation and sleep.
- Eat nutrient dense foods such as animal protein (grass-fed if possible), healthy fats like coconut oil and butter, as well as a good quantity of veggies, especially the leafy green variety.
- Have protein for breakfast (preferably by 10 am) as this helps to raise morning cortisol. Eggs or meat leftovers are the perfect way to start the day.
- Eat regular meals and don’t attempt any intermittent fasting as this can stress out the adrenals even more.
- Stay hydrated by drinking water with a pinch of pink Himalayan salt. This can help with any electrolyte deficiencies you may have.
- Consume bone broth regularly for all the essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids it provides.
- You can also take specific supplements to support the adrenals and enable your body to cope better with stress. Functional medicine practitioners often recommend adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha, holy basil, liquorice root, rhodiola and ginseng. Other good supplements to take are vitamin B12 or a vitamin B complex, magnesium, vitamin D3, vitamin C and selenium.
Make lifestyle changes
- Scale back on excessive exercise and rather do some gentle walking, yoga or Pilates. It is an added bonus if exercise can be done out in nature and sunshine.
- Make it a habit to go to sleep by 10 pm and get at least 8 hours of sleep every night. If sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t get the time it needs for cellular repair and detoxification.
- Adopt a relaxing bedtime routine by having a warm bath, listening to music, spending time in prayer, meditating or doing gentle stretching exercises.
- Switch off all screens such as the TV, i-pads, phones and computers at least 1 hour before bedtime. The blue-light emitted from these devices interferes with the release of melatonin, which is the hormone required for sleep. You can also wear a pair of blue blocker or amber-lensed glasses, which filter out the wavelengths of light that suppress melatonin. These glasses have been shown to improve sleep quality.
- Dim the lights in your home at night to reduce exposure to artificial light.
- Take your morning cup of tea outside and enjoy some natural light upon waking. This helps to stimulate cortisol production enabling you to feel more alert in the morning.
- Lower your stress levels by identifying things that make you feel stressed and put actions into place to manage them more effectively. Realistically, you won’t eliminate all your stress but a 50% reduction will go a long way to improving your adrenal function. Importantly, schedule time to relax and unwind.
If you think you have adrenal fatigue, implementing the above strategies is critically important. When your stress response system is working optimally you enjoy good health, your energy levels are high, the sleep you get is restorative, you feel emotionally stronger and more resilient, depression begins to lift and your mental clarity improves. An added bonus is that your metabolism becomes more efficient and those excess kilograms begin to melt away. Unfortunately there is no magic pill that will instantly heal your adrenals for you. You have to do the work by making the necessary changes to your diet and lifestyle.
This article was written by Nicky Perks for Lose It magazine (Volume 16)
- Dr Alan Christianson, The Adrenal Reset diet (Book)
- Dr Josh Axe, How to overcome adrenal fatigue (YouTube video)
- Dr Eric berg, Dr Berg explains Adrenal Fatigue and the Adrenal body type (YouTube video)
- Dr Chris Kresser, The Clinicians Guide to HPA axis Dysregulation (E-book)