Adrenal Fatigue is a stress-related condition that results in symptoms like exhaustion, weakened immunity, sleep disturbances, and food cravings. The adrenal glands and HPA axis become depleted and dysregulated after a long period of emotional stress or chronic illness.
As you might expect, tiredness and exhaustion are some of the most common Adrenal Fatigue symptoms. However, these are far from the only ones that you might experience.
What is Adrenal Fatigue and how can you recognize it? Adrenal Fatigue leads to lower levels of a number of hormones and neurotransmitters, changes that can affect every single part of your body. Every individual with Adrenal Fatigue tends to have a slightly different set of symptoms, although there are always common complaints.
The most common signs of Adrenal Fatigue, which are experienced by most (if not all) sufferers, include symptoms like fatigue and food cravings. Then there are the less common symptoms, which are only experienced by a smaller set of patients. These include low blood pressure and frequent urination. Typically, an individual with Adrenal Fatigue will have most or all of the main symptoms listed here, along with a handful of the less common symptoms. Take a look and see how many apply to you.
The first section of this page contains the 7 most common symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- High levels of fatigue each day
- Inability to handle stress
- Cravings for salty foods
- Higher energy levels in the evenings
- Overuse of stimulants like caffeine
- A weak immune system
- 17 less common symptoms
The second section of this page contains the 4 treatments that can help you to recover from Adrenal Fatigue:
Lastly, you can check out our list of Frequently Asked Questions at the end of this page.
Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue
1. Difficulty Getting Up Each Morning, Even After A Long Sleep
As we discuss in The Adrenal Fatigue Solution, one of the major causes of Adrenal Fatigue is getting insufficient sleep. Getting more rest is, therefore, one of the best ways to recover. However, when suffering from Adrenal Fatigue many patients wake up extremely tired and ‘foggy’, even after getting a long sleep. This can be caused by one of two factors.
Adrenal Fatigue sufferers in the early stages of their condition tend to be under significant stress, and therefore their adrenaline and cortisol levels are high. This interrupts the natural 24-hour cycle of cortisol levels, leading to a state of alertness in the evening that prevents restful sleep.
Those Adrenal Fatigue sufferers who are at a later stage of the condition will have consistently lower levels of cortisol. However, their blood sugar will tend to be much lower during the early morning (cortisol regulates blood sugar too). Your body realizes it’s hungry and forces you to wake up. Many Adrenal Fatigue sufferers are chronic late-night snackers for exactly this reason. You can get a better night’s sleep by improving your sleep hygiene.
2. High Levels Of Fatigue Each Day
Do you feel that your energy levels are just at a permanently lower level than they used to be? Aging is often a factor in this, but chronic stress can be a major contributor to exhaustion too. If you’re one of those people who find themselves drinking more and more coffee just to get through the day, it might be time to look at the underlying cause behind your tiredness.
In the later stages of Adrenal Fatigue, your adrenals become depleted and unable to produce enough of the hormones that you need. This means that your levels of cortisol, along with neurotransmitters like adrenaline and norepinephrine, are generally lower than they should be.
The relative lack of these crucial hormones explains how patients suffering from Adrenal Fatigue find it difficult to ‘lift’ themselves or maintain any kind of reasonable energy level throughout the day. There is one exception though (see below) – Adrenal Fatigue sufferers sometimes experience a bounce in energy in the late evening.
If you want to get your energy levels back to where they were, there are a few things that you need to do. Adopting an adrenal fatigue diet will give your adrenals and HPA axis the raw materials they need to recover. Removing sources of stress from your life will eliminate one of the causes of your adrenal exhaustion. And changing your lifestyle will have a measurable impact on your ability to handle stress.
3. Inability To Handle Stress
Do you find that the slightest amount of stress leaves you feeling overwhelmed? Adrenal Fatigue sufferers often have a difficult time dealing with physical or emotional stress. This is for exactly the same reasons that are behind that unrelenting feeling of tiredness. It all comes back to the low hormone levels associated with late-stage adrenal exhaustion.
When we encounter stress we depend on our adrenals to release hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. These hormones regulate our stress response and allow us to increase our strength, focus, and awareness when we need it. However, when the adrenals are fatigued they struggle to release the necessary amount of these hormones. Patients with Adrenal Fatigue often report a lack of enthusiasm, feelings of apathy or disinterest, irritability and anxiety.
