Prolonged and unremitting stress taxes your adrenal glands. Hans Selye, a well-known expert on stress, has described how protracted stress on the adrenal glands results in a state of chronic underfunctioning or exhaustion (1984). Insufficient adrenal resources, in turn, tend to affect how you handle stressful situations, making it more likely that you will become anxious in the face of stress. Inadequate sleep; life stresses of all kinds; prolonged exposure to heat or cold; exposure to toxins, pollutants, or substances you’re allergic to; and taking cortisone over a period of time can also contribute to adrenal exhaustion. Sudden trauma or severe physical illness can initiate or worsen adrenal exhaustion. Notice that many of these factors, particularly sudden trauma such as losses or life transitions, also play a role in the onset of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders and adrenal exhaustion frequently occur together.
Adrenal exhaustion develops in stages. When you’re combating stress, the adrenal glands tend to hyperfunction, producing large amounts of adrenaline and noradrenaline as well as steroid hormones such as cortisol. As stress becomes prolonged, the glands begin to be overtaxed and go into a state of temporary underfunctioning. If you are relatively healthy, the glands will try to compensate and can actually rebuild themselves to the point of hypertrophy (growing larger). However, if high levels of stress continue, the glands will eventually exhaust themselves again and then remain in a chronic state of underfunctioning. At this stage they can oscillate between overproducing adrenaline, which can cause panic or mood swings, and underproducing adrenaline, which is associated with fatigue and poor stress tolerance. The ultimate outcome of prolonged adrenal exhaustion can be health problems such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic bronchitis or sinusitis, and autoimmune disorders ranging from lupus to rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of adrenal exhaustion include:
- low stress tolerance (little things that didn’t use to bother you get to you)
- lethargy and fatigue (often manifested in difficulty getting up in the morning)
- light-headedness when standing up quickly (called postural hypotension)
- light sensitivity (difficulty adjusting to bright light outdoors)
- difficulties with concentration and memory
- allergies (to foods, environmental substances, pollens, molds, etc.)
- increased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome
- more frequent colds and respiratory conditions
Hypoglycemia and adrenal exhaustion. Hypoglycemia and adrenal exhaustion often go hand in hand. The adrenals function along with the pancreas in helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels. When the adrenals underfunction, blood sugar levels tend to become erratic. As adrenal fatigue worsens, the immune system is compromised, leading to increased susceptibility to allergies, asthma, respiratory infections, and colds.
Addictions and adrenal exhaustion. Addiction to caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, or recreational drugs is frequently associated with adrenal exhaustion, as is the physiological craving for sugar. Continued use of any of these substances tends to worsen the condition. If you have any of these addictions, your risk of adrenal insufficiency is higher than average.
Your day-to-day life and adrenal exhaustion. A day-to-day life that is chronically stressful and demanding due to perfectionism and self-imposed pressure to achieve also often leads to adrenal exhaustion.
Recovery from Adrenal Exhaustion
To recover from adrenal exhaustion, you have to address it on several different fronts. Certain lifestyle changes, supplementation, and dietary modifications can be helpful. These are outlined below.
Simplify your life. Ask yourself which of your habits, practices, and obligations clutter your life rather than enrich it.
Regularly practice your preferred form of relaxation. Whether this is progressive muscle relaxation, guided visualization, yoga, or meditation, try to commit to practice it daily.
Give yourself downtime daily. Remember that downtime is not a luxury, it is necessary for maintaining a vibrant, fulfilling life. Break up your day with two or three twenty- to thirty-minute periods of relaxation.
Strive to get eight hours of sleep at night. Sufficient sleep is not a luxury, either. Turn in by 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. if possible. Whenever you can sleep late in the morning, let yourself do so.
Exercise regularly. Get twenty to thirty minutes of moderate exercise every day, preferably outdoors.
Eliminate caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and recreational drugs. Substitute herb teas for caffeinated beverages. Licorice tea is especially good if you’re hypoglycemic.
For three months, eliminate all forms of sugar. Use xylitol or stevia to sweeten foods or beverages. Eliminating sugar means cutting out white and brown sugar, honey, chocolate, molasses, corn syrup, maple syrup, and dried fruit. Substitute fresh fruits in moderation. Xylitol is a sweetner that is made from the fiber of the birch tree. It produces only a small increase in blood sugar and no rise in insulin levels. Stevia is derived from a South American herb and is many times sweeter than sugar. It has no calories and is much safer than artifical sweetners like aspartame and saccharin. After three months, you can reintroduce natural sugars such as honey in very small amounts.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet. As much as possible, eliminate processed foods and foods to which you’re allergic. Emphasize whole grains, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruits in your diet. Eat protein in the form of beans and grains; eggs; organic poultry; free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat; or fish. Do not overeat carbohydrates. Reduce your consumption of simple carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, chips, potatoes, cereal, crackers, rolls, etc. Combine a fat, protein, and complex carbohydrate source at every meal. Avoid eating just fruit first thing in the morning and avoid fruit juices.
If you have hypoglycemia, eat the appropriate diet. Be sure to eat a protein-carbohydrate snack two to three hours after each main meal.
Supplements for Adrenal Exhaustion
Certain supplements can help relieve adrenal exhaustion. Talk to your health professional about taking the supplements and quantities listed below:
- Vitamin C with bioflavonoids: 500 to 1,000 milligrams three times per day with meals
- Zinc: 30 milligrams daily
- Chromium picolinate: 200 to 400 milligrams daily
- Vitamin B6 in the form of P5P (pyridoxyl-5-phosphate): 50 milligrams twice daily
- Calcium with magnesium (preferably in chelated forms such as citrate or aspartate): 1,000 milligrams calcium and 500 to 1,000 milligrams magnesium at bedtime
- Pantothenic acid: 500 milligrams once or twice daily
- Adrenal cortex glandulars: Consult your physician, naturopath, or health practitioner. These supplements can be helpful in treating adrenal exhaustion and are preferable to taking whole adrenal glandular supplements.
More from Natural Relief for Anxiety:
"Adrenal Exhaustion and Anxiety" from Natural Relief for Anxiety by Edmund J. Bourne, Arlen Brownstein, and Lorna Garano, copyright © 2004 by Edmund Bourne, Arlen Brownstein, and Lorna Garano. Used by permission of New Harbinger Publications.