Adrenal Fatigue: Could Your Tiredness Mean Something More?

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by Nicole Mowbray |
Updated on

Our lives are increasingly tiring and stressful, but how do you know if your lethargy is something you should worry about?

In January, I was struck down by a persistent sore throat. After feeling ill for 14 days, a trip to the doctors resulted in an order to rest and a prescription for penicillin ‘if it got worse’. It didn’t get rapidly worse, but it didn’t get better, either. Work commitments meant I felt guilty taking time off but after three weeks of feeling terrible I buckled, took the tablets and a week off. In total, I was ill for nearly five weeks and experienced a lingering tiredness.

Persistent tiredness and poor immunity are just two indicators that you could be suffering ‘adrenal fatigue’ – effectively a hormonal burnout – which is tough to diagnose and not yet recognised by doctors, but appears to be affecting growing numbers of young women.

If you find securing a good night’s sleep as likely as Kim K coming over camera-shy, plus symptoms including increased hunger and feeling as if your brain is ‘foggy’, you may want to get checked out. ‘Adrenal fatigue affects many people at some stage of their lives,’ says Dr Annice Mukherjee, consultant endocrinologist at the Spire Manchester Hospital. ‘There are conflicting theories, but most indicate that a chronic stress response switches on the brain’s hormone systems that control and stimulate the adrenal glands. The trigger will be different in different people.’ Here’s how to spot the signs and address them.

What are the causes?

Your boss has you working all hours, your boyfriend’s a pain and let’s not start on your finances… Prolonged periods of emotional, mental or physical stress can cause the adrenal glands (located just above the

kidneys) to function less efficiently. These little guys produce life-saving hormones, such as cortisol (regulates blood sugar and is

instrumental in our fight-or-flight reaction), aldosterone (regulates blood pressure) and androgens (the sex hormones). When hormones go haywire, it can cause all sorts of problems. Struggling to sleep at night then feeling tired all through the day is a common sign of disrupted hormones. Dr Mukherjee explains, ‘It’s likely the day/ night variation in stress hormones is lost. So levels might be high when they should be low and vice versa, which makes us lethargic in the day and sleepless at night.’

Who is at risk?

Hands up all those who frantically rush from a busy job to the gym for a quick, intense workout? Big mistake, according to Dr Jane Leonard, GP at London’s Third Space gym, who claims that as well as not

helping to shift excess weight, it could contribute to weight gain. ‘People at risk of adrenal fatigue are often those who always “burn the candle at both ends” or try to fit too much into too little time,’ she explains. ‘Intense periods of stress, a big life change, relationship breakdown, having no down time or long-term anxiety can also make

someone produce high levels of cortisol.

In short bursts, cortisol is well tolerated by the body, but it is potentially harmful long-term, causing weight gain around the belly, among other things.’ So while there are many stressful situations we can’t change about our lives, putting the brakes on some of those voluntary commitments for a while can really help rest the adrenals.

What are the symptoms?

Struggling to lose weight, especially the first roll on the lower stomach, and insomnia may be red flags. ‘Adrenal fatigue is not a condition most GPs look out for,’ says Dr Leonard. ‘The symptoms can often be non-specific, for example being constantly tired, craving salty foods, trouble sleeping and difficulty losing weight. Lots of these symptoms are linked to other problems that have to be ruled out first.

Try the adrenal balancing smoothie

It might not sound enticing, but when your stress levels are rising,

fix yourself this smoothie.

250ml almond milk

(or any other nut milk)

1 frozen banana

1 tsp Nutriseed

Ashwagandha powder

1 tsp cinnamon

2 dates

1 tbsp shelled hemp seeds

1 tbsp peanut butter or small

handful of nuts

Blend together until smooth and enjoy.

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