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What is Adrenal Fatigue?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one million Americans suffer from severe fatigue, and many more suffer from general tiredness. While there are several contributing factors, perhaps the most common explanation is what many call “adrenal fatigue.”
The true name of the adrenal condition that can lead to fatigue, among other symptoms, including brain fog, nausea, and dizziness, is hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction. This axis is the one that stress hormones like cortisol travel along when your fight-or-flight response is activated.
Unfortunately, in our culture, we’re constantly stimulated to be in fight-or-flight, so we wear out this protective measure with a constant demand for stress hormones. A busy work environment and competing demands for attention may now trigger the same response as being chased by a tiger, sending our systems into overdrive and exhaustion.
(Visit a doctor to confirm that your exhaustion is HPA-axis dysregulation and not symptoms of an underlying issue like hypothyroidism, anemia, or depression.)
What Happens to Our Bodies Under Stress?
When high levels of stress persist, the central nervous system commands the adrenals to manufacture more energy in the form of a stress-fighting hormone called cortisol. When the adrenals are unable to produce the needed cortisol, they start borrowing energy.
Here’s how it works:
During stressful situations, the adrenals will convert available progesterone into the stress hormone cortisol, leading to low levels of progesterone.
Stress-induced lower levels of progesterone and testosterone can cause the body to perceive what may be normal levels of estrogen as high. This is called unopposed estrogen and can create a significant hormonal imbalance linked to weight gain, mood issues, and a host of reproductive and libido issues.
Over-stressed and depleted adrenals also seek the production of more stress-fighting cortisol by eliciting cravings. More often than not, the cravings are for sweets, stimulants, and caffeinated beverages.
Sound familiar? Sweets and refined carbohydrates set the body up for blood sugar highs and lows, stressing pancreatic function and further exhausting the adrenals. This may predispose the body to serious blood sugar, weight gain, mood, and energy imbalances that are linked to tiredness and fatigue.
Finally, in a state of adrenal fatigue, the body will stimulate the thyroid gland to boost metabolic activity (more thyroid hormone) in an effort to supply energy to meet the demands of chronic stress. This quickly over-stimulates the thyroid, rendering it exhausted and subsequently unable to maintain normal body metabolism. Cold hands and feet, weight gain, and tiredness are just a few of the signs of thyroid depletion.
The body is hardwired to adapt to extreme levels of stress as a means of survival, but excess and chronic stress incur debt far beyond the realm of “adrenal fatigue.” From this perspective, the idea of stimulating the adrenals to borrow more energy from the reproductive system, pancreas, and thyroid glands seems like a dangerous path to go down to meet the body’s energy demands.
Ayurvedic Support for Chronic Stress and Fatigue
In our culture of immediate gratification, we’ve been conditioned to reach for a stimulant to boost energy when we’re fatigued,
Dark chocolate, 5-Hour Energy, or a cup of coffee are commonly used to battle waves of tiredness and fatigue.
In a June 2021 study, published in Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers found that high coffee consumption was associated with an increased risk of dementia and decreased brain volume. In the largest study of its kind, 398,646 coffee drinkers were evaluated and 17,702 were given MRIs. Of the participants, who ranged from ages 37-73, those who drank more than 6 cups of coffee a day had a 53% increased risk of dementia.
Ayurveda has long warned about the long-term risks of stimulants like coffee.
See also Decaffeinate Yourself
These stimulants may offer temporary relief, but, in reality, are only driving the already exhausted adrenals to scramble for energy they don’t really have. In short order, the body finds itself deeper into a state of exhaustion and energy debt.
Sadly, the same approach has been adopted by both Western and natural medicine systems. If you tell your doctor you’re tired, you are prescribed a stimulating drug or herb to mitigate your symptoms. Such stimulants rarely address the underlying cause of fatigue and typically drive the body into a state of chronic exhaustion.
In Ayurveda, we fight fatigue by building ojas, or sustainable vitality. You can build ojas by meditating, having a regular sleep schedule, spending time in nature, eating and drinking ojas-promoting foods, including saffron, milk (of any kind), coconut, and dates, and taking adaptogens, such as Ashwagandha, and rejuvenating herbs, including Shatavari.