Busy and burnt out? You could be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue
We constantly juggle successful careers, with pressures to look well, be the perfect friends, partners, mothers, who are happy, fulfilled, well read and in great shape. Our to-do lists mount up, the pressure to succeed rains down on us and no matter how much sleep we get, we can often feel totally wiped out, fuelling up on caffeine and sugar.
Sound familiar? It did to Sigrid de Castella, a business strategist and property developer, who found herself “physically and emotionally collapsing the week before an important work deadline. "I’d been working long hours and was very stressed, and then suddenly, one morning, I just couldn’t get out of bed. Even after a month of rest, I wasn't much better. I became highly anxious and mildly depressed. I couldn't work much and I put a lot of weight on. It was hard because I wasn't really tired, I just didn't have any energy to do anything.”
Likewise, Jessica Skye, a DJ and yoga teacher, says she had similar symptoms. “I’d feel exhausted and couldn't recover no matter how much sleep I had or coffee I drank. I'd forget things, try to open my front door with my Oyster card, eat bad food for fuel while on the go, then be too tired or busy to see friends. Even though I teach my clients to relax and take time for themselves, I was doing the complete opposite. I lost all life balance.”
Both Sigrid and Jessica were both given the same diagnosis by independent practitioners: Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, a term coined by Dr James Wilson, clinician and expert on alternative medicine, in 1998, but that has attracted controversy from the mainstream medical community.
The symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome are said to range from tiredness that is not relieved by sleep, lack of energy and motivation, low moods, cravings for salty or sweet foods, depression, irritability, reduced libido, dizziness and weight gain. Interestingly more women report the symptoms than men.
Emma Cannon, a women’s health and fertility expert, says “Adrenal fatigue and exhaustion in general are huge problems and something I’ve seen steadily increased over the last 10-15 years in my clinic. We’re all working more and more, and we don’t dedicate enough time to recovery, either from illness or from emotional trauma such as a miscarriage. The problem is compounded because on top of that we don’t ever have enough downtime; we’re always switched on. So what happens is the body goes through a period of stress, and while it can often keep going to get through the crisis, it then collapses.”
According to Dr Wilson, the condition is triggered by high levels of stress which causes the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys, to start over-producing cortisol, the stress hormone. Studies have shown that excess cortisol has a knock on effect on the uptake of the mood-enhancing brain chemical, serotonin. It can also lead to overproduction of insulin, which in turn can lead to weight gain.
But despite being classified as an illness by the World Health Organisation in 2010, Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is controversial amongst the mainstream medical establishment. A recent review of 58 studies concluded that there is no scientific basis to associate adrenal impairment as a cause of fatigue.
“I think the problem is often that doctors are trained in saving lives and treating illness, but traditionally western medicine is not strong on preventing illness,” Cannon says. “Part of what I do is looking at patterns that can lead to problems, and overwork is one of those things that often leads to problems. But there’s never just one thing, it’s usually a build up of issues that create a perfect storm.”
She suggests focussing less on the label, and more the symptoms. “You can get caught between two camps arguing about whether it’s real or not. The important thing is to treat the individual who is experiencing these symptoms with a plan that looks at aspects of nutrition, gut health, exercise, complementary therapies and lifestyle recommendations.”
Sigrid says she saw a nutritionist who prescribed a diet made up of low-inflammatory foods, such as decreasing sugar, alcohol and caffeine, and increasing her intake of vegetables, whole-grain carbs such as buckwheat, lentils and quinoa, as well as upping B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins C & D.
She believes the diet, along with swapping high intensity exercise for soothing yoga, helped her symptoms. “I'm currently 97% pain free and finally working to remove the excess weight I'd put on. My mental state is much improved, with my anxiety reduced and my depression gone.”
Alongside her diet she calmed down her working week, something she still sticks to. “I don't book too many meetings, catch ups or outings in a week,” she says. “I keep them to a maximum of one per day and I plan these well ahead. I also schedule time out, giving myself space.”
Jessica agrees: “It's completely changed the way I work and treat myself,” she says. “I put my health and rest before anything now. I refuse to work myself completely into the ground. I have a lot more respect for my energy levels and don't abuse them.”
“When you have a great connection between your mind and your body,” Sigrid adds, “you know exactly what to do. If I'm tired, I listen and rest.”