4. Cravings For Salty Foods
A part of the adrenal glands named the cortex is responsible for producing aldosterone, a mineralocorticoid which works with the kidney to regulate our fluid and mineral excretion. When the adrenals become fatigued, we produce less aldosterone and tend to excrete large amounts of important minerals in our urine. Individuals with depleted endocrine systems often report frequent urination, which is often attributed to age but may actually be caused by depleted adrenals.
This means that Adrenal Fatigue sufferers effectively lose the ability to balance the levels of minerals like sodium, potassium, and magnesium in their blood. In turn, this leads to cravings for foods which will replace the sodium that we have lost. If you find yourself suddenly craving salty snacks, you could be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue.
5. Higher Energy Levels In The Evenings
The lower levels of cortisol can play havoc with our energy levels throughout the day. In a healthy person, cortisol reaches its highest level early in the morning before declining gradually throughout the day. However, some Adrenal Fatigue sufferers experience spikes in cortisol in the late afternoon and evening, often leading to insomnia.
A typical progression is to find yourself tired all day, then suddenly get a bounce in your energy levels late in the evening. This tends to occur in the earlier stages of Adrenal Fatigue when the adrenals are still capable of producing significant amounts of cortisol and adrenaline.
6. Overuse Of Stimulants Like Sugar And Caffeine
Are you one of those people whose day revolves around finding your next shot of caffeine? If so, you’re not alone! Millions of people rely on stimulants like coffee and sugar to lift them up when they get tired. However, there’s a big difference between drinking an occasional coffee and consuming stimulants all through the day.
The problem is that stimulants tend to lose their effectiveness over time. As chronic stress takes its toll on your endocrine system, each cup of coffee or sugary snack gives you less of an energy boost. Caffeine can prevent you from getting a good sleep too. The more stressed and tired you become, the more stimulants you need. This vicious cycle is how many people unwittingly accelerate their decline into hormonal dysregulation and extreme fatigue.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Simply becoming more mindful of your caffeine and sugar consumption will often help to reduce it. Limit yourself to one or two coffees each day at first, then try to give it up entirely. Eat a nutritious, healthy diet, and try some of these low sugar recipes. Look for low glycemic fruits instead of sugary dried fruits or fruit juices. Learn how to improve your sleep hygiene so you won’t feel the need for those stimulants. And identify ways to work more efficiently during the day, so you take rests when needed.
7. A Weakened Immune System
Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect that helps to regulate your immune system. Inflammation is often simply a sign that your body is fighting an infection, but cortisol prevents this reaction from getting out of control. Maintaining a balanced cortisol level – not too low and not too high – is an important part of our health.
If stress is causing your cortisol levels to be elevated, this anti-inflammatory effect becomes too strong. This effectively stops your immune system from working as it should, and this weakened state can last for the duration of whatever is causing the stress. Without a properly functioning immune system, you become vulnerable to disease. Conversely, a lower level of cortisol allows your immune system to over-react to pathogens. This can lead to chronic inflammation and a number of respiratory or auto-immune diseases.
So what does this mean for Adrenal Fatigue sufferers? It depends on which stage of the condition you have reached. In the early stages, consistently high levels of cortisol suppress your immune response and leave you vulnerable to infection. In the later stages of Adrenal Fatigue, low levels of cortisol can lead to chronic inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune diseases. Neither is a good outcome, and so your Adrenal Fatigue treatment should focus on restoring cortisol to a sustainable, balanced level.
17 More Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue
There are a large number of other complaints that are associated with Adrenal Fatigue. Many of these are linked directly to one of the more common complaints listed above. Depending on which stage of Adrenal Fatigue you have reached, you may be experiencing a handful or a large number of these symptoms.
- Asthma, allergies or respiratory complaints
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Dry skin
- Extreme tiredness an hour after exercise
- Frequent urination
- Joint pain
- Lines in your fingertips
- Loss of muscle tone
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Low sex drive
- Lower back pain
- Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
- Weight gain
How To Treat Adrenal Fatigue
Restoring your overworked, underactive adrenal glands may seem like an impossible task – especially when you’re already exhausted! Fortunately, the road to recovery is as simple as taking a new approach to looking after yourself – and perhaps a few lifestyle changes. Here are 4 ways to start your recovery.
Improve Your Diet
Your body depends on a huge variety of nutrients to function properly – and those suffering from adrenal fatigue are particularly depleted in nutrients due to the toll that stress has taken on their cells.
The best means of providing those nutrients is through your diet.
Also be aware that food sensitivities and intolerances can contribute to your fatigue. They matter because they prevent our bodies from absorbing and using the nutrients they need, as well as promoting inflammation and interfering with our sleep/wake cycle.
