Crash And Burn
A hard day at the office, a long commute home after Christmas drinks with colleagues, an argument with your partner – all in a day’s work, right? But if you don’t address these everyday stresses, says Lucy Fry, you could be heading for adrenal fatigue – and a host of health problems.
It’s a familiar slippery slope into exhaustion, starting with a big professional project, forcing you to work late night after night, relying on caffeine and sugar to get you through. Add to the mix the many social engagements at this time of year, and early-morning gym sessions to counterbalance all that unhealthiness. But you’re still coping, for now at least.
Then there are personal issues – a break-up, a bereavement, some tricky family dynamics, perhaps. The work commitments and unhealthy social excesses step up – and you know you’re exhausted and stressed, but by now that’s normal. It’s just the way you are; the way you live.
Except that all the while your adrenals – the walnut-sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys – have been working overtime, controlling your hormones in a desperate attempt to help you cope.
They give you everything they’ve got, but eventually they begin to wear out and can no longer maintain that crucial hormonal balance (remember, hormones are responsible for maintaining immunity and energy levels, regulating blood sugar and blood pressure). The result could be anything from an increasing inability to push through tiredness (or feeling tired and wired simultaneously and unable to rest, despite exhaustion) to full-blown adrenal fatigue – you can’t get out of bed, your body aches, you are burned out.
‘Typically, adrenal fatigue is caused by an overabundance of stress in everyday life, whether linked to work, home life or poor diet,’ says bioscientist Rob Corney. ‘The repetition of stress can ultimately lead to burnout, which then leads to health problems.’
The main culprit in adrenal fatigue is the overproduction of cortisol, the hormone that gives your body a shot of energy, a bit like a double espresso (and is, in fact, also released when you drink that coffee). This is the fight-or-flight hormone that provides a vital response if you’re under genuine threat – less vital if you’re having a heated discussion in a meeting. If the adrenals are constantly pumping out cortisol, then wear and tear is inevitable – and this will have a knock-on effect on their other hormonal functions.
Pharmacist at Victoria Health Shabir Daya (www-old.victoriahealth.com) explains how the imbalance manifests itself when you’re under constant stress. ‘When the adrenals are busy producing stress hormones like cortisol, they do not produce sufficient hormones such as adrenalin [a fast-acting hormone that revs up the body], which in turn results in fatigue. Also, cortisol prevents the uptake of serotonin by the brain, and since serotonin is the mood-elevating hormone, a reduction results in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
‘During the night, serotonin is converted into melatonin – the sleep hormone – so serotonin deficiency also causes sleep disturbance, with many people finding that they can drop off but the duration of sleep is much shorter.’
An increase in cortisol also results in the overproduction of insulin by the pancreas. As insulin deposits fat on to the body’s fat cells, weight gain is experienced. Insulin also depletes blood-sugar levels, which causes carbohydrate and sugar cravings. It is frighteningly clear, then, just how crucial – and how easily upset – hormonal balance is to our general health and wellbeing. For 34-year-old competitive boxer and cognitive hypnotherapist Hazel Gale (hazelgale.co.uk), the imbalance proved too great over too many years, until, aged 28, after years of excessive training and inadequate rest, Hazel’s adrenal glands were completely shot.
‘I started to get a weird, full-body malaise – aches and pains and sickness – after training that drained me of energy and clouded my mind,’ she says. ‘Next, I started to lose my memory, and found it hard to communicate. The vocabulary just wasn’t there but I remember thinking that I was just too tired to care about it. I put on weight and found it impossible to shift. I developed allergies that I’d never had before and ceased to be able to tolerate my two cats. My eyes hurt, my head ached. I couldn’t even remember what a sex drive was. I was depressed and highly irritable and I had a permanently sore throat and constant digestive issues.’
Hazel had stretched her body’s ability to cope with stress so far that, physically, she had snapped. And while her story is fairly extreme, it is by no means rare, as our endocrine (hormonal) systems haven’t evolved to cope with the relentless stress of contemporary life.
In his acclaimed book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, scientist Robert Sapolsky writes, ‘If you are a zebra running for your life, or a lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses – but they are potentially disastrous when provoked chronically.’
The fight-or-flight response that was previously initiated by a real threat to our survival can now be switched on continually – frequent long-haul flights, endless caffeinated drinks, taking on too much responsibility at work or at home, and trying to please everyone. All the while, the adrenal glands are having to overfeed us cortisol, which, over time, has serious results.
For Hazel, those results included chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia (characterised by chronic widespread pain and tiredness) – two conditions that are almost always linked to, or triggered by, fatigued adrenal glands. It would take her years to recover and, even then, she would never be able to train as hard or live as fast as she once had.
So just how common is adrenal fatigue? Gus Olds is an elite health and fitness professional working with Team GB athletes and young professionals at The Gymway in Central London (thegymway.com). He says, ‘I see adrenal fatigue walk into my gym every day, with sufferers getting younger and younger which, I think, is due to pressure from society to perform at an early age. Telltale signs are big bags under the eyes, bad hair, bad skin, reported difficulty sleeping, afternoon energy crashes and nagging body fat around the midsection.’
Other symptoms, says Rob Corney, include trouble getting out of bed in the morning, ongoing fatigue, decreased libido, craving salt and sugar, mild depression and increased premenstrual syndrome. Nebulous symptoms, certainly, which could relate to various conditions, from mental-health issues to simply being in need of a holiday. And it’s this, along with issues of ‘money and politics’, says James Wilson in Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, that has led to the condition going under-diagnosed. ‘Low adrenal function is one of those problems that has become invisible to modern medicine,’ he says. ‘There are no patentable treatments for adrenal fatigue produced by pharmaceutical companies. There’s no big money to be made.’
