Stress is so commonplace in twenty-first century cities that we’ve normalised it. When someone asks, “How are you?” it’s become totally appropriate, and common, to answer “stressed!” But the prevalence of stress has repercussions – the rise of adrenal fatigue, a condition that describes a range of increasingly common symptoms.
Adrenal fatigue – a 21st century condition
It’s well known that a certain level of stress is healthy for stirring us to action and motivating us to achieve, but many people experience far greater levels of stress that can be damaging.
Our lives are complex and as we struggle to cope with multiple pressures at work and in our finances, in relationships and with family, ‘burnout’ is common. If this sounds familiar, it’s worth considering adrenal fatigue.
The main symptoms of adrenal fatigue include general tiredness, muscle weakness, lethargy, listlessness, headaches, and feelings of anxiety or depression. Your hair and skin may feel dry and you may struggle to sleep well, and crave salty or sweet foods. You might use coffee or cola to keep you going, experience low sex drive, and feel constantly unwell and on the verge of illness, with signs of poor immune function. Every organ and body system can be affected by adrenal fatigue: metabolism, fluid/electrolyte balance, and cardio-vascular and respiratory health.
What’s going on?
One or more of the above symptoms may occur because your adrenal glands are so exhausted from responding repeatedly to high levels of stress that they stop functioning properly. The hormones you require for normal body function are simply not being produced. In particular, your adrenal glands no longer produce enough cortisol.
The importance of cortisol
Along with adrenaline, cortisol is one of the key hormones released by your adrenal glands in response to physical, psychological, and emotional stress. Cortisol has essential jobs to do that keep you on an even keel in times of stress: it mobilises nutrients; enables the body to fight inflammation; stimulates the liver to produce blood sugar; and helps control the amount of water in the body. Cortisol is a good guy, and we all need it.
Are you over-stressed?
Twenty-first century lifestyles can include such high levels of daily stress that our adrenal glands become over-stimulated and can no longer cope. Normal levels of cortisol (in particular) aren’t produced, and we begin to experience the symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Our adrenal glands are, quite literally, exhausted from overwork. Those experiencing adrenal fatigue have typically experienced one or more of the following: a prolonged single stressful event or repeated stressful events; chronic illness (especially respiratory such as bronchitis or pneumonia); ongoing stressful lifestyle choices (poor diet, substance abuse, too little sleep, too much pressure); and prolonged situations where you feel trapped (a difficult relationship, a job you hate, or poverty).
There are no clearly defined signs of physical illness with adrenal fatigue and there’s no definitive test for adrenal fatigue, with the result that many mainstream doctors don’t recognise it. Saliva testing – which monitors the levels of stress hormones over the course of a day – seems to be more accurate than blood testing but isn’t yet formally acknowledged either.
Nevertheless, it’s estimated that adrenal fatigue may affect millions of people in western cultures, including Australia of course.
Restorative yoga for adrenal fatigue
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, you’d do well to introduce lifestyle changes that support your adrenal glands. One of the most effective is regular yoga. However, it’s important that your yoga class isn’t highly physical as this can just make the situation worse.
According to yogini Bernadette Birney, “By confusing extremely vigorous kinds of yoga for stress management, we may just be compounding the modern problem”. You may also compound the problem by cramming a new commitment into your already over-crowded schedule – even if it’s a yoga class.
A much better option is to go on a yoga retreat. Honour yourself by organising the rest time your body clearly needs, and find a retreat that will help you establish the regular restorative techniques of relaxation, meditation, and controlled breathing. These practices are directly beneficial for exhausted adrenal glands, and support you to function healthily during stress. Your adrenal glands will thank you for it, and you’ll feel the benefits at work, home, and play.
Adrenal fatigue is discussed as part of the ‘Restorative Yoga Nutrition Lecture’ given by the COMO Shambhala Resident Dietician Eve Persak at our Restorative Health Retreat in September 2014. Will you join us?
Article Written: November 2013