Wired and Tired: The Road to Adrenal Fatigue
By Diana Milling • March 21, 2016
With today’s busy and fast-paced lifestyles, stress is virtually constant. Many are over worked and under rested. This continual state of stress disrupts the negative feed back loop resulting in a constant pumping out of cortisol. Chronic elevated levels of cortisol are linked to: a weakened immune system, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, gastrointestinal and fertility problems … the list goes on and on.
Although elevated levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on our systems when put into overdrive by chronic stress, it is a much needed hormone, in the right amounts. It helps to maintain stable energy throughout the day. It is an integral player in the facilitation of thyroid hormone, estrogen and testosterone. When in balance, the appropriate amount of cortisol gives us the energy we need when needed and starts to back off when its time for us to rest and relax.
So what exactly happens when we are living in this chronic state of stress with more cortisol than we actual need? And what can we do to address it using a naturopathic approach? The popular term “adrenal fatigue” eventually sets in. Cortisol levels start to build up in the blood stream causing our bodies to feel it needs to remain in fight or flight mode. When cortisol levels are bumped up day after day, our adrenal glands start to become depleted. This eventually leads to adrenal insufficiency.
What are some common signs of elevated cortisol so adrenal burnout can be avoided?
- Disrupted sleep
- Feeling wired but tired
- Weight gain, particularly around the abdomen
- Weakened Immune system
- Muscle aches, joint pains, headaches
- Fertility problems & decreased sex drive
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Alterations in mood
Ideally cortisol levels should decrease during the night allowing our bodies to relax, repair and recharge. If cortisol levels are too high, you may feel a second jumpstart in evening when its time to wind down. This can lead to tossing and turning during the night. You may find yourself waking up feeling anxious in the middle of the night with the inability to fall back to sleep. If you are waking up before dawn feeling anxious it is likely your cortisol is spiking too early.
Feeling wired but tired
This happens when cortisol levels remain to high throughout the day. Work stressors, deadlines, mental and emotional stress are all contributing factors to cortisol spikes. The foods we eat, the amount of coffee we consume, all perpetuates the cycle . If cortisol remains elevated you feel wired but your adrenal glands are tired and overworked. There are stages one goes through to get to the “adrenal burnout” phase and the goal to normalize levels before getting to this point.
Weight gain, particularly around the abdomen
Overtime, elevated cortisol can cause unwanted belly fat by disrupted our metabolism. This can cause in increase in central or abdominal obesity due to excess adipose deposits.
Weakened Immune system
Cortisol works to reduce systemic inflammation in the body which is a necessary process. Overtime, these efforts to dampen inflammation can also suppress the immune system. Cortisol can start to deactivate our bodies self-repair mechanisms that keep us at bay from viruses and bacteria leading to illness. A weakened immune system can leave us susceptible to not only colds, flus, and viruses but other ailments such as cancer, auto-immune diseases and gastrointestinal problems.
Overtime this can have a paradoxical effect where we start to see an increase in inflammation. Once this system is disrupted and our bodies are no longer producing adequate cortisol to decrease inflammation we start heading into adrenal fatigue states where cortisol is depleted and systemic inflammation becomes predominate.
Blood sugar imbalance and diabetes
The release of cortisol can increase your blood-sugar increasing your risk for diabetes. Elevated levels of glucose can cause spikes in insulin which will in turn lower blood-sugar levels. This perpetual cycle leads to those cravings for sweets, sugar, and more sugar.
Muscle aches, joint pains, headaches
After prolonged periods of elevated cortisol, we start to head into adrenal insufficiency states. This causes prolactin levels in the body become elevated. Elevated prolactin levels can make us more hypersensitive to pain such as joint pain, muscle aches, headaches and migraines.
Fertility problems & decreased sex drive
Elevated cortisol can cause a decreased libido by affected the appropriate release of sex hormones. Testosterone levels decrease, causing erectile dysfunction in men, lowered libido, and hormone imbalances in women. In women this can cause early menopause, irregular menstrual cycles and disruption in ovulation.
Our GI systems are extremely sensitive to changes in hormones, especially stress hormones. An increase in cortisol jump starts our sympathetic nervous systems causing us to be in the fight or flight mode discussed earlier. When this happens, our parasympathetic nervous system is suppressed and it is this system that allows us to rest and digest. When we are not digested our food properly we can experience issues such as nausea, heartburn, intestinal cramping and bloating. Our bowel movements can become disrupted due to the alteration of stress hormones. This can lead to constipation for some, diarrhea for others.
Alterations in mood
An increase in cortisol can lead to an increase in epinephrine. This can lead to that nervous, on edge, jittery feeling. You may find you are feeling panicked in certain situations, paranoid and have a decrease ability to make important decisions.
Elevated cortisol can also cause a decrease in the neurotransmitter serotonin. This may lead to depressive states, irritability and mood swings.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.