Adrenal fatigue is also known as Adrenal insufficiency, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal dysregulation or HPA Axis Dysregulation. As a health professional, I prefer the term Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation, however, I will use it interchangeably with “Adrenal Fatigue”.
First, let’s paint the picture
You are feeling wired, always on the go with a constant underlying feeling of stress. Or maybe you are someone who is utterly exhausted yet finding it hard to fall asleep, and if you do fall asleep at a reasonable time you are often woken up in the middle of the night. Getting up in the morning feels like a cruel challenge.
You stumble into the kitchen to make yourself a huge pot of coffee because there is no way that you would survive the day without your morning coffee, even if it does make you feel more anxious after you have consumed it.
Your body feels “puffy”, and your jeans might even be feeling tighter around your tummy.
Your muscles are aching.
You can’t think straight and are often forgetting day to day things like where you put the car keys.
You may even be at the point where you have lost all your motivation and passion in life. Everything feels like a struggle because you are too tired OR you overthink everything and feel anxious at the thought of social engagement or tackling your to-do list. The stress of everyday life is consuming you and you don’t know why. You feel it in your body, you feel it in your mind.
You might even feel jittery, lightheaded or dizzy & find it hard to articulate what it is you would like to say.
You crave salty snacks and get cranky if it’s been too long between meals. You can’t make it through the day without that 3 pm sweet treat.
Does this sound like you?
If so, your adrenals probably need some love.
Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation (AKA Adrenal Fatigue) has become a common disorder that I help women overcome in my Ayurveda & Integrative Health Clinic.
What is HPA axis dysregulation / Adrenal fatigue?
The adrenals are two small triangular shaped glands that sit at the top of each kidney, they are made up of the Adrenal cortex (the outer layer) & the Adrenal medulla (the inner layer). They are responsible for secreting certain hormones:
- Cortisol – this hormone is released in times of acute & chronic stress.
- Epinephrine (Adrenaline) & norepinephrine (Noradrenalin) – Produced in times of acute stress when the “fight or flight” response is activated by the sympathetic nervous system.
- Aldosterone – helps control blood pressure by regulating electrolytes and blood pressure.
- Androgens – DHEA & Testosterone – These are precursor hormones that are converted to oestrogen in ovaries & male hormones in the testes.
- Oestrogen/progesterone – small amounts of Women’s sex hormones are produced in the adrenals.
The driving cause behind Adrenal fatigue is STRESS. Whether that is physical, emotional, mental stress or long-time illness, it is taxing on the mind and body. Our mind & body are intricately connected so when either one perceives stress it signals to the brain that it is “under stress” and our helpful adrenals come into bat for us by producing our stress hormones, cortisol & adrenalin.
When we are under any type of acute stress, whether that be a scary dog chasing us down the street or an awkward confrontation with our boss, adrenaline will surge through the body.
Adrenaline is inflammatory to the body, so its helpful friend cortisol follows to help deal with the inflammation. In acute situations cortisol can be lifesaving and help us manage infections or immediate danger, cortisol can have an anti-inflammatory effect, HOWEVER, when the mind & body is constantly faced with stress and cortisol production becomes chronic it can affect the body in a number of ways, such as:
- Decreasing metabolic function (hello weight gain)
- Breaks down muscle mass. Cortisol loves to steal protein from your muscles & has a catabolic action (hello weight gain, loss of tone & decreased strength)
- Increases fluid retention (hello puffiness)
- Increases weight gain, generally around the torso (Hello thicker torso & tighter fitting jeans)
- Dysregulates blood sugar (Hello midday mood swings, feeling jittery and hangry)
- Alters immune system (Hello frequent colds and illness)
- Irregular menstrual cycles & PMS (Goodbye fertility, hello cranky pants)
The body is, however, quite resilient and can continue to function in this state, although not ideal for quite some time BUT when that time is up, and the demands for cortisol go on & on due to chronic stressors, the body enters a negative feedback loop where the demands are met with resistance. This is when cortisol levels drop to an all-time low and additional symptoms plague the mind & body such as chronic fatigue, stiffness, inflammatory conditions and even autoimmune reactions can occur.
When we have reached this state, there can be an interference with the communication between the hypothalamus (in the brain), pituitary gland & adrenal glands. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation (AKA Adrenal Fatigue) can present as a mix of some or all of the symptoms mentioned above. The main symptoms I see in my women’s health clinic are fatigue, irregular cycles, PMS, insomnia, anxiety, poor memory/brain fog, low blood pressure, lowered immunity, salt cravings and unexplained weight gain.
These symptoms are often amplified in women who are shift workers, new mothers and/or experience sleep deprivation or circadian rhythm disruption.
Treating HPA axis dysregulation / Adrenal fatigue
It is no surprise that the treatment for HPA axis dysregulation starts with stress management and ways to get your body moving into the parasympathetic (rest & digest) state throughout the day, giving it a much need break from being in “fight or flight” mode which is governed by the sympathetic nervous system.
As an Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine Practitioner, I do lifestyle and daily routine (Dinacharya) audits with my clients. We look at ways that we can curate a routine that will honour their mind, body & stress response. We look at limiting belief patterns that are creating a subconscious stress response in the mind & body, and ways to rewire the neural pathways in order to calm the central nervous system.
I often incorporate different meditation practices, breathwork or yoga postures in my treatment protocols as well as herbal medicine specifically for adrenal health, the nervous system and cortisol regulation.
Eating a wholesome nutrient-rich diet is extremely important for those suffering from Adrenal Fatigue. When you are under a lot of stress the body consumes essential vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, vitamin B’s, zinc and other important vitamins and minerals, so if you are not getting enough of them through your food you may have to take nutritional supplements for a while.
We also look at ways to regulate sleep as this has a great impact on your nervous system and inflammation in the body.
We also look at ways to reduce systemic inflammation & bring the body back to a more balanced state.
There is an Ayurvedic concept called Agni, which is often referred to as “digestive fire” but it is also the metabolic functioning of all cells in the body. The metabolic function of your cells governs energy, so we look very closely at ways we can increase your “Agni”.
You need a strong digestive fire to break down the food and extract the nutrients from the food so that the body can assimilate the vitamins and minerals it needs for proper cellular function. The Angi in your cells acts as the “spark plugs” for your body, so strong cellular Angi is required for energy production.
Are there tests that you can do for HPA axis Dysregulation / Adrenal Fatigue?
Yes, there are a number of salivary, blood & urine tests that you can do to test cortisol levels throughout the day and DHEA levels, however, a test is not often always required if you find a practitioner who can take a detailed history and understand the key signs & symptoms. It is also important to not ignore some of the symptoms outlined above as they may need further investigation to rule out other more sinister diseases. A good practitioner will also know when to refer for other testing if required.
Does the Harmony Inspired Health Clinic offer functional lab tests?
Yes, we do, after an initial consultation.
If you have found this information helpful. Please share it with your friends so that we can get the word out about Adrenal Fatigue so that we can help stop the suffering!
If you are someone who suffers from any of the symptoms mentioned in this article and would like to discuss it further with a Women’s Health Practitioner, you can book a consultation at https://www.harmonyinspiredhealth.com.au/book-appointment/
(Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine, Women’s Health Practitioner)