Adrenal Fatigue, or HPA-Axis Dysfunction (technical term), is a collection of signs and symptoms that happen in the body when the body is stressed—really stressed—resulting in a “stress response” that wreaks havoc on your health. Read this to discover natural ways to heal adrenal fatigue.
HPA AXIS DYSFUNCTION 101 (AKA: “ADRENAL FATIGUE”)
In an ideal world, your HPA-Axis are the glands and organs responsible for balancing stress in your body and it includes your: Hypothalamus, Pituitary, and Adrenal. Your Thyroid gland is also involved. Together, these four regions work together to keep cortisol production (your stress hormone) in check, as well as signal the “just right amount” of cortisol appropriately when stress arises (also known as: “the fight or flight” response).
For instance, if a bear is chasing you, your HPA-Axis kicks into high gear—producing more cortisol to run faster. Ideally, cortisol levels (our stress hormones) go up, “fight” the stress with the fight or flight response, then come down, like this nice bell-curve you see here.
Eventually, when you escape the bear, your HPA-Axis helps bring you body back to balance and “all is well” (at least until another bear comes chasing you).
However, in the case of HPA-Axis Dysfunction or Adrenal Fatigue, your HPA-Axis is challenged to balance cortisol, primarily because your body thinks you are running from a bear—at all times!
Your HPA-Axis “shuts down” proper function—either continually producing cortisol OR halting production of (enough) cortisol altogether to deal with the stress. You ultimately, don’t feel like yourself—left to cope with a host of ailments or less-than-ideal health imbalances.
Although stress is inevitable and a normal part of life (from rush hour traffic, work deadlines or relationship disagreements), when stress exceeds our adaptive response, all balance is lost.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF ADRENAL FATIGUE
Common signs and symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue include:
- Feeling wired and tired at night
- Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep
- Afternoon yawning
- Get drowsy easily
- Slow starter in the morning
- Not “feeling like yourself”
- Easily tired (despite sleeping)
- Afternoon headaches
- Easily keyed up or trouble calming down
- Needing caffeine to function
- Feeling wired or jittery after coffee
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness, dizziness
- Dizzy upon standing
- Arthritic tendencies
- Allergies and/or hives
- Sweat easily
- Salt foods before tasting/crave salt
- Often anxious
- Calm on the outside, troubled on the inside
- Blood pressure above 120/80 OR low blood pressure
- Chronic low back pain, worse with fatigue
- Chronic constipation or bloating
- Difficulty maintaining manipulative corrections (chiropractic)
- Slow metabolism
- Muscle wasting
- Poor fitness performance/gains
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Hormone imbalances
- Skin conditions (acne, rashes, psoriasis)
- Low immunity (easily sick)
- Easily forget things/brain fog
- Panic attacks
- Anxiety or mood swings
- Feeling weepy for no reason
With such a vast array of signs and symptoms, it’s no wonder that “Adrenal Fatigue” often goes misdiagnosed and overlooked. Unfortunately, in conventional medicine, HPA-Axis Dysfunction is technically NOT recognized as a disease until it’s reached the “final” or most chronic stage—also known as “Addison’s Disease.”
However, before getting to that level, HPA-Axis Dysfunction takes a toll on your quality of life—both mentally AND physically.
WHAT CAUSES HPA-Axis DYSFUNCTION (ADRENAL FATIGUE)?
Yes, while stress is inevitable in life, adrenal fatigue is a result of TOO MUCH STRESS without the ability to recover or manage that stress.
And, contrary to popular belief, stress is not just mental, it is also physical. You can be sitting on a beach in Costa Rica on vacation with seemingly no care in the world, but your body STILL be stressed—running off 3 to 4 cups of coffee most days, underlying SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), sleeping 6 hours most nights and on your screens 8-10 hours most days.
