3 Stages of Adrenal Fatigue

Your first question may be “what the heck are adrenals”.

For those of you who know, you can skip this, but for those who don’t (and please don’t feel bad if not – most people outside the health community don’t), they are two pyramid shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys.

They are responsible for releasing the cascade of hormones that happen when we’re stressed out, such as cortisol and adrenaline. They also release sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, and they also help regulate salt in the body.

I could literally write books upon books about adrenal health, they’re that powerful. From a functional nutrition standpoint, if someone comes to me with thyroid issues, I always dig deeper and look at adrenal health first. Often thyroid disorders such as hypothyroidism are preceded by years of stress or major stressful life events.

So, anyway, onto the adrenals – here is a picture of them so you get a better idea (the big red globes are your kidneys):

medically accurate illustration of the kidneys

I spoke about the effects of stress on the body in this you tube video, and here I’ll address the stages of fatigue:

  1. Acute
    1. this is the initial stage of stress. usually caused by lack of sleep the night before, drops in your blood sugar, pain, emotional stuff – fight with your spouse, boss yells at you.
    2. This stage is easily recovered from. Once you get back onto a regular sleep pattern, eat, or tell your boss or spouse to f*ck off, you’re usually good.
  2. Adaptation
    1. This is where stress becomes chronic. Your boss/spouse is constantly being a jerk, post traumatic stress or you always skip meals or have a poor diet in general. Or you’re just a high-stress, put pressure on yourself kind of person (not that I know ANYTHING about that!)
    2. This is the stage where your adrenals are constantly on the go. It’s always releasing the hormones, your body is always ON. Sleep now becomes an issue – you might wake up at 3am every day, you’re punchy, you might have more serious side effects like memory loss or depression. Exhaustion is like a shadow that never leaves you.
  3. Exhaustion
    1. Now you’re totally stressed but depleted.This generally happens after years of being in the constant adaptation stage without any reprieve.
    2.  You’re in burnout, your adrenals no longer pump out sufficient hormones for you to be able to cope with even small every day stress (you stub your toe and end up on a heap on the floor, bawling your eyes out shrieking “why meeeeee????”).

Why should you care about this?

For a couple reasons:

  1. belly fat is mostly cortisol.
  2. memory loss – your brain cells shrink after prolonged stress. Nobody wants to be a dinosaur (big body, little brain).
  3. your immune system is suppressed while you’re sick – so this is why you get sick on holiday. Once you’re relaxed – BAM – your immune system is in full force.
  4. Something called the cortisol steal – sex hormones and stress hormones are both made from cholesterol. The more stressed you are, the less cholesterol is given to your adrenal pathway to make sex hormones. This equals a low libido, and this is why some women have really shitty menopauses – adrenals kick in after the ovaries stop and if your adrenals have been abused from years of stress, they won’t be as effective at releasing sex hormones to make your menopause a smooth transition.
  5. Digestion is affected – our digestive system has its own brain and happily (or not so happily) ticks along without us paying much attention to it. But when we’re constantly stressed (as in stage 2) blood flow is being prioritized to other areas of the body: brain, muscles – so that we can fight or flee. When we’re chilled out and relaxed, also known as rest, digest and make babies, our digestive system operates at its best. Bloating, heartburn and other digestive upsets can sometimes be reduced by slowing down when eating and not eating while stressed out.

So what can you do about it?

Chill out as much as possible. Do whatever you need to in order to reduce stress or, more precisely, your reaction to stress. Stress is mostly perception, so take a look and see where you may be overreacting to something that someone else would laugh off. For example, my husband doesn’t care that his clothes are all over the floor, I HATE it. It stresses me out. He simply doesn’t see it so it doesn’t bother him. Can I change my perception? You betcha – and grabbing a large garbage bag usually does the trick! (consider yourself warned, Chris!).

Tell me in the comments below how you are going to better manage your stress this week.


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