Every so often, one of us encounters an enemy that locks us into complete paralysis. E-mail messages go unchecked, laundry stacks to the height of Everest, and personal relationships shrivel like leaves beneath a merciless breeze. It’s a silent enemy, leaving behind no physical side effects (except many empty coffee cups and energy drinks to help you reach Bare Minimum Adult Functionality). Your doctor assures you that all of your lab results are normal; medically, there’s nothing wrong with you. But you know, from the bottom of your tired and weary heart, that something is wrong… Your sinuses are flaring on a cool winter day (but doctor, I don’t even have allergies). Out of nowhere, pickles, Saltine crackers, and sushi rolls doused in soy sauce surge to your Top Three Foods list (what is happening to my taste buds?!). There’s something else disrupting your groove: bathroom breaks, which are inconveniently happening every hour (c’mon doc, what digs?).
While these could be symptoms of various health conditions, a silent enemy by the name “Adrenal Fatigue” is the most common culprit. It crawls into your life and leaves behind these life-crippling symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of motivation (mainly due to lack of energy)
- Low sex drive
- Low mood
- Easily irritable
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Brain fog
- Inability to lose weight
- Salty food cravings
- Increased urination
- Low blood sugar
- Low blood pressure
How does this happen?
This story, like all medical stories, begins with a tragedy. Somewhere in your body, an ecosystem of organs and parts suffers an imbalance that leaves its members malfunctioning. The ecosystem in today’s conversation is the adrenal glands. Perched above your kidneys are these small glands whose sole purpose of existence is to produce hormones: cortisol, your body’s built-in alarm system and blood-pressure-regulator; adrenaline, your body’s boxing gloves and running shoes in high stress situations; aldosterone, your body’s traffic control center for sodium, potassium, and blood flow. Each of these hormones, as well as many others, is essential to your functioning and critical for your survival. And when their production is compromised, you’re left depleted and depressed, hobbling through life’s lowest hurdles like an injured race horse. Little tasks, like meeting a work deadline or paying your bills on time, become monstrous pressures. In layman terms, you’re burnt out.
What causes adrenal fatigue?
Coping and responding to life’s stressors is easier when your adrenal glands are functioning at full capacity. They begin to fatigue, however, when that stress continues chronically and compactfully, giving you no room to rest. Picture this scenario: you came down with a case of bronchitis that eventually evolved into pneumonia. As you’re driving to your next doctor’s appointment, you’re rear-ended in highway traffic and spend what should be your recovery time making a police statement, calling your insurance agent, and visiting the auto repair shop for a claim estimate. You trudge along, coughing into your shirt sleeve, wondering what other misfortune is looming on the horizon. These are just the foreground events, major plot twists in the tragedy of your life; the background noise discloses a second layer of drama: a stressful job, an unhappy marriage, ongoing sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, failing friendships, and the loneliness that often accompanies middle age. Your adrenal glands struggle to catch up with these stressors, no matter how much more hormones they produce. Like yourself, they burn out and are no longer able to meet the body’s demands.
Perhaps our lives aren’t simply a string of tragedies. Perhaps we are healthy and well in our pursuit of a good life. There is no denying, however, that even the healthiest and happiest of us are products of the 21st century Western lifestyle. In our frittered good will, we pack our schedules with long work hours (we need the money) and graduate school (what’s a bachelor’s degree worth now, anyway?) and family obligations (let me just swing by my sister’s; I haven’t seen my nieces and nephews in weeks) and parenting (my daughter needs to be in sports and piano lessons, just like everyone else her age) and volunteering (gotta give back to the community!) and so-and-so’s dinner and so-and-so’s son’s birthday party and so-and-so’s social justice awareness event… “Chipotle for dinner okay with everyone?” you ask from the driver’s seat, remembering that you haven’t cooked for the fifth day in a row.
We are all chained to demands far beyond our capacity, and unfortunately, the very system designed to handle these demands suffers as a consequence. With too much unmanaged stress, our hormone-producing glands clash and we suffer from adrenal fatigue.
So why do many doctors refuse to recognize adrenal fatigue as a real problem?
That is a question for next week’s blog! When the conversation continues… Read Part II here.