Some common causes of Adrenal Fatigue or HPA-Axis Dysfunction include:
- Bluelight screen exposure (long times on screens)
- Light at night time
- Less than 7 hours of sleep most nights
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Imbalanced exercise (i.e. doing HIIT or chronic cardio all the time without mixing it up)
- Exposure to chemicals in beauty, cleaning and hygiene products
- Plastic Tupperware/container use and other environmental toxins
- Mold exposure
- Lack of outdoor/nature and fresh air
- Endlessly Google searching answers to your health questions
- NSAID use (headaches, etc.)
- Oral birthcontrol and/or long term prescription medication use
- Disconnection from community/meaningful relationships
- High coffee/caffeine consumption (more than 1 cup quality coffee/day)
- Disrupted circadian rhythms for sleeping, eating, working and resting patterns
- Artificial sweeteners (most commercial stevia included)
- Eating packaged, refined or processed foods
- Low water intake (less than half your bodyweight in ounces)
- Tap water (not filtered)
- High alcohol consumption or smoking
- Frequent eating out (more than preparing/handling your food)
- Stress over food/diet
- Low fiber (Fermentable prebiotic fiber foods)
- Lack of quality protein (amino acids for your brain)
- Conventional meat and dairy consumption
- Grains and “gluten free” processed products (with gluten-cross contaminants)
- Binging/Purging and disordered eating habits
- Jet lag
- Shift work
- Pain (joint, musculoskeletal)
- Infectious/bacterial disease
- Gut inflammation & Underlying gut conditions (SIBO, parasites, etc.)
- Type A personality—and difficulty listening to your body over your schedule
- Relationship stress
- Financial stress/pressures
- Lack of control
- Not talking about your stress (bottling it up)
- Lack of play/fun
- Not doing things you love
- Serotonin suppression (“feel good” brain chemicals)
- Social Media comparison/endless scrolling
- Trying to be all things to all people/people pleasing
- FOMO (lack of downtime for yourself)
- Burning a candle at both ends
- News binging
Couple multiple stressors together at once—without much “recovery” or stress management—and you are a prime candidate for “adrenal fatigue” or HPA-Axis Dysfunction.
MY ADRENAL FATIGUE STORY
I was a skeptic that “Adrenal Fatigue” or HPA-Axis Dysfunction was real UNTIL I experienced it first hand.
- Graduate school.
- Working 10-hour shift days in my clinical internship trainings.
- Sleeping 5-6 hours most nights.
- Lack of variety in my diet.
- Stressed over people pleasing my instructors and passing.
- Lack of community connection and “fun” outside of work and school.
- Shortness of breath
- Low energy
- Poor fitness gains
- Gastric distress (bloating and constipation)
- Ultimately not feeling like myself
The straw that broke the camel’s back happened one morning during my 5 a.m. workout—an intense workout at “Fran” (a benchmark workout in CrossFit). I gave 110% effort in that workout and set a new personal record time of 3-minutes and 58-seconds to finish the entire thing, but I ALSO pushed my body over the edge…real fast.
The rest of that day—and for 4 weeks straight thereafter—I couldn’t breathe. Literally. My lung capacity began to give way and for the first time in my life, I had to think about breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth.
“It’s Not a Big Deal”
Initially, I shrugged off my symptoms as being “all in my head,” however as several days went on, and the labored breathing continued, I began to get worried—real worried.
My symptoms took me down a rabbit hole over that month, going to ever specialist in town for help:
- 3 ER Visits—to which they told me it was “anxiety”
- My General Practitioner—who told me it was “all in my head”
- The Urgent Care—where the doc prescribed me an inhaler for “adult onset asthma”
- A Neurologist—who told me I may have a brain aneurism
- A cardiologist—who told me I may have a heart condition or a pulmonary embolism (blockage of blood flow to my heart)
- And NO answers but the same lingering symptoms!!!
After 4 straight weeks of trying to get to the bottom of it all, in desperation, I entered “holistic doctor” into my Google search term box, and contacted the first girl on the list.
A few days later, I found myself in her office and the words, “Your symptoms are really indicative of adrenal fatigue,” roll off her lips—something I had NEVER heard of before.
