What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

We’re constantly bombarded with motivational messages, telling us to train harder, push past the pain and grind through it. We’ve all benefited from these moments of inspiration, but what if the answer wasn’t to do more, but to back off and allow your body to rest, recover and regenerate itself to an optimal hormonal balance, so that you can achieve the results you’re after?

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It might sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. What’s becoming an increasingly common condition among physique competitors, gym enthusiasts and athletes alike is something being referred to as “metabolic damage,” or more accurately adrenal fatigue. (Think of metabolic damage as the dramatic, eye-catching phrase to describe the condition, and adrenal fatigue as the more scientifically accurate yet less-scandalous description).

Now, before you go ahead and self-diagnose yourself with adrenal fatigue, first; take a week off the gym, abandon your program and hit up every cheat meal spot you’ve been craving.

Why? A large proportion of people tend to misdiagnose adrenal fatigue, when in fact it’s something else, frequently unrelated to how hard you’ve been working and dieting. Don’t get me wrong, adrenal fatigue is a very real thing and should be managed appropriately if you want get the most out of your body.

In this article, I’ll help describe what you need to know about this condition, including how to recognize adrenal fatigue, what causes it, and what you can do to resolve it.

What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?

Simply put, adrenal fatigue is caused by doing too much for too long. This typically means things like:

  • Overdoing cardio for extended periods of time
  • Training too hard for too long with chronic insufficient recovery time
  • Not eating enough calories – specifically carbohydrates,  for too long
  • Over-reliance on stimulant based beverages and supplements
  • Chronic daily stress left unmanaged
  • Certain medications

It’s tough to exactly narrow down what an “extended period” of time is, or what training “too hard for too long” looks like, because it’s all relative. Every individual has their own particular point at which their body starts to shut down.

Former athletes may be able to withstand much more training and cardio than the average person, while others may only be able to withstand a portion of that before their body starts to show signs of breaking down. And same goes for caloric intake. A trained athlete may be able to withstand longer periods of aggressive dieting without any negative repercussions, and then quickly have their metabolism bounce back afterwards, while a previously sedentary gym rat may suffer longer-term consequences from as little as eight weeks of restricted dieting.

For all variables, it really comes down to paying attention to your body, watching for any signs and symptoms (described below) and not always simply “grinding” through it. Listen to your body because the answer isn’t always to do more or eat less.

Misuse Of Supplements

Misuse of certain supplements are another common culprit of adrenal fatigue. Clients will start taking them to get a little boost in the gym or kickstart a weight loss program, and then continue to use them multiple times through the day, for weeks on end, with no days off.

Combined with the stress of training and cardio, and often with severe caloric restriction, the addition of these supplements for prolonged periods can exasperate the situation and create a synergistic stress on the body and hormone systems – namely, an overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol and a reduction in thyroid output.

Read More: The Dark Side Of Pre-Workout Supplements: What You Need To Know 

When it comes to supplements, check your labels and tread carefully. I always strongly recommend cycling them and avoiding prolonged periods of intake that could create some unwanted longer term side effects. Typically, you should cycle off the supplement for as long as you were on it, or at the very least, for half as long. Adhering to this simple rule can help your body return to it’s normal state of homeostasis, prevent any dependency issues and allows receptors to recharge – preventing the requirement for higher dosing protocols over time.

If you’ve been giving it your all week after week, month after month and not seeing the expected returns it could be a good time to have a look at some common signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue. At times, it can feel like your body is fighting you to lose weight, because essentially that’s what it’s doing.

Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal glands are located just above the kidneys and are vital to our health, as they produce a variety of fitness-happy hormones, including adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol. Our bodies are programmed to maintain a delicate balance, and they’re constantly working to achieve this, even when we aren’t thinking about it. When one system is thrown off (i.e. the adrenal glands), other systems in the body can start to show signs of impaired function in a downward, cascade-type of “domino-effect.”

That’s why you’ll see so many different systems involved with adrenal fatigue. Although the condition may start with what appears as a concentrated strain on one system, if left untreated over time, this trickles down to impact many other systems of the body, leaving you feeling drained, burnt out and fighting a losing battle.

Here are some of the more common symptoms of adrenal fatigue to watch for:

  • More difficult than normal to burn fat
  • Low morning energy levels
  • Impaired digestion
  • Feeling of “wired and tired”
  • Sexual dysfunction – decrease in libido
  • Disrupted sleep – difficulty falling asleep and disrupted
  • Decreased strength
  • Difficulty focusing during daily activities
  • Increased craving for sweets
  • Prolonged muscle soreness post-workout (more than 2 days)
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Don’t feel anything from stimulant based thermogenic supplements any more
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Low body temperature / feeling cold all the time
  • Dizziness when standing quickly

How To Fix Adrenal Fatigue

It’s been suggested by many experts that typical low-carb type diets (i.e. keto, paleo, anabolic) are one of the main culprits of adrenal fatigue, and I happen to agree. Any client I’ve come across over the past seven years that’s demonstrated symptoms of adrenal fatigue had previously been on a very low-carb diet for an extended period of time, with no carb-up days or refeeds present.

While I’m not blaming low-carb diets for causing adrenal fatigue, there is a right and a wrong way to follow this approach. The wrong way just happens to be an express route to adrenal fatigue.

I don’t think any expert will tell you that they have the cure for adrenal fatigue, and neither do I. What most will agree on, however, is systematically working your way backwards out of the rut you got yourself into by doing things such as:

  • Gradual reduction in cardio – frequency and time
  • Continue with weight training at a reduced volume and intensity
  • Engage in more relaxing, stress relieving activities such as yoga or stretch classes
  • Slowly reintroduce complex carbohydrates into the diet
  • Work on improving sleeping habits
  • Introduce some natural, restorative supplements to your regime (see suggestions below)

I’ve used many of these methods in working with clients with adrenal fatigue with varying degrees of success. You have to remember that it takes time for the body to repair itself and many clients refuse to “take it easy” long enough for their body to successfully adapt and return to optimal hormal balance. Be patient!

Supplements To Help With Adrenal Fatigue

There are certainly some natural supplements that can encourage the body to restore itself and I’ve listed some of the more common options below. Always consult with your practitioner or naturopath for a more customized supplement program designed for your specific needs. These just happen to be some of the supplements I’ve used with my own clients and did tend to help the restorative process.

  • Adaptogenic herbs
  • Tyrosine
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Vitamin C
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Probiotics
  • Melatonin
  • Magnesium (glycinate)
  • Fish oil
  • Licorice Root
  • GABA

I hope this article provided a basic overview on what you need to know about adrenal fatigue and what you can do to resolve it. There is obviously much more information that can be discussed on this topic if we dive deeper into the condition, but you’ve now got the basic info – hopefully it will help spark some self-reflection and encourage you to think critically about your programme and what your body might be telling you.