Do you live your life in fight or flight mode? Are you on the verge of burning out? Are you feeling constantly exhausted? If you do, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that over 80% of adults struggle with what is commonly known as ‘adrenal fatigue’.
I am currently one of that 80%. Just a few months ago, I’d never even heard of adrenal fatigue. But the interesting thing is, over these pasts few months since being diagnosed, adrenal fatigue seems to be a common theme. No matter who they are or what their story is, people everywhere have become accustomed (even addicted) to stress and struggle.
If you’ve experienced it yourself, have you ever wondered why – or what is happening? I’m now sharing my story and the fascinating research I’ve come across in the hope that it will help you work out if you have adrenal fatigue, and if so, how to better manage your condition.
I learned from an early age to deal with constant stress and struggle. My pattern started during childhood when I had to deal with poverty, early pregnancies, and homelessness. Later in life, it continued when I turned my life around with an intense traineeship and building a million-dollar business. It took my body years to send me the message that I was taking on too much.
On the surface, I was kicking some major goals and feeling the happiest I had in years. I was now a mum of five kids, running a business, writing a book, speaking on stages all over Australia and married to a beautiful man. But something had to give.
One day I woke up and just couldn’t eat. I felt like every time I would eat, I was going to choke. So I went to a doctor to have one of those things put down my throat as I thought I had a tumour or something. It wasn’t a tumour, it was anxiety.
That was my first indication of my stressful life catching up on me. The stress that I had been able to manage and use in a positive manner all of my life was now affecting me mentally and physically. I started struggling for breath and feeling anxious, exhausted and terrified I was going to die. I couldn’t go on like this, so I booked myself in to see a naturopath. She knew instantly I had adrenal fatigue!
How Fight or Flight Works
You see, I had lived my entire life since birth in fight or flight mode. In 1915, American physiologist and professor Walter Cannon coined the term fight or flight to describe an animal’s response to threats in bodily changes when they are in pain, hunger, fear or rage.
Today the fight or flight response is used as part of a stress response.
This response is useful for both humans and animals to help them cope with dangers to their survival. Fight flight response allows us to get lots of energy when faced with perceived dangers. It could be walking along a road in the quiet dark night and you feel someone following you, or it could be someone yelling angrily at you.
When a threat to survival is detected, all of these different physiological changes start happening.
- Short shallow breathing, which increases your blood pressure, and a fast heart rate which gets the oxygen around the body quickly
- You get ready for action and so your muscles tense
- You start sweating, which cools down the body
- The thyroid gland stimulates metabolism and the adrenal cortex automatically releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, so we have that burst of energy and stamina.
These stress responses were critical for our ancestors as they were able to escape wild animal attacks. These days the fight flight response can be triggered even when there is no real threat, as the brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a perceived one.
We’ve all been there. The MC calls your name to come on stage and speak. You’ve practiced this speech (or work presentation or whatever) numerous times, but this time, your anxiety takes over and you start feeling light headed. Thoughts race through your head like “they will all laugh at me”, “I am not a good speaker”, “what if I say the wrong thing and they think I am stupid”. All you want to do is run away.
This is an example of your fight flight response being triggered even when there is no real threat. This response is to help us act in stressful situations.
Mary Wingo is a PhD scientist and an author, and these are her words.
“Each person needs to make a list of every stress for which he or she is subjected. This is much like an itemised list from a food diary or a money budget list. This list may be very long, and one may need to enlist the help of family, a therapist, or a support group. The key is for the person to understand that stress is addictive, and the more stressors one has, the greater the risk of stress related illness, injury, disability, or even early death. Then comes the tasks of consciously removing as many of the stressors as possible.”
So How do you Get rid of these Stressors?
This is the most critical step as identifying what stresses you out will be the key to knowing what to eliminate. Every day for a week, be consciously aware of what triggers your stress. At the end of the day, write a list of all of the things, people or activities that stressed you out, then try to eliminate them. With the stressors that you can’t eliminate, you can find ways to make them less stressful.
Living in fear and stress for years and years, you develop a response pattern of high levels of physiological fight or flight reactions. If you don’t eliminate all of the triggers, this ultimately turns into post traumatic stress disorder.
Before I discovered I had adrenal fatigue, I had never really known anything about my adrenal glands. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about them.
So exactly what are the Adrenal Glands?
The adrenal glands are rounded, disc shaped glands about 3-4cms across. One sits atop each kidney, located on either side of your lower back, right above where the ribs end.
Adrenal fatigue is often diagnosed by people in the natural health industry. It’s quite common for doctors and mainstream medical people to ignore adrenal fatigue as a diagnosis. However to those who have all of the symptoms, this is very real to them. Because of the symptoms, most people are told they have depression or are just wanting attention.
Signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness, and easily startled
- Finding the simplest of exercise leaves you breathless
- Inability to handle stressful situations
- Exhausted in the mornings and afternoon
- Salt cravings
- Snacking or eating just to avoid fatigue or irritation
- Low blood pressure
- Having a burst of energy at night and difficult in sleeping
- Multiple food intolerances
- Heart pounding and palpitations
- Low sex drive
- Weight gain, especially around the waist — this weight is almost impossible to lose!