Long story short, a hormone test, a good talk about current stressors in my life, and a few assessments later, I learned about a condition that would later become a common, every day epidemic I now see in my own Functional Medicine Practice.
- Eating a nutrient-dense diet (not just protein shakes and the same thing every day)
- Sleeping 7-9 hours each night
- Short term supplemental supports
- Doing less HIIT/Cardio for a time, and more yoga, walking and weight lifting
- Loving my gut with probiotic and prebiotic foods and supports
- Making time for play
- Mentally, not letting the “little things” get to me and cutting out the drains in my life (i.e. people pleasing)
- And using my voice—to speak up for myself
THE BOTTOM LINE
The moral of the story?
“Adrenal Fatigue” IS real—and stress goes far beyond mental stress.
WARNING: IT MAY COME BACK
Additionally, it’s IMPORTANT to note that “adrenal fatigue” (or “HPA-Axis Dysfunction”) can happen (or reoccur ANY TIME). Fortunately, there are natural ways to heal adrenal fatigue.
A few years after my initial adrenal fatigue episode, I found myself in the SAME place again, with similar symptom.
Although I was no longer in grad school, my life as an entrepreneur began to take a toll on my health:
- Little sleep (5-6 hours/night)
- Long hours spent staring at screens
- Eating on the go
- Eating at weird times
- Waking up super early
- Working out (ALOT) to relieve stress and doing the same things
- LOTS of work at a computer (and little play)
- Disconnection from spending time with people and doing other things I love
- And putting lots of pressure on myself
My body was able to “handle” the stress and the pace for several years, until the “straw that broke the camel’s back” happened: A colonoscopy procedure that eradicated the healthy gut bacteria in my gut, and sent my body into SUPER STRESS MODE!
Hello shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, blood sugar imbalances, constipation and NOT feeling like myself!
What I’ve learned?
“Stress management” is an ongoing process that goes BEYOND meditation and deep breathing. It includes:
- Sleeping 7-9 hours/night
- Working out “just right” (not too much and not too little) & varying your workouts
- Chewing your food well
- Balancing work with play, fresh air, quality time spent with people and your hobbies/passions
- “Candling down” at night time to improve circadian rhythm function
- Not staring at screens all the time (detoxing from screens at certain times of day)
Self-care does a body (and adrenal fatigue recovery) good.
WHAT COULD CAUSE “ADRENAL FATIGUE” FOR YOU?
Consider the current top stressors in your daily, modern lifestyle and how they are impacting your overall health.
Then, if you want to feel good—really good—integrate these 5 Essential Steps to Heal Adrenal Fatigue Naturally.
5 ESSENTIAL STEPS TO HEAL ADRENAL FATIGUE NATURALLY
Step 1: Listen to Your Body
“Mind over matter” is NOT the tactic you want to use in adrenal fatigue recovery. A HUGE part of healing is about re-connecting—or simply connecting—with your body for the first time in awhile.
- It’s not forcing yourself to run or do CrossFit if your body is just craving yoga or a walk; or vice versa
- It’s eating a salad one day, and another day, eating a steak or burger
- It’s drinking coffee in moderation—not forcing your body to function by simply adding more caffeine
- It’s sleeping in instead of waking up at 4 am or 5 am to fit in your workout; or going to bed at a decent time in order to wake up fully energized
- It’s tuning in.
The path of least resistance is where we find the most freedom, energy and aliveness.
Step 2: Address Stress
We live in a stressful world.
In fact, many of our daily stressors have become the “norm,” that we no longer question them as being stressful at all.
However, when we consider how the human body was created to “optimally function” and compare that to our modern day lifestyles, it’s a no brainer why adrenal fatigue is so common amongst humankind.
The BIGGEST game changer in reversing “Adrenal Fatigue” and improving your health comes down to “addressing stress”—cutting out the “little things” that take a toll on your body.
Where to start? Focus on one at a time. Little things WILL make a big difference.
