Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I'm Exhausted. Do I have Adrenal Fatigue?

There has been a lot of talk lately about Adrenal Fatigue. I am seeing more and more of it in my practice; this is not a good health trend.
Adrenal Fatigue comes from "burning the candle at both ends." Someone who experiences a constant high stress state for long periods of time while simultaneously not taking care of themselves (not sleeping enough, eating the wrong foods, too much sugar/caffeine, exercising too much for the amount of sleep they are getting, etc). When you are in your 20's, the body has a certain amount of reserve energy (in TCM we refer to this as Jing) that can be used under just such occasions, like using a credit card. By they time people enter their 40's and 50's, if they continue at this pace, their reserves become empty (they accrue a lot of debt and max out their credit cards) and people become exhausted; no amount of sugar or caffeine can get them going.
From a Western perspective, when the body feels stress, the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the Kidneys, release a chemical called cortisol that gives us the burst of energy needed to get through the stressful situation. It gives us that little boost that allows us to handle an overwhelming meeting or meet a deadline. When the stress passes, the cortisol levels drop back down, and we return to normal functioning. Occasional boosts of cortisol are fine, the problem comes from keeping cortisol levels high all the time, while simultaneously using stimulants (which put even more stress on the adrenal glands), not sleeping enough and/or not eating nutritious foods. If someone is in a constant state of stress, or "fight or flight," their adrenal glands are pumping out a constant flow of cortisol. If they are not simultaneously getting sufficient sleep and eating nourishing foods to replenish, eventually the adrenals can't handle it any more and they stop working. This is Adrenal Fatigue.
Typical symptoms are:
  • Feeling tired even after sleeping through the night
  • Exhaustion
  • Food cravings, especially for salt, sugar or other refined carbs
  • Caffeine no longer helps you get through your day but you can't live without it
  • Feeling easily overwhelmed
  • Foggy headedness
  • Low or no libido
  • unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, the Jing that I mentioned earlier is our "Essence," it is inherited from our parents at conception; the state of their Jing plays a part in the quality of ours. If your parents were stressed out with low Jing when you were conceived, you may have less Jing than someone who had healthy parents. The Jing is related to the Kidneys, so how well your Kidneys function (the Chinese understanding of Kidneys) plays a part in how quickly or slowly you deplete your Jing.

According to TCM, the Liver is most affected by stress. The Liver gets its support and nourishment from the Kidneys (organs which include the physical Kidneys, the adrenal glands, the thyroid gland, the ovaries/prostate and other glands in the endocrine system). When the Liver is over stressed, it takes more Qi from the Kidneys than its fair share. Over time in order for the Liver to keep functioning (the Liver is what keeps us moving through our day) it keeps draining energy (Qi and Jing) from the Kidneys  and they eventually they konk out, leading to Qi Collapse, which is the equivalent of Adrenal Fatigue.

Obviously it is best to avoid Adrenal Fatigue to begin with by sleeping 7-9 hours per night, eating foods that nourish the body (rather than just quell the hunger) and managing stress with acupuncture, exercise, yoga, meditation, tai chi, qigong, etc. However, if you already have Adrenal Fatigue, there are options out there to help bring you back to health:

  • Remove stress to the best of your ability. When you are exhausted, even gentle yoga can sometimes be too much, but meditation, even just 3 minutes at a time, can be a very powerful stress reducer. It can be a simple as observing the sensation of your belly rising and falling as you breathe. Whenever the thoughts start to get louder, notice that you are thinking and return your attention to your breath. Repeat this as many times as it takes. Meditation is not about getting to that "blissed out quiet space" it is about training the mind to have a single focus. It takes practice, but it is something that doesn't take a lot of physical effort and can have a large payoff.
  • Ask for help. This can be challenging for many people, but often this is what has gotten you here in the first place. Ask for help from your spouse, friends, parents, children. Let go of the image of the pace that your life used to move at and see if you can move at a slower pace. Your task for the day might just be to feed yourself. If your house is messy, let it be messy for a little while until you are feeling better, or enlist the help of someone else. If you continue to tax your body, even with little things, the road to health is much longer.
  • Eat good foods. Nourish your body with cooked vegetables, grass-fed/pasture raised meats and poultry, easy to digest grains like rice, quinoa, millet (cooked with a ratio of at least 3 cups water to 1 cup grain). Eat small meals and chew well to allow for the best absorption. Bone broths are also great. Try to avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners and caffeine since these will just leave you more depleted. Honey is okay, especially raw, in small doses, like in tea. There are also many Qi tonic herbs that you might find useful, like astragalus, ginseng, rhodiola, or ashwagandha. Talk to an herbalist to try to find the best ones for you to use.
  • Sleep. Sleep is when the body repairs itself, so if you need to nap, do so if you can. If you can't sleep well, try a warm bath before bed or spray some lavender on your pillow. Acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine may also help, but it is important to meet with a practitioner who can guide you to the correct treatment for your particular sleep issues.
It is important for you to see your doctor or a Functional Medicine doctor to get a diagnosis and check to see if you need supplemental cortisol as well. There are many herbal formulas, both Chinese and Western, that might be useful for sleep, energy and stress reduction which will also aid in your recovery. You don't need to be so tired all the time. With the proper treatment, you should improve over time to where you once again feel like you can live your life.


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