What Is Adrenal Burn Out?

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What Is Adrenal Burn Out?

Dr. Doni Wilson

Naturopathic doctor and stress expert Dr. Doni Wilson explains “adrenal burnout” and its causes and gives handy advice on how to find out if you’re suffering from it.

Maybe you’ve heard the term “adrenal burnout,” or perhaps “adrenal exhaustion.” I actually refer to it as “adrenal distress.” No matter what you call it, the important question is—could it be happening to you? That’s what I’m going to cover this week because adrenal health is imperative to wellness, which is why I’ve named it one of the three problem networks.

One of the jobs of the adrenal glands is to respond when we are stressed by producing adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol. In combination, cortisol and adrenaline put our bodies in a stimulated state designed to prepare us to either fight what is causing us stress or to run away from it by increasing our heart rate and readying our muscles for action.

The stress response is a good thing—we need it to survive. It is not such a good thing, however, when it is triggered all day long, over and over again by work, finances, family, life in general and even some things we don’t usually think of as stressors—like gluten and sugar. You can read more about the top 10 “stress triggers” of modern life here.

In this constantly stressful situation, cortisol and adrenaline levels can remain elevated, even once the stress has passed. That is because the adrenal glands adapt to the environment—if we are always stressed, they stay ready to respond to that stress. The issue is that when cortisol and/or adrenaline remain high for much of the day and/or night, they then turn off other important systems and functions, such as immune function and digestion, which as you might imagine, can lead to trouble in your body.

Here are some common symptoms and health issues that are associated with stress and adrenal distress:

  • anxiety
  • overwhelm
  • heart palpitations
  • sleep issues
  • digestive issues such as heartburn, pain, bloating, irritable bowel

You can read more about common symptoms of stress here. 

While, for some people, the adrenal response remains in this highly stimulated state, for others—influenced by genetics, epigenetics (the effect of your parents’ health on your health), and over-exposure to stress—the cortisol and/or adrenaline levels begin to fall because the adrenal glands are no longer able to mount a stress response so are no longer stimulated even when stress occurs. This is the situation referred to as adrenal burnout.

Common symptoms of adrenal burnout include:

  • fatigue – and feeling that you depend on caffeine to get through the day
  • low mood
  • frequent infections
  • sugar and/or salt cravings
  • feeling dizzy, especially when you stand up
  • brain fog, forgetfulness
  • getting one cold after the next
  • more and more allergies

Don’t get worried if this sounds like you; in most cases it is possible to nurture your adrenal glands back to health. Many of my patients come to me concerned that they are not feeling well despite visiting several practitioners who find that they have “normal” blood work and are worried they may have a serious disease—so I’d like to clarify some common misconceptions.

Common Misconceptions About Adrenal Burnout

Adrenal burnout is NOT:

  • all in your head
  • going to go away simply by sleeping more (although sleep definitely does help)

And it DOESN’T mean:

  • your adrenals have completed stopped working—such as with Addison’s and Cushing’s disease—which is what standard tests are intended to identify (I won’t go into detail about those conditions here, but I’ll discuss them again in a subsequent article.)
  • that you automatically need to take cortisol—there are other steps you can take to help your adrenal glands recover

Adrenal burnout is real, although many doctors don’t think to test for it or test adequately. It is well established in research (for more about it, you might like to read the historical summary in this article at CNN.com) and has to do with the relative function of the adrenal glands after they have been exposed to stress (aka life).

Adrenal Burnout — A Personal Perspective

I’m going to explain from a personal perspective, because I’ve been through adrenal exhaustion myself. After medical school, midwifery training (which involves hundreds of all-nighters), and after having a newborn who wouldn’t sleep through the night for two years, I finally tested my cortisol and adrenaline levels and sure enough, they were very low. No wonder I was experiencing all of the symptoms listed above.

That was over ten years ago (I graduated in 2000 and Ella was born in 2002) and it started me researching adrenal health. I had tried every adrenal formula available at the time and was getting nowhere. It was only when I could see that I needed support for the production of both cortisol and adrenaline that I successfully started using the nutrients and herbs my body needed to recover.

Three Approaches to Addressing Adrenal Burnout

Today, I want to share with you the three cornerstones of this approach: adaptogenic herbs, adrenal supportive nutrients and, calming herbs and nutrients.* In future articles I’ll go more in depth about my favorite herbs and approaches to reclaiming adrenal function.