Eat At The Right Times
Blood sugar levels play an important role in the maintenance of energy levels. Keeping your blood sugar levels steady means eating small, regular meals with a low glycemic index. Regular snacks are also a good idea. This will help in managing the dip in cortisol that can occur in the mid-late afternoon.
Too many of us follow a similar, unhealthy pattern: skip breakfast, have a sandwich for lunch and then a big meal in the evening. This leads to blood sugar spikes and stress on your digestive system that can make you even more exhausted.
The Best Foods For Adrenal Fatigue
An adequate supply of nutrients is essential for a healthy state of mind. Researchers have found a correlation between mental health and malnutrition, particularly in the Western diet. Diets that are high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat have been associated with more severe levels of adrenal fatigue.
Studies have shown that B-group vitamins, zinc, magnesium, healthy fats and seafood can decrease the risk of stress-related disorders and mental health problems.
Here’s an outline of the most important food groups your body needs to recover from adrenal fatigue:
Protein is made up of amino acids, the ‘building blocks’ of our cells. We need protein to support the building and repair of muscle tissue, hair, skin, nails and almost every organ in the body.
Protein intake varies for each individual, but most nutritional guidelines recommend around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Great sources of protein include organic meats, eggs, and organ meats like liver.
- Low-GI Foods
A food’s glycemic index (GI) is a calculation of how much each gram of carbohydrate raises your blood glucose level. The glycemic load is an estimation of how much a certain food will raise your blood glucose level after you eat it. High GI foods (GI>70 on the glucose scale) are simple sugars that cause sudden spikes in blood sugar. Low GI foods (GI<55) are usually ‘complex’ carbs that are digested slowly and therefore have less of an effect on blood glucose levels. This means they provide sustained energy for a longer period of time. Low GI foods can include whole grains, beans, lentils and soy products. Include some low GI fruits like berries and green apples.
- Healthy Fats
Fats are the body’s main source of stored energy and act as precursors for other substances made by the body. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) include linoleic and alpha-linoleic acids. These are not made in the body, and so must be obtained from food.
The best sources of healthy fat include oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds.
Fluids are needed to carry nutrients to the cells, aid digestion and help the kidneys to flush toxins from the body. Fluids also aid the formation of ‘digestive juices’ in the stomach, so we can absorb nutrients from food. Water also regulates our body temperature and metabolism. Most nutritionists recommend drinking at least 6 glasses of fresh, filtered water per day.
Also look to supplement your diet with super-nutritious foods like organ meats, bone broth, seaweed, and organic eggs. These are packed full of the nutrients that your body needs to recover.
Try Some Mind-Body Exercises
Traditional health practitioners have known for centuries that mindfulness-based exercises such as meditation and yoga help to relieve stress and anxiety. Regular practice improves your ability to respond to stress in the future. Being in a meditative state allows certain thoughts or feelings to pass by without causing stress or anxiety, which means you spend less time focusing on negative thoughts.
A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research compared people in two different stress-management programs: one which involved meditation, one which didn’t. Those who meditated regularly were found to produce fewer stress hormones and low levels of stress-induced inflammation. Those who didn’t meditate, however, suffered much higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation. Follow this link for some of the scientifically proven benefits of meditation.
Meditation involves using the diaphragm to draw oxygen into your body, allowing for full oxygen exchange in the lungs. This causes your body to deactivate the ‘fight or flight’ response because it suddenly realizes you’re not facing a threat. Your brain is effectively ‘tricked’ into thinking, “Hey, I can relax.” This allows for a change in the brain’s chemistry. Neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for “rest and digest” mode are activated, and a sense of physical and mental calm is induced. Cortisol production ceases and you will begin to feel more relaxed and at peace.
How To Meditate
Find somewhere quiet, away from distractions. Sit or lie in a position you can maintain comfortably for at least twenty minutes. Close your eyes to help bring on a sense of calm and allow yourself to focus inwards. Release any tension in your shoulders and face. Begin by breathing naturally, focusing on the movement of air in and out of your lungs. Imagine the air moving into your nose and down through your chest, into your lungs and down into your belly.
Once you’ve mastered this basic technique, continue to practice meditation daily. Set some time aside each day to meditate and you’ll soon notice the benefits.
NOTE: When starting out, try to meditate for no longer than 2-3 minutes. When you get used to sitting still and focusing on the breath, you can go for longer. Remember, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to meditate. Techniques may vary between different tutors and schools, but the overall idea is the same.
If you want to start with something a little easier, just focus on your breathing. Here are some deep breathing exercises that absolutely anyone can do.