- Replace nighttime screens with a book instead
- Candle down at night—dim the lights in your house and rid of light pollution
- Cut the chronic cardio, and balance it out with weight training, walks and yoga
- Just say “no” (stop people pleasing so much)
- Put on your oxygen mask first in order to help others
- Replace your plastic water bottles and containers with stainless steel
- Replace toxic cleaning and beauty products with more natural ones (The Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org is a great source for helping you do this)
- Vary up your diet with a variety of nutrient-dense foods (not eating the same thing every day)
- Take “recess” breaks away from your desk/screens
- Focus on doing one thing at a time—or a few things each day—instead of a never ending to-do list
- Incorporate “play” into your day
- Stick to one cup of coffee per day, and sip herbal tea or Teecino in lieu of other cups
- Cut the artificial sweeteners once and for all
The world is your oyster, but guaranteed there are a lot of “little things” that can make a big difference in your healing.
Step 3: Eat Real Food
Let food be thy medicine. Not just for a healthy gut, but also a healthy brain and balance.
A balanced diet leads to a balanced body. Your body sees nutrients—not calories, not macros—and it desires a balance of real foods in order to perform every metabolic action necessary to function (cortisol balancing included).
Build your diet off of real whole foods including:
- Sustainable Proteins & Fish (pastured, wild-caught, grass-fed and organic are ideal)
- Dark Leafy Greens
- Prebiotic Colorful Fibers & Starchy Tubers (winter squashes, sweet potatoes, carrots, plantains)
- Healthy Plant & Animal Fats (avocado, ghee, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, coconut butter, extra virgin olive oil, raw nuts and seeds)
- Some Fresh Fruits
- Lots of (Clean, Filtered) Water
Simple but powerful. Also ensuring you are eating ENOUGH is crucial. A common roadblock people run into with Adrenal Fatigue is “accidental dieting” or chronic under-eating.
How much is “enough?”
While calories are only a piece of the puzzle, aim for at least 12-14 times your bodyweight as a baseline of caloric intake, adding approximately 500-calories for every hour of moderate-vigorous exercise. For women, this generally between 1800-2200 calories at a minimum, and guys, 2200-2400 as a minimum. Consult with a nutritionist or functional medicine provider for further customization.
Step 4: Smart Testing & Supplementation
“Test don’t guess” is the methodology behind lab testing, and the DUTCH Test is “gold standard” test for assessing for “Adrenal Fatigue.” This urine and saliva test assesses your cortisol, and other hormone levels, over the course of 24-hours to note the patterns of high, low or normal results.
However, if testing is not sought, often times treatment integrating all the steps in this article (particularly addressing stress), along with baseline supplemental support can prove greatly effective.
If testing is not utilized, some of the most common supplemental supports I find as general “good measures” of supporting cortisol and body balance (in conjunction with food) include:
Basic Adrenal Support Supplements
- Soil Based Probiotic
- Cod Liver Oil
- Vitamin B-Complex
- Liposomal Vitamin C
- EstroFactors (a “multi-vitamin” for women)
- Adrena-Calm (lotion for managing stress)
Step 5: Love Your Gut (Health)
Last but not least, your gut is the gateway to health—including your cortisol and hormone balance. If your gut health is off, then your hormones and HPA-Axis simply cannot get the nutrients and essentials they need to thrive.
In clinical practice, I find that many people with Adrenal Fatigue actually have underlying gut inflammation that perpetuates their body’s stress response.
Work with a functional medicine practitioner or nutritionist to address and assess your own gut health, for common presentations, including SIBO (bacterial overgrowth), parasites, and dysbiosis (bacteria imbalance).
In addition, LOVE your gut and heal your digestion naturally starting here.
Do you have “Adrenal Fatigue?” Can’t figure out your symptoms?
Let’s help you take back your health. Connect with Dr. Lauryn today for a 10-minute complimentary consult to discuss your concerns or find out about customizing a health and healing plan for you today.