Adaptogenic herbs

Research shows that these herbs help us adapt to stress by bringing cortisol levels back to optimal, whether it is too high or too low. They can be taken individually or in combination and are:

  • Eleutherococcus (Eleuthero or Siberian Ginseng) root
  • Rhodiola rosea root
  • Ashwagandha root
  • Glycyrrhiza (licorice) helps to increase cortisol levels (although you should avoid it if you have high blood pressure)
Adrenal supportive nutrients

Research shows that several nutrients are needed for healthy adrenal function:

  • Vitamin C – needed to make cortisol and adrenaline
  • Pantothenic acid – needed for adrenal function
  • Vitamin B6 – important for cortisol production
  • Phosphatidylserine – to helpbring cortisol back down to healthy levels
  • Tyrosine – a precursor nutrient to adrenaline
Calming herbs and nutrients

These help decrease the amount of stress your adrenals need to manage by calming your nervous system.

  • Theanine – a nutrient that supports GABA levels, a calming neurotransmitter which I refer to as the “stress buffer” because it buffers your nervous system from stress
  • Magnesium – an essential mineral that is often depleted by stress, and important for relaxing the nervous system as well as muscles
  • Skullcap – an herb that is gently calming to the nervous system

Putting It Into Practice

Now at this point I have to say that I wish it was possible to guess the state of your adrenal glands and just jump into a successful recovery. Unfortunately, there are two reasons why that is not always possible:

  1. My research demonstrated that symptoms don’t necessarily match with cortisol levels. So even though it makes sense that a person who is tired would have low cortisol, it is also possible for a person with high cortisol to feel tired. So be careful with any products that are based on how you feel—it’s best to test your cortisol levels first.
  2. Many people, while experiencing any degree of adrenal burnout, have symptoms that prevent them from taking the nutrients and herbs their body needs. I know that sounds contradictory, but it’s true. A person who has heart palpitations, for example, may feel worse on products that support adrenal health, as might someone with heartburn. In that case, we’ll need to work together to get your body ready for adrenal recovery.

Here are five things you can do:

  1. Complete the questionnaire in chapter three of my book The Stress Remedy to get a much clearer sense of how your body has been affected by stress. If you’d like to do a quick online version, click here.
  2. Based on your score in the questionnaire, determine whether doing a test for your cortisol and adrenaline levels will be worth your while and the cost. I’m going to be writing a full article all about the testing next week, so stay tuned.
  3. If you get the sense that your adrenals are working overtime, you could start with a product that contains adaptogens and helps increase resiliency to stress – see here for an example product or click here to review a bunch of adrenal supportive products. But if you don’t feel better enough within a relatively short period of time, it’s best to complete an adrenal panel so we can see exactly what is happening in your body.

NB: Don’t take a product containing glandular adrenal, licorice, or tyrosine without knowing for sure that your cortisol and adrenaline levels are definitely too low.

  1. Take time to evaluate your life – what steps can you take to make things less stressful? This article will give you some ideas of what you can add to your schedule to help your body recover from stress. And here is an infographic that you can print and stick on your wall or fridge to remind yourself of daily stress remedies.
  2. I also recommend testing for neurotransmitter levels when you check your cortisol and adrenaline levels. That is because, inevitably, neurotransmitters (the messengers in the nervous system) are disrupted by stress, and once they are thrown off track, they will only create more stress for your body. Yet once we know what your neurotransmitter levels are, then we can address them specifically with nutrients and herbs. You can read more about neurotransmitters here.

If you’d like more personal support, especially in this kind of scientifically nurturing way, please feel free to contact my office to set up a time for us to meet—in person, by phone or via the Internet. I’m here to help you.

And if you are intrigued by this topic, you are going to love my book The Stress Remedy, which goes into great detail describing the way our bodies respond to stress, how that stress response goes off track, and how to get it back to optimal using natural approaches.

I’d love to hear from you. Have you experienced adrenal burnout or distress? What helped you recover? Or perhaps you are still not feeling yourself. Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

If you found this article helpful, I invite you to sign up to receive my weekly ‘Wellness Wisdom’ newsletter right to your inbox, and share this with your friends on Facebook and Twitter. I’d love to hear what interests you for one of my next articles.

Next week I’ll be continuing to define the 3 Problem Networks and how to find out if they are impeding your wellness. Here is what is coming…

–Dr Doni
24th July 2014

*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.

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  1. I had adrenal exhaustion, a horrific experience. I lost 25 pounds in a week, and was admitted into the intensive care unit for two weeks. Were it not for my mother’s cooking and care, I would have died a long time ago.
    I got a lot of rest, as well. It took me years to recover. I was so grateful to my mom that I took care of her decades later, when she was dying.

    • Thank you for sharing your story and experience. I’m so glad that you are feeling better, and how special that your mom cared for you in that way, and then you for her.

  2. Hi, thanks for all the information. I was just wondering if you had posted anything on Cushing’s like the article says? I am very interested to hear what you have to say on that. Thanks

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