Could adrenal fatigue be to blame for the brain fog you’ve been experiencing this year? NH investigates
Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out why you feel the way you do – especially with the ups and downs of 2020. But if you’re tired all the time, feel lightheaded, achy and crave salty and sweet foods, some health professionals might diagnose you with a condition called adrenal fatigue. “Adrenal fatigue is a controversial and widely debated medical term that is said to occur as a result of chronic stress which leads to adrenal exhaustion,” explains Dr Myra Altman from Modern Health, a mental wellness platform (joinmodernhealth.com). “The medical industry is split with most major medical organisations debunking the adrenal fatigue diagnosis and others, often in alternative medical circles, continuing to diagnose it as a real condition alongside symptoms of stress.” To find out more about adrenal fatigue and how it works, we asked health professionals to weigh in with their take on the condition.
Part of the confusion and scepticism that surrounds adrenal fatigue is because its symptoms mirror those of extreme stress, as Dr Altman explains. “The hypothalamicpituitary- adrenal axis, or HPA axis as it’s more commonly called, describes the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands,” says Dr Altman. “When we are under stress, our initial response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system and the result is an increase in heart rate and perspiration. About 10 seconds later, the HPA axis is stimulated and this creates a chain of events which results in the adrenal glands releasing short bursts of cortisol into our bloodstream. Cortisol is said to help the body deal with a stressor that lasts longer than a few minutes. However, the problem is that if you are exposed to prolonged periods of stress for too long, the HPA axis is overstimulated. This can lead to physical and psychiatric problems and individuals with elevated cortisol levels may experience a suppressed immune system response, making them more susceptible to infection. Additionally, high cortisol levels can cause brain fog, low energy, detrimental effects on memory and mood disorders such as depression.” Essentially, chronic stress can and does have a significant impact on our health, so it’s important to talk to your doctor and explore treatments and lifestyle changes that will help to reduce your levels of stress and anxiety.
“Many factors affect the adrenal glands, but the common theme here is stress,” says Michele Wood, nutrition tutor from The School of Health (schoolofhealth.com).
This can be described in four broad categories:
“In the short term, the body is set up to adapt and cope with these kinds of stressors. However, when stress continues over an extended period, eventually the adrenals can no longer keep up – hence the term ‘adrenal exhaustion’,” explains Michele. Our bodies, and the HPA axis, are designed to manage intense acute stressors (think: tiger jumping out at you), but not as well designed to respond to chronic stress. “Basically, 2020 is proving to be a perfect recipe for increased risk of chronic stress,” says Dr Altman. “Covid-19, ongoing financial, health and job uncertainty, looming threats of a second peak, increased lockdown restrictions still to come and an economic recession are all creating a unique environment of heightened stress and anxiety.” If you’ve been feeling more stressed that usual lately, you’re not alone. In fact, in the study State of the Industry: Mental Health in the Coronavirus Era, it was found that more than half (57 percent) of UK respondents said that they have felt more stress and anxiety during Covid-19 than at any other time in their life.
“The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are often non-specific and vary,” says Michelle. “But some of the most common symptoms include poor energy levels, chronic fatigue, chronic back pain or muscular aches, frequent respiratory infections, allergies, lightheadedness, food cravings and over-reliance on stimulants like caffeine and nicotine.
The type of person who may be suffering adrenal fatigue is someone who:
Beating adrenal fatigue goes hand in hand with swerving stress. “A healthy diet, regular exercise and a good sleep pattern can all make you feel better,” says Dr Altman. “But the main way to tackle chronic stress is to reduce stress and improve relaxation.” Here are four ways you help to reduce the toll that stress has on your body.
Engage in activities and connections:
Start to do activities you enjoy and focus on pleasurable activities (things that you class as fun, such as getting coffee with friends, watching a movie, etc) and mastery activities (things that give you a sense of accomplishment like cleaning your dishes, responding to an email, or paying a bill). Engage with the people you care about, reach out for help, and accept it.
Take care of physical wellness:
During periods of psychological stress, our bodies respond in the exact same way it does to a physical threat in the environment. This means that your body is responding to bad news or work stress as if there’s a tiger in front of you, ready to pounce. We only have a finite amount of coping capability across the day and that can become easily depleted if self-care isn’t a priority; by engaging in activities that are restful and rejuvenating, you’re filling up your ‘coping container’.
Build a mindfulness practice:
While some people suggest meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, that can be really hard to do, especially when you are just getting started. Mindfulness is like exercise for the brain. The more you do it, the stronger your muscle gets, and the more results you’ll see.
Consider speaking to a coach, not just a therapist:
Some people aren’t ready to actually speak to someone and would benefit from digital support like guided meditation or audio therapy or digital programmes around stress management. Others who feel stressed or need support with a balanced lifestyle could benefit from a certified health coach who specialises in behaviour motivation.
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