What is adrenal fatigue, and is this even a real concept? Our adrenal glands help us function by producing necessary stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine) or also known as our “upregulating” or “stimulating” hormones that help us have the energy and focus to do daily tasks. While high levels of stress hormones can cause problems, low levels of stress hormones can also cause problems! People with low levels of stress hormones are often dealing with extreme chronic fatigue, depression, and low stress tolerance.

However, many practitioners have recently criticized the concept of “adrenal fatigue” because it implies that the adrenal glands simply “get tired” and stop functioning. I agree that this is a false concept. There is always going to be an underlying reason WHY the adrenals are not properly producing stress hormones to allow for our optimal health.

What happens when our adrenal glands aren’t properly supported? There are two stages to struggling adrenal glands. The first phase us easier to correct, but unfortunately most people don’t catch the problem until the second phase!

In the first stage, our stress hormones become chronically high. Unfortunately, because of the “hustle culture” most of us live in, the symptoms of this stage tend to be glorified, which is why this issue tends to not be caught until stage two. This is your classic type A, high stress person. They are constantly doing, working, producing, going. They often have tight shoulders and jaw, and tend towards anxiety and overthinking, as well as insomnia. You may be still functioning, but have a feeling that if “one more thing” happens you will just crash and have a break down. Your body is wise! It is telling you stop now. However, most of us do not listen.

Additionally, more things than a high stress lifestyle can cause an increase in these stress hormones. A chronic infection, a high toxic load, or an unresolved trauma can do this as well.

What is commonly thought of as “adrenal fatigue” is actually your body running out of the raw material needed to continue making stress hormones. In stage one, our production of stress hormones increases- which is not a problem if the increase is short term. However, because it takes a lot of nutrients to make our stress hormones, if a high level of production continues long term, our body will eventually become depleted of these nutrients and no longer be able to produce them at effective amounts.

With this understanding, probably a better term would be “adrenal depletion” rather than “adrenal fatigue”. Your body has become depleted and can no longer make stress hormones effectively. With this second stage, energy crashes. Extreme fatigue, weakness, depression, zero tolerance for any stressors, sensory sensitivities, lack of appetite, and more can occur. The body is in a state of extreme depletion.

So the question becomes not so much “how can we boost cortisol”, but rather, “how can we replenish a depleted organ?”

Here are my top tips for replenishing the adrenal glands:

  1. Commit to a long term lifestyle of resting more. Many people try to go back to the “hustle and grind” mentality as soon as they get any energy back. The reality is, we were never meant for the type of high stress lives many of us lead. Hunter gatherers are more physically active, but actually work far less and experience less day to day stress than a human living in a modern, industrialized society. A great question to ask yourself in your down time is, “How can I rest even deeper in this moment?”
  2. Fix your circadian rhythm. Proper exposure to natural light and darkness is essential to trigger the correct cycle of hormone release in the body. I have discussed sleep, light exposure and circadian rhythm extensively in other blog posts and in my book so I won’t go into here- but particularly enough exposure to infrared light rays are essential for recovery. If you are too fatigued to get outside, use a red light therapy device like EMR-TEK, you can use this link to get a discount on your order as I am an affiliate: https://www.emr-tek.com/discount/JEN18313
  3. Prioritize nutrients than support your adrenal glands. The most important thing to do is eat a diet moderate to low in carbohydrates and moderate to high in fat. This ensures blood sugar stays balanced- and a blood sugar roller coaster is a major stressor on your adrenal glands! Additionally, prioritize saturated fats in the diet, because saturated fat is the precusor to cholesterol, and cholesterol is the precursor to all steroid hormones- our stress hormones are in this category! Many people are actually deficient in fat from animal based sources because of inaccurate dogma around the danger of these foods. Ideally, for people with these issues, 25-50% of your fat calories should come from saturated fat sources. The best food sources would be cod liver oil, egg yolks, fermented cream (sour cream or cultured cream to be lactose free), and the fat from lamb, beef and salmon. A good meal plan can be found in my “Chronic Fatigue Reboot” mini course.
  4. You may need to supplement! In order to support hormone production, we need adequate amounts of B6 and zinc. We also need Vitamin C, copper, and magnesium. While food sources should be prioritized, supplements can also be useful. Many of these can be found on my Thorne storefront: https://s.thorne.com/V10ro

About the Author
Jen Donovan completely rebuilt her life and career as a result of her experience with severe chronic illness. After finding no answers from conventional medical approaches, she took matters into her own hands and with the help of key mentors, found a path to healing.
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