- Brain fog, lack of concentration and difficulty remembering things
- And of course many more!
The adrenals release stress hormones in fight or flight situations. If you have all of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, chances are that your fight flight response has been activated far too often in the past. Each time you are faced with these stresses, the body releases large amounts of stress hormones like cortisol. This means your internal organs are being depleted of the raw materials required to produce the correct hormones. This is what is called adrenal fatigue.
The Four Stages of Adrenal Fatigue
Stage 1 – Buzzing and Tired:
In the morning, your cortisol levels should be elevated. In the first stage of adrenal fatigue, you will find yourself buzzing at night because your cortisol levels are high when they should be low. You will find it difficult to sleep. This is the stage where you feel ‘on edge’.
In my case, I remember feeling on edge around people who I never used to feel on edge around, including my family.
Stage 2 – Stressed and Tired:
The second stage shows the cortisol levels reach higher. People in this stage have a higher dose of cortisol in the mornings. However, by mid-afternoon, they feel on edge, they have mind fog, and tiredness. Anxiety starts to set in and the person becomes easily irritable. It is common at this stage to get a second wind in the evening where the mind starts buzzing and you will wake in the middle of the night with a million thoughts running through your head.
The thyroid may be affected, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and dry hair and skin. Your adrenals cannot keep up with your stress levels, which means hormone precursor material will be re-directed for use in cortisol production. This usually leads to a hormone imbalance.
This was the stage where I quit coffee because I woke up with so much energy that I couldn’t keep up with myself. I couldn’t relax and felt like I was on speed. But by 2pm I wanted to sleep.
Stage 3 – Adrenal Exhaustion:
The third stage is when your adrenals are out of fuel. Dr Lam says “the adrenals are no longer able to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for cortisol production needed to overcome the stress and they become exhausted”. At this stage, most people will feel fatigued and flat for most of the day. Everything in life seems hard. Coffee and sugar may give you a small boost of energy, but nothing like they once did. Cortisol patterns in this stage are completely disrupted and due to low adrenal hormone levels, PMS, low thyroid, poor digestion, menopausal challenges and infertility are associated with higher risk. This is the level where most people will seek professional help because they can’t function as well as they used to.
Stage 4 – Adrenal Failure or Burnout:
Dr Lam says “eventually, the adrenals will become totally exhausted. Patients at this stage will have a high chance of cardiovascular collapse and death”. Over time, the body shuts down due to low levels of sex hormones and stress hormones. A term coined by Dr Fredenberger, we call this stage ‘burnout’. The body has simply run out of ways to make stress hormones and cortisol levels drop. Burnout happens when we have been living with stress for long periods of time and are no longer coping. We crash and burn.
Everyday seemed to get worse and worse, and the worse it got, the more I smashed my gym sessions thinking that would help me. Knowing what I know now, it’s a wonder I didn’t have a heart attack and die.
During this final stage of adrenal fatigue, an individual will be feeling depressed, suffer anxiety, lack of sex drive, extreme exhaustion, extreme tiredness, irritable, and their interests in life will no longer be interesting to them.
I remember being invited to speak on stage. I have spoken on hundreds of stages so this should have been just another gig. However, when my name was called onto the stage and I started speaking, I was feeling so anxious that I had to keep stopping to get my breath. The following week, I had another speaking gig and the exact same things happened, only worse. My throat tightened, I couldn’t speak freely and I felt like the room was caving in. I had to stop speaking and keep taking sips of water all throughout my 45-minute keynote.
Fortunately for me, when I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue I was already eating healthy, exercising and drinking plenty of water. So I didn’t have to eliminate too many things. My main focus was to strengthen my adrenals with healthy herbs that have been clinically shown to or traditionally used to:
- Support patients feeling flat and exhausted.
- Reduce stress-induced physical and mental fatigue.
- Support adrenal and nervous exhaustion.
I was taking these supplements under the care of my naturopath, so make sure you see your health professional before taking any supplements.
It won’t be fixed overnight. If you have had stress most of your life, it could take between 6 and 12 months. The sad truth is that if you enjoy eating and drinking and being merry, well, you are going to need to eliminate some food and drinks that you frequently enjoy. If you feel you have these symptoms, I highly suggest you go see a good health professional but you will have to say Good Riddance to:
An unhealthy diet
- Sugary snacks
- High sugar fruits
- Fast food
- Dried fruits
- Soft drinks
- Refined grains (eg white bread)
- People who you feel stressed around
- The job that stresses you out
- Environments that make you feel stressed
- People that are angry
- Anything else that causes you to feel stressed
Since being diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, I’ve eliminated the things that stressed me out. I’m also taking herbs, getting regular acupuncture, taking vitamin D, magnesium and bone broth and feel on top of the world. My stress levels are down. I am not as irritable. I have my anxiety under control. I am sleeping like a log. I am waking up feeling excited about life again.
When you get rid of your stressors, here is what will happen.
You will feel:
- More energized
- Sleep better
- Make clearer decisions
- Have more positive experiences
- Excited for life again
- Positive relationships
- Minimal stresses
- And you’ll never ever take your health for granted again!!!!
Are you addicted to the stresses and struggles in life? What stresses and struggles can you eliminate so you don’t reach burnout stage?