This past year has given many of us several reasons to feel stress, constant exhaustion, and potentially experience adrenal fatigue. The COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, election cycle, and economic roller coaster are only a few of the contributing factors that can cause adrenal fatigue.
Learning how to recognize and manage adrenal fatigue or an overwhelmed stress response system are valuable skills as we are likely to encounter a variety of stressors throughout our lifetime. If you are experiencing heightened stress and may have been experiencing various signs of adrenal fatigue, there are ways of managing and improving your symptoms.
What is Adrenal Fatigue and how does it relate to the Stress Response System?
Adrenal fatigue happens when the adrenal glands have been depleted. The adrenal gland is responsible for producing cortisol, a hormone that regulates blood pressure. When a person is in a situation that feels distressing, such as my experience with the 2020 election, their blood pressure typically rises, meaning the adrenal glands will have to release more cortisol.
Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands have released excess cortisol and are no longer able to produce enough cortisol to manage day to day stressors. When adrenal depletion happens, you will find stress management to be more difficult. Adrenal fatigue has an overall impact on the stress response system and can be diagnosed by a medical provider.
The stress response system, as its name states, is how the body responds to stress. There are a variety of levels for these responses. At baseline, the body is calm and the adrenal gland is releasing a baseline level of cortisol. A person has access to each area of their brain when they are calm, meaning they can have abstract thoughts and recognize emotional thinking and rational thinking. When a low-level stressor is introduced to the body, it becomes alert.
A low-level stressor may be something like a knock at the door. At this level of stress, a person is able to engage with the “yes or no” cognitive level of the brain and continues to be able to think rationally. The next level of the stress response system occurs when a higher level stressor is introduced such as an unexpected medical bill. At this level of stress, a person becomes alarmed and can only access the emotional level of their brain. At this point, it is challenging for a person to make a decision with rational thought. The fourth level of the stress response system occurs when a high-level of stress or threat is experienced such as burglary. The body then enters a fear state and is only able to access the “fight, flight, freeze” mode of the brain, making emotional and rational thinking no longer accessible. The highest level of the stress response system is terror and this occurs when someone experiences a stressor that feels significantly life-threatening such as being in a massive car accident. At this level of stress, a person can only access their brainstem which keeps them alive by maintaining breathing and keeping their heart pumping.
At each level of the stress response system, more cortisol is released and the adrenal gland is more likely to be exhausted. This means that if someone finds themselves moving along the stress response system, they’re more likely to experience adrenal fatigue.
What are symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?
Now that we have a better understanding of adrenal fatigue and how it is influenced by the stress response system, let’s explore some symptoms of adrenal fatigue to have a better understanding of how it may present.
Some of the more common signs of adrenal fatigue or an overstressed stress response system include:
- Fatigue, particularly in the morning, with cycles of fatigue throughout the rest of the day
- Challenges in mood management
- Challenges in maintaining focus as well as other cognitive issues
- Cravings for sweet and salty foods
- Increased use of caffeine or other stimulants
- Increased energy in the evening
- A compromised immune system
Other less common, but still present symptoms of adrenal fatigue are:
- More frequent urination
- Weight fluctuation
- Poor circulation
- Lower muscle tone
- A decreased libido
It is important to note that many of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are similar to symptoms present in other mental health disorders like depression or physical health challenges like the flu. To have more certainty in determining if you are experiencing adrenal fatigue, it may be useful to consult with trained mental health professionals and/or a primary care provider. Adrenal fatigue is most often diagnosed by using urine or saliva tests to measure cortisol levels.
Adrenal fatigue treatment and how to manage an overtaxed stress response system
Some suggested remedies for adrenal fatigue include:
- Limiting caffeine intake
- Eating a balanced diet with minimal processed foods
- Drinking adequate amounts of water
- Engage in a sleep routine
- Exercise and meditation
Limiting caffeine and engaging in a sleep routine which follows the guidance of sleep hygiene can support your body in returning to its natural sleep cycle. Eating a balanced diet and drinking appropriate amounts of water will ensure that your body is receiving the nutrients it needs to self-regulate and eliminating the nutrients that may be less helpful. Lastly, engaging in exercise, meditation, or any other mindfulness-based practice will support your body in learning how to manage its breath, heart rate, and blood pressure in situations that may feel more challenging. By utilizing these skills, the impacts of life’s stressors will lessen and our enjoyment of life will be more accessible. If you find that you have engaged in these methods of treatment for adrenal fatigue and are still experiencing symptoms, it is encouraged that you seek support from a mental health professional and/or your primary care provider.
Author: Sarah Kelly