Are you running on empty? Too much work, too many errands, not enough sleep, go go go, food on the run, more work, taking care of the family, go go go ... it seemingly never ends. Are you dragging yourself through each day? You wake up groggy, your energy crashes in the late afternoon, you get your second wind late in the evening and then it starts all over again.
One of the most common complaints I hear in my practice is that people feel absolutely fatigued. Are we in a crisis of adrenal fatigue?
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In 1998 Dr. James Wilson attributed a number of symptoms, including constant fatigue, morning grogginess, craving for sweet and salty foods and frequent colds/flus, to a new syndrome he termed adrenal fatigue.
Over a decade later this diagnosis is still not accepted in the western medicine arena but has been picked up and intensely discussed and marketed in the herbalist, naturopath and otherwise “alternative” health community.
Your adrenals are endocrine glands located on the top of your Kidneys. These walnut-sized glands are responsible for many different hormonal functions in the body. You can read more about the adrenal glands in my anatomy article about the endocrine system.
Dr. Wilson claims that prolonged periods of stress or illness can cause adrenal fatigue symptoms. This is completely different than Addison’s Disease where the adrenals completely shut down.
Undoubtedly many people are experiencing chronic tiredness. However, does everyone with chronic feelings of fatigue, who wake up groggy in the morning and crave salty and sweet foods have adrenal fatigue?
Probably not. Fatigue can be caused by any number of factors. The most successful way to address an illness is to figure out why it is happening and then address it from the root cause.
When I work with someone who has a lot of fatigue I don’t assume they have “adrenal fatigue” and then give them standard one-size-fits-all adrenal fatigue supplements and herbs.
I know that to find successful adrenal fatigue treatment you have to get to the root cause.
The following are a sample of root causes of adrenal fatigue symptoms.
Chinese Medicine recognizes several different reasons or patterns for chronic fatigue. One of those is a pattern called Deficient Kidney Yang.
Symptoms of Kidney Yang Deficiency include:
Chinese medicine uses special herbal formulations, as well as lifestyle suggestions, to successfully address Deficient Kidney Yang.
When your thyroid gland is not functioning properly symptoms include coldness, fatigue, weight gain, difficulty waking up, dry skin and hair loss. Someone with a hypothyroid could easily be “diagnosed” with adrenal fatigue by a well-meaning alternative health practitioner without recognizing another serious disease underneath.
Constant sleep debt taxes your entire well being. Not sleeping deeply, routinely going to bed late or not getting enough hours of sleep can lead to all sorts of endocrine imbalances, from general fatigue to metabolic syndrome.
Constant feelings of tiredness can be a direct result of not eating the foods that your body requires for energy. Eating too many carbohydrates and not enough healthy fats and oils can lead to a roller coaster of energy levels that eventually leads to a desperate low. Oftentimes in these situations people reach for another cup of coffee or sugary snack to temporarily boost them up, again creating a tough cycle to break.
Another way diet can effect energy levels is through food sensitivities. Eating foods that create an immune system response in your body can create a constant internal stress and inflammation that overtaxes your body and leads to decreased energy levels. The most common culprits here are gluten, dairy casein, soy and corn.
Even if you have the healthiest diet, if you aren’t properly digesting your foods it can create an energy crisis!
Imagine that your digestion is like a medium burning fire. When you eat food your digestive fire transforms the whole foods into nutrients your body can use. However, if your digestive fire is weak, your body struggles to break down and assimilate foods for energy. Symptoms of this might include frequent bloating, food stagnation, loose stools or undigested food in stools.
Eating a diet high in raw foods or other excessive cold damp foods can be a contributing factor.
Walk into a health food store or even google Adrenal Fatigue Cure and you’ll see a plethora of ethically questionable products geared towards adrenal fatigue treatment.
Read the bottle of any one of those adrenal fatigue treatments and you’ll probably be thinking that most of the population has adrenal fatigue and this magical bottle offers an adrenal fatigue cure.
Health does not exist in a bottle. It does not even exist within a magic bullet herb.
Health lies in the way we live.
Of course herbs and supplements can be a powerful part of a plan towards health. But natural remedies for adrenal fatigue will be limited in their abilities if they are taken in a one-size-fits-all manner and if a healthy lifestyle is not behind it.
When thinking about natural remedies for adrenal fatigue keep in mind that recovering from chronic health problems generally involves a complex and personalized mixture of choices.
With that more nuanced understanding, here are the herbal categories that I commonly recommend for people with extreme fatigue.
Adaptogens for Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
Adaptogen herbs are used for people who are overly stressed, fatigued and run down. They help to establish endocrine balance, reduce negative responses to stress, promote sustainable energy levels and promote sleep at night. Adaptogens are some of the most important herbs for people with fatigue.
Relaxing Nervines for Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
Relaxing nervine herbs can be like getting a good hug from a friend or the mental relaxation of a good massage. They help switch the body from a sympathetic nervous system state to a parasympathetic nervous system state so the body can rest and repair.
Nourishing Herbs for Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
Nutrient deficiencies are often a problem with people experiencing low energy levels. Nourishing herbs can be taken as a way to get lots of nutrients in an easily absorbable form. My favorite herb for this is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).
There are several key nutrients that can have a significant role in a person’s energy levels.
Vitamin B12 as Adrenal Fatigue Supplements
B12 is crucial for energy levels. B12 is found in meats and eggs. Vegans and vegetarians can be especially susceptible to low levels of vitamin B12. However, even meat eaters can be deficient if they lack the intrinsic factor necessary to assimilating this vitamin.
Vitamin D3 as Adrenal Fatigue Supplements
Vitamin D3 plays numerous important roles in the body, including being a key player in immune system function. Deficient levels of Vitamin D3 are associated with frequent colds and flu, fatigue, fibromyalgia and cancer.
Magnesium as Adrenal Fatigue Supplements
Magnesium is a mineral that many people in North America are lacking in their diets. Magnesium contributes to over 300 activities in the human body and is especially useful to the nervous system. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include restless sleep, insomnia, restless legs and increased levels of anxiety.
The medical industry may debate the existence of adrenal fatigue syndrome for decades to come. In the meantime, I have no doubt that many people are experiencing extreme fatigue, too much stress and being completely overwhelmed.
I have worked with many people who have overcome their fatigue to enjoy life again. I can’t promise you a one-size-fits-all-magic-bullet cure. But I can guide you towards addressing the root cause of your problems so you can lead a happier and healthier life.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.