Fortysomething Fitness Part Two – Adrenal Fatigue

Have you noticed a bit of extra weight creeping on? Do you need caffeine or carbohydrates to get you through the day? If so may be suffering from adrenal fatigue.

The adrenal glands are the foundation of the third age hormone system. They produce a number of hormones, most importantly adrenaline and cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone). These hormones have impact on all of the body’s systems affecting everything from digestion to the immune system.

Stress is a normal response; when we are under pressure the body releases a burst of cortisol that enables us to deal with the situation, after which levels should return to normal. However, due to modern lifestyles most of us find ourselves under constant pressure and as a result our stress response never turns off. Over a long period the adrenals begin to fatigue and eventually burn out.

What is the impact of adrenal fatigue?

When the body produces too much cortisol blood sugar levels increase and this can lead to prediabetes and diabetes. The body’s ability to digest food and metabolise fat are also affected, resulting in increased body fat, obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Poor sleep, severe tiredness are common symptoms as are fluctuations in mood and depression. Prolonged elevated cortisol has a knock-on effect on the rest of the hormones and accelerates the ageing process. You may also experience regular colds and flu due to a weakened immune system.

If your adrenals have been over-working for many years and are severely fatigued they may no longer be able to produce sufficient cortisol. Symptoms of low cortisol include fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, bone loss, electrolyte problems (fast pulse, light-headedness, fatigue, frequent urination, thirst) and a feeling of being burned out.

The stress-sugar rollercoaster is one of the most common problems facing those with adrenal fatigue. When the adrenals are not functioning properly we experience low energy, persistent tiredness and become reliant on stimulants such as caffeine and sugary or starchy foods to get through the day.

Our bodies produce different amounts of cortisol over a 24 hour period. We make more in the morning and this gradually reduces during the day. The initial burst of cortisol in the morning is designed to get us out of bed but if the adrenals are burned out, it’s hard to get up so we give yourself an energy boost with caffeine or sugar. This leads to high blood sugar. The body then secretes insulin to deal with the sugar entering the system which causes a crash in energy levels and the cycle begins again.

Poor sleep is also an issue. In traditional cultures the body adapt itself to changing light levels over a 24-hour period. These days artificial light allows us to continue late into the evening. This results in elevated cortisol levels at a time when we should be winding down. This leads to poor sleep, the body is unable to restore itself and a vicious cycle begins.

Strategies for lowering cortisol
There is no magic solution but there a number of strategies you can adopt to help reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.

  • Overhaul your nutrition. Eat regularly. Choose low to medium GI foods and include plenty of protein and healthy fats in your meals. Limit alcohol and ensure you stay hydrated. A
  • Regular exercise. Long exercise sessions can cause further stress to the body so try to keep your workouts to under half an hour. Include more mindful types of exercise such as yoga and tai chi and get out in the fresh air when you can.
  • Mindfulness and meditation. Both can help you to deal with stress.
  • Add a regular massage or acupuncture session to your schedule.
  • Develop a bedtime routine that will help you relax eg limit alcohol and sugar before bed, impose a laptop curfew in the hours before bedtime, make sure you room is dark and at a temperature of between 65 and 72 degrees farenheit. A protein snack just before bed can help you sleep if you usually wake in the early morning due to a drop in blood sugar levels
  • Supplement – vitamins B5 and C have shown to lower cortisol levels as has fish oil and L-theanine ( acomponent of green tea) and ginseng.

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