You see him every day. Those darkened eyes, that bulging vein, that thinning hairline… How many coffees is he up to now?!
Each morning it’s that muffin and takeaway of something, lunch is something cheap and easy, and you shudder to think about dinner.
You’ve never seen him exercise. He drives from home to office to home again. You’re pretty sure that’s the extent of it.
Stress too. He takes on a lot and doesn’t seem to have any reprieve. 8 – 8 every day under these office lights. He’s completely burnt out, and you’re praying that he’ll take a holiday soon.
Many would describe our friend above as suffering from “burnout.” Others may say that he’s “trashing his adrenals” and would quickly diagnose him with “adrenal fatigue” – a condition that’s all the rage right now, as our stress output is higher than ever. Adrenal fatigue is typically attributed to the high achiever who starts the day with a 6km run to feel alive, works 12 hours a day and comes home and does a boxing class. Mix this in with inadequate nutrition and constant stressors and you’ve got a perfect recipe for adrenal fatigue. This is well summarised in Kelsey Marksteiner’s article: “The Modern Lifestyle: A recipe for Adrenal Fatigue.”
Now, the story behind adrenal fatigue has always been something like, “too much energy spent, not enough rest, adrenal glands are tanked, buy these supplements and book into this health retreat.”
This is an easy concept to understand as it reverts to an energy in/energy out model that is commonly used to describe complex problems. “Wanna lose weight? Eat less and exercise more of course!” But we now know that this doesn’t work, and it’s probably done more harm than good when it comes to weight loss. The reason for this article is that I fear the same is being done with adrenal fatigue, as we use this black or white model to diagnose ourselves and go on a juice cleanse.
Getting all hormonal…. So when we’re talking about adrenal fatigue, dysfunction, whatever you want to call it, we’re dealing with our hormones, and our hormones don’t work in black/white, in/out – you’re more interesting than that. There are a multitude of factors that are going to influence these strange chemical messengers that are floating around our body. What we do need to look at is the person, and the array of factors that are causing them to feel “burnt out.”
Enter the Adrenal Glands and Cortisol. The adrenal glands sit above the kidney and assist in producing cortisol, a vital stress hormone that serves a number functions; it helps us be awake (upregulation), asleep (downregulation) and allows us to get through this crazy crazy world. When cortisol production is disrupted, however, we feel symptoms of being burnt out… Think of that time you no longer cared about your exams, or when you said f*ck it, I’m done… This is often seen in lab reports as low cortisol – commonly known as being “burnt out.”
Low cortisol, maybe?!
Now, before you think your adrenal glands are burnt out with only ash remaining and about to pay $500 for that juice cleanse, it’s important to know that our bodies are highly resilient, and there’s a good chance that your cortisol levels are not on empty but that the signal is being disrupted.
It’s not that you’re driving around on empty, it’s that there is something stopping you from using your fuel.
This is a far more interesting model and leads to more interesting questions, like, “what is happening in the brain that’s stopping me from using cortisol?” This sexy new model is known as “HPA Dysfunction,” and suggests that the problem is goes deeper than the adrenal glands, and could be due to problems in the Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord).
HPA Dysfunction goes beyond our diet and coffee consumption, and goes into the mismatch between our genes, environment and stress response system – this is what sets off our stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, constant stressing of these systems leads to breakdown. Breakdown of our cells, tissues and organs and a higher demand for coffee in the morning.
Cortisol will be affected, yes, but so will DHEA, melatonin and testosterone. We’ll also see dysfunction in the gut, thyroid and reproductive systems, and we’ll generally be feeling crappy.
You could call this new HPA – D model more “holistic” as it follows the lines of the interconnectedness of the body and mind. I like to think of it as a model that respects the innate robustness of the human body, and if we feed this resilience through good nutrition, movement and mindfulness, then we’re setting ourselves up for a resiliency, or better, Nassim Taleb’s idea of antifragility, where we’re harder to kill.
6 Ways to Keep your HPA Axis Thriving
1. Get sleep
I read the other day that Tom Brady gets 10 hours of sleep a night. Now, I know very little about him aside from him being quality athlete with superior longevity. Brady aside, a bad night of sleep will do a few things: increase your carb cravings, turn down your growth hormone synthesis, and it will also throw your cortisol out, making your choices the next day (fitness, nutrition, lifestyle) impaired. This can set off a cascade of bad health.
2. Get Sun
Have you ever felt a correlation between your sun exposure and the quality of your sleep?
Appropriate sunlight will align our cortisol output with circadian rhythms as seen here I recommend getting 20 minutes in the morning, like, as soon as you get up, and go as close to naked as possible!
Source: Integrative Therapeutics
3. Get anti inflammatory foods.
Every time you eat, you can make a powerful decision to improve your health. You can put in potent anti oxidant, anti inflammatory foods that are going to give you the resilience you need to be able to fight off the bad stuff that’s coming in. Green veggies, ginger, garlic, cold water fish should all be in your first line of defence.
4. Get Movement
Stressed? Go for a walk. We know this. If we have all of this built up cortisol that accumulates during long periods of sitting, going for a walk, or thumping a boxing bag could be just what the doctor ordered.
The more I dive into meditation, the more I think it is not just valuable but essential. Living in a world that’s made for anxiety means that you need to actively dedicate time to sitting and doing nothing. The research on meditation is enough for it to be considered more just another hippie fad. There’s a common theme with improvement of biomarkers; cortisol, testosterone (yes, doing nothing will help your gains), melatonin and thyroid function all have positive correlations with regular meditation.
6. Go easy on the caffeine
Don’t hate me, I just don’t think that coffee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Okay that’s a lie, but we need to be aware of what excess coffee consumption is doing to us. An over reliance on caffeine can lead to low cortisol and add to the cascade of fatigue. Now this can be fun in the short term, but when you can’t function without relying on it, then it could be a sign of HPA dysfunction, and a little break could do you good.
I suppose the message here is to avoid putting a stamp like ‘adrenal fatigue’ on your condition, and respect the innate resilience of the human body. Just because you feel crappy right now, doesn’t mean you need 6 months of supplements and avoiding all potential stressors. Maybe you just need some sun, a holiday, some sleep, or all three at the same time.
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner and Personal Trainer based in Melbourne, Australia. He works with clients to restore optimum function using nutrition and lifestyle interventions.
- Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. Psychoneuroendocrinology. May 1997.
- Effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on adaptive mechanisms. BMC Endocrinology Distorders, 2016.
- Adrenal Fatigue Does Not Exist: A systemic review. 2013.
- A Review of Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Function in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. ISRN Neuroscience. 2013.