Toolbox: Adrenal Fatigue
Ever find yourself mid-season or end of season with no excitement for the bike? Ever feel grey, with low libido, extremely tired and struggling to get through a regular day? There may be a culprit you haven’t considered: adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is a form of hypoadrenia and its most obvious symptom is, of course, fatigue. Everyone gets tired, right? Especially after hard workouts. But there may be more to it, so don’t just shrug it off just because it doesn’t get diagnosed.
One of the reasons why adrenal fatigue goes unnoticed is because today’s blood tests are not sensitive enough to spot the decline in cortisol that can accompany the problem. No adequate test means no diagnosis and no interventions to treat the disorder. Of course, the human body certainly is sensitive enough to notice this.
Dissecting the Adrenals
As an athlete, it’s important to understand what your adrenal glands are, what they do and how you can support them.
Your adrenal glands help your body cope with stress – any type of stress – and cannot differentiate one source of stress from another. Your resiliency, energy, endurance, ability to cope with stress and your joy for life, depend on the proper functioning of your adrenal glands.
No bigger than a grape, each of your two adrenal glands sit on top of one of your kidneys. These small glands affect the functioning of every tissue in your body, commanding powerful hormones to influence the entire body. They also affect how you think and feel. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing four major stress hormones: Cortisol, DHEA, Norepinephrine and Adrenaline.
When it comes to fuel, adrenal hormones affect the utilization of carbohydrates and fats as well as the conversion of fats and proteins into energy. The adrenal hormones also affect the distribution of stored fat. Many of us have learned how excess stress (cortisol) can promote belly fat storage.
Stress comes in many forms. Often we don’t put two and two together and realize that stresses are piling up. We usually consider stress to be normal. Below is a list of factors that affect your adrenal response; athletes tend to struggle with the items that are bolded.
Factors Affecting Adrenal Function
Lack of sleep; Trauma – Death of a loved one; Marital stress; Financial pressures
Too much caffeine; Sugar and white flour; Smoking; Toxins and pollution; Infections
Allergies; Too little exercise; Too much exercise; Over-exertion; Lack of relaxation
Diet and Your Adrenals
In addition to the above obvious stresses, your dietary lifestyle can drain the adrenals. Poor diet is a common factor in adrenal fatigue. Many nutrients not found in typical fast food meals are required to make proper hormones in the adrenal glands.
If you are surviving on processed and pre-made foods and few fresh fruits and vegetables, I can assure you that your adrenals are not getting the nutrients they need to function optimally and respond well to any of the stresses above. I know many athletes who feel that since they exercise they can eat whatever they want. Think again. Want to be full of real energy? Proper nourishment is a key element. When it comes to healing from Adrenal Fatigue, a proper diet is a MUST.
Adrenals and Blood Sugar Balance
Athletes with adrenal fatigue will often suffer from blood sugar irregularities, often referred to as hypoglycemia. The adrenal hormone cortisol helps keep blood sugar at adequate levels to meet the body’s needs for energy. When your adrenals are fatigued, cortisol drops lower than normal. This makes maintaining proper blood sugar levels more difficult. In order to regain energy, athletes will reach for sugary snacks for a temporary high. This creates a vicious cycle of highs and lows and perpetuates the adrenal issues at hand.
To top it off, low blood sugar is recognized as “stress” to the adrenals too. This means that WHEN you eat becomes important as well. Eating natural healthy foods at regular intervals can help to heal your adrenals in this case. Every time your blood sugar gets low, you need to release more cortisol to help normalize it. So part of the treatment here is regular doses of healthy nourishing whole foods to maintain blood sugar.
Adrenals and Mood
Many people with adrenal fatigue appear normal, yet they use coffee or other stimulants to get them “going” and often feel flat and “grey” as a normal feeling. Try asking them to quit coffee and they will come up with a million reasons why they can’t. Truth be told, they NEED IT.
Those with adrenal fatigue also tend to struggle more with anxiety, depression and difficulties concentrating as well as a lower threshold when it comes to daily frustrations. If you pay attention to your moods, you will soon be able to connect the dots on when your adrenals are getting more fatigued.
To the outside world this person may appear lazy and to have lost motivation, but oddly the exact opposite is often the case. This person has to PUSH through the fatigue and work harder to do the basics in order to get through each day, making it much harder to do seemingly simple things. Be nice to yourself.
Be patient with yourself, rather than PUSHING THROUGH. This is not meant to be one more sufferfest. For once, give yourself the rest you need, and trust that with the right rest and nourishment the body can and will heal itself.
A healthy diet is not a fad, but a key to overall health and athletic performance. Neglect your diet and the costs can be long-term effects on many systems in your body, messing up not only your cycling but the overall balance of your physiology.
Next week, we will examine a case study of adrenal fatigue, and look at basic dietary strategies to keep you in balance.
Disclaimer: Articles on this site are not meant to replace medical advice. Always consult with your physician when you are concerned with your health.
Anne Guzman is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Sports Nutrition Consultant with a degree in Kinesiology. Her passion lies in Sports Nutrition for endurance athletes as well as general health and wellness. Anne raced full time on the women’s Professional circuit in North America with some bouts in Europe from 2008 until 2011 and previous to cycling was a Provincial and CIAU Champion and National Bronze medalist as a Varsity Freestyle Wrestler. Currently Anne works with athletes helping them reach their potential by combining their own training plans with her nutrition plans. Anne believes that many athletes undermine their intense detailed training regimes by not backing them with sound nutrition. Her personal experience as a cyclist and athlete is a great asset to her business as she understands the needs and nuances that come with the sport. Currently Anne works with Peaks Coaching Group as well as her own business Nutrition Solutions Anne Guzman.