Certainly, Hazel experienced what she refers to as ‘the disappointment’ of being told constantly by doctors that her problem was ‘not a real syndrome’. So, after researching her symptoms herself, via books, the internet and alternative practitioners, she began to make improvements. ‘Initially it was a matter of lowering my stress levels by learning to listen to my body and take much more rest. After a couple of months I was a different person mentally and physically, but felt I still couldn’t train hard without becoming ill or exhausted, or both. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I did some therapeutic work – cognitive hypnotherapy – which I believe made all the difference by helping me to unravel the unconscious thought patterns, mostly developed in childhood, that kept me pushing my body forward into illness and exhaustion.’
But Hazel shouldn’t have needed to self-diagnose. Nor should she have had to subject herself to guesswork, says Corney, who, together with co-founder Calum Gore, has set up bioscience-testing business Gore Bioscience (gorebioscience.com). Last year they launched a new test – the first of its kind in the UK, called the Urinary hormone metabolites test – which aims to assess each client’s hormone levels, particularly cortisol, so that they can make any crucial lifestyle changes.
The tests aren’t cheap – around £300 with follow-up consultations – though arguably it’s a small price to pay to protect against full-blown adrenal fatigue.
Catching the condition early seems fairly critical for recovery. Despite the huge efforts she has made to get better, Hazel still regards herself as ‘around 90 to 95 per cent recovered. Perhaps that last five to ten per cent is irredeemable,’ she says. ‘I still have to monitor myself when it comes to certain things: overtraining, caffeine, gluten, etc, or I risk a spell of incapacitating exhaustion. I think my immune system has taken a bit of a battering and as a result I tend to get every cold that’s going around. I’m not able to push through a tough spot any more; these days I need to stop and rest.’
On the positive side, Hazel’s experiences have led her into a career as a cognitive hypnotherapist. Now, seven years on from the onset of adrenal fatigue, she specialises in helping others to tackle similar issues. ‘Nowadays, I hear clients, friends and family members following the same self-destructive patterns as I did,’ she says. ‘I read recently that one person in five in London will suffer from adrenal fatigue at some point, and I definitely think that’s true.
‘It’s a physiological response to too much stress, and people living and working in big cities such as London are under constant stress. Not just “trying to get to the top of the ladder” or “my boyfriend is cheating on me” kinds of stress, but also pollution, travel, long hours, toxic food, too much physical exercise and not enough rest. Add to that alcohol, sugar and caffeine overload and it’s all forcing us into a state of continuous overstimulation.’
And it’s not just those in big cities who are prone. The Gore Bioscience experts, although keen not to indulge in supposition, suggest, ‘The only thing that stands up to generalisation, perhaps, is job type and the prevalence of adrenal fatigue among doctors, nurses and pilots.’
If we bear in mind that it’s not only stress caused by, say, excessive activity or poor sleep that causes the adrenal glands to overwork, but also our responses to the trials of daily life that can instigate the release of more stress hormones, then we begin to realise our potential power in protecting ourselves from adrenal fatigue, too.
Understanding the signs that your body and mind are giving you, and working to reduce stress overload – for example, meditating to promote a sense of calm – are important first steps in developing a coping strategy.
Stress isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s your lungs telling you they want fresh air, your body telling you it needs rest and recuperation, and your mind screaming at you that it needs space.
“Our responses to the trials of daily life can instigate the release of more stress hormones”
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM ADRENAL FATIGUE?
• Sleep: You are either too tired to sleep or getting in excess of ten hours shuteye a night (and still finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning). Getting a second wind at around 11pm is common for adrenal-fatigue sufferers, too, says James Wilson. Make bed rest a priority. Turn in before 10pm and try to fall asleep before that second wind. And, yes, we are bombarded with messages about the importance of exercise, but if your adrenals are at risk, sleep is more important than your early-morning gym session.
• Physical signs: Bags under the eyes, skin outbreaks, poor hair quality. High stress levels mean your body is too busy dealing with perceived ‘threats’ to ensure healthy production of skin and hair cells. Reduce stress by including more downtime and relaxation (try massages, indulgent baths, long walks).
• Stubborn abdominal fat: Excessive fat around your midsection could be related to high cortisol levels, which can be reduced significantly by eliminating caffeine.
• Afternoon energy slumps: Eliminating gluten from your diet will help with this, says nutritionist Madeleine Shaw (madeleineshaw.com). ‘Gluten’s inflammatory effect in the gut causes intestinal cells to die and makes the gut leaky. This allows non-digested foods and nutrients to escape and cause inflammation in the body. When the gut doesn’t work we don’t absorb the nutrients we need, and the body becomes stressed, placing pressure on the adrenal glands.’
• Sweet cravings: Madeleine Shaw also recommends liquorice root: ‘It is super sweet and so it helps satisfy sugar cravings. Liquorice is an anti-stress, antidepressant herb that increases energy and endurance.’
• Anxiety: Shabir Daya recommends Magnolia Rhodiola Complex, which calms the body, elevates mood and relaxes the mind without causing drowsiness. Also AD206, a unique combination of nutrients including vitamin B5 and ginseng, will help support healthy adrenal function.