Take The Right Supplements
While it’d be great if we could get all of our daily nutritional requirements from food alone, it’s rarely possible. The way in which food is grown, stored, processed and cooked destroys much of its nutritional value. Although most whole foods still harbor plenty of health benefits, they may not have enough of the vitamins and minerals you need to recover from adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue also wreaks havoc on the ability of your gut to absorb nutrients from food, as chronic stress hinders normal digestive function. That’s why supplements are a great way to “top up” your body’s nutritional needs, especially when your stores of a certain nutrient have been depleted for a while.
Here are some of the best supplements to help you recover from adrenal fatigue:
This group of vitamins is the first step in getting your mind and body back into gear. B vitamins work together in helping the body create energy from the food you eat, while also supporting brain function and healthy skin, hair and muscles. Although the role of each B vitamin differs slightly, they’re all vital for a healthy metabolism and energy production.
B12 is particularly important – in fact, it’s commonly referred to as the ‘energy vitamin’. It’s needed for nerve function, mood regulation and the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body, which aids energy production in the cells. Vitamins B12 and B6 are also linked to positivity and mental alertness.
Magnesium is an essential trace mineral and the second most abundant intracellular electrolyte in the body. It’s also required for over 300 enzymatic reactions! In fact, it’s one of the most important supplements for recovering from adrenal fatigue.
Studies in mice have shown that magnesium modulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), helping to reduce anxiety and stress. In this way, it’s believed that magnesium can regulate the production of cortisol and prevent excess cortisol from being created. This ultimately helps to keep the nervous system in check, allowing the mind and body to feel more relaxed.
Magnesium is also required for healthy sleep, muscular relaxation, maintaining blood pressure, heart rhythm, promotes calcium absorption, and regulating blood sugar levels.
Many people are magnesium deficient due to the lack of mineral content in foods and the body using up its natural stores of magnesium during stress.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a powerful anti-aging nutrient required by every cell in your body. It’s especially important for the healthy functioning of major organs that need a lot of energy, such as the heart, kidneys and liver. Low levels of CoQ10 are synonymous with low energy.
CoQ10 plays a vital role in helping the body to manage stress. Research has shown that supplementation with CoQ10 helps to reduce signs of inflammation in the blood and fight oxidative stress. Stress is a significant cause of inflammation, which – on top of adrenal fatigue – is linked to chronic health problems of the brain and cardiovascular system. Your stress-coping mechanisms become weaker with age, and are particularly vulnerable when cortisol is running low.
Adaptogenic herbs help the body to ‘adapt’ to stressful situations and are extremely helpful in restoring adrenal function. The most important adaptogenic herbs for adrenal fatigue are:
Also known as the Indian ginseng, Ashwagandha helps to regulate cortisol levels in the body and induce a sense of calm. It’s also a potent anti-inflammatory and immune booster.
Often used by athletes as a natural energy booster, Rhodiola helps to fight the damaging effects of stress by neutralizing free radicals. It’s also known to improves brain and memory function as well as physical stamina.
- Licorice root
Licorice root helps prevent the body from inactivating cortisol, thus increasing the availability of cortisol in the body. Its active ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid, supports adrenal gland function, which in turn enhances stress resistance.
Get Better Sleep
Addressing sleep problems should be a priority in recovering from adrenal fatigue. Poor sleep takes a huge toll on the body, and your cortisol levels may take weeks to adjust back to a more normal cycle.
Poor adrenal function affects the circadian pattern of cortisol production. In normal circumstances, cortisol rises and falls over 24 hours, peaking at around 8am and falling to its lowest between 12-4am. It’s these peaks and dips that can cause sudden alertness, causing you to wake up.
In addition, a dysfunctional hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and disruptions to your body’s cortisol production can significantly hinder healthy sleep patterns. In the lead-up to adrenal fatigue, elevated cortisol levels will prevent you from falling asleep at night. This hyperactivity can fragment sleep patterns and decreases slow-wave sleep. These disturbances tend to worsen the axis dysfunction, setting up a vicious cycle.
We’ve created a comprehensive list of measures to improve your sleep, but here are a couple of the most important ones that you might want to focus on.
De-Stress Before Bed
Restoring your natural sleep patterns begins with reducing the stress that has caused the HPA dysfunction in the first place. The aim is to calm the adrenals and modulate cortisol levels before going to bed each night.
Pre-bedtime routines such as mind-body exercises (mentioned above) can make a huge difference to your sleep. Other techniques include yoga, natural sedatives, regular daily exercise and – most of all – avoiding caffeine.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
Low adrenal hormone levels may also be linked to low blood sugar. Normally, cortisol works to maintain blood sugar levels throughout the day, but low cortisol levels may not be sufficient to sustain blood glucose. When blood sugar levels drop, sleep is disrupted, which can cause you to wake earlier than normal – for example, between 1-3am. Eating a small, healthy snack before bedtime may help to combat this. Choose foods that are low in sugar and high in protein and/or healthy fats in order to help stabilize blood sugar without spiking it.
Here are a few healthy pre-bedtime snack options:
- Half a slice of wholegrain/gluten-free toast with nut butter
- Avocado on a wholegrain cracker
- A boiled egg
- Dairy-free protein shakes
Frequently Asked Questions
What does Adrenal Fatigue mean?
Adrenal fatigue is a condition that usually results from a long period of chronic stress. Over time, this stress taxes the adrenal glands and HPA axis, thereby disrupting the production of cortisol and other hormones. The body initially produces large amounts of cortisol to cope with the stressors, but eventually cortisol levels drop. The cortisol cycle can also become dysregulated, with irregular peaks in the evening.
Adrenal fatigue has been a relatively controversial condition for several reasons. One important reason is the early focus on the adrenal glands becoming “tired”. We now know that adrenal fatigue and burnout tend to present themselves in the dysregulation of the HPA axis and disturbances in the cortisol cycle.
What are the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue symptoms can vary from individual to individual, but there are some common symptoms experienced by almost all. These include insomnia, a feeling of being overwhelmed by stressful situations, food cravings, high levels of fatigue each day, and weak immunity.
These symptoms are mostly related to the changing hormone and neurotransmitter levels that come with Adrenal Fatigue. There are a number of other, less common, symptoms that can also appear. These might include vertical lines on the fingertips, frequent urination, and low blood pressure. Again, these are all related to the dysregulation of the HPA axis and the various hormone levels that depend on it.
What is the cause of Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is usually caused by long-term stressors. These can include financial stress, overwork, family disputes, or marital problems. Often it might a be a combination of factors, such as those experienced by a high-flying executive with young children.
Other factors can come into play too. A poor diet means that your body has fewer reserves and less capacity to deal with stress. Chronic or latent disease can be a factor, as can regular exposure to toxic chemicals or pollutants. And don’t forget sleep – one of the most important requirements for your body to function properly. If you’re burning the candle at both ends, consider that a lack of sleep might be damaging your long-term health.
How do you treat Adrenal Fatigue?
Finding a cure for your adrenal fatigue usually means reversing the factors that led to your poor health in the first place. This might mean removing added sugars and junk food from your diet, getting enough sleep, and avoiding or eliminating sources of stress.
There are other ways to support your body, make it more resilient to stress, and treat your adrenal fatigue. Adaptogenic supplements like ashwagandha can help to moderate your stress response, while basic nutrients like vitamin C can give your adrenal glands the nutrients they need.
What supplements help Adrenal Fatigue?
There are several categories of supplements that can help to treat adrenal fatigue. They should be used in combination with lifestyle changes like avoiding stress, improving diet, and getting more sleep.
There are a few basic nutrients that are particularly important for supporting the adrenal glands and HPA axis, especially during times of stress. These include vitamins B5, B6, and B12, vitamin C, and magnesium. Omega-3 fatty acids, CoQ10, and probiotics can also be tremendously supportive during this time.
Herbal supplements can be useful for regulating cortisol levels and moderating the stress response. These include ashwagandha, licorice, Rhodiola rosea, Siberian ginseng, and maca.
For the best results, discuss your supplementation with your healthcare professional. Here is some more information on supplements for adrenal fatigue.
What’s The Next Step?
If you’ve looked through this list and you recognize lots of the symptoms, what’s next? Treating Adrenal Fatigue is not as simple as just taking a pill each morning. It probably took a long time to get yourself into this position, so it will take some time to recover.
Recovering from adrenal fatigue may take months. The most important thing is giving yourself time to do it. The treatment methods mentioned above are all linked to one another and embracing all four will significantly improve your recovery time.
Worn-out adrenal glands require special nourishment through vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. They also require time to relax! This means scheduling some ‘recovery time’ into your daily routine, and switching off your ‘fight or flight’ mode.
To recover from Adrenal Fatigue and get your energy levels back to normal, you will need to follow a number of different strategies. If you don’t know where to start, check out The Adrenal Fatigue Solution. I wrote it with Dr. Eric Wood, and it contains everything you need to know about getting your energy and vitality back.