Don’t go for the crash-and-burn

First appeared in You magazine, Mail on Sunday.

It’s a familiar slippery slope into exhaustion, starting with a big professional project, forcing you to work late night after night, relying on caffeine and sugar to get you through. Add to the mix endless social engagements and early morning, punishing gym sessions to try and counterbalance all that unhealthiness. But you’re still coping, for now at least.

Then comes a flurry of personal issues – a break up, a grief, some tricky family dynamics perhaps. Still the work and unhealthy lifestyle bubble away in the background. You know you’re exhausted, stressed, but by now that’s normal. It’s just the way you are; just the way you live. Except all that time your adrenals – the walnut-sized glands that sit atop your kidneys – have been working overtime, desperately controlling your hormones, in an attempt to help you cope.

The results could be anything from an increasing inability to push through tiredness (or feeling “tired and wired” simultaneously, and unable to rest despite exhaustion), to full-blown adrenal fatigue: you can’t get out of bed, your body aches, you’re burnt right out.

They give you everything they’ve got, but eventually they begin to wear out and can no longer maintain that crucial hormonal balance (remember: hormones are responsible for maintaining immunity and energy levels, regulating blood sugar and blood pressure). The results could be anything from an increasing inability to push through tiredness (or feeling “tired and wired” simultaneously, and unable to rest despite exhaustion), to full-blown adrenal fatigue: you can’t get out of bed, your body aches, you’re burnt right out.

“Typically adrenal fatigue is caused by an overabundance of stress in everyday lives, [whether linked to work, home life or poor diet]” says Bioscientist, Rob Corney: “The repetition of stress can ultimately lead to burnout, which then leads to health problems.”

The main culprit in adrenal fatigue is over-production of cortisol – a hormone which gives the body a shot of energy, a bit like a double espresso (and is, in fact, also released when you drink that coffee, too). This is the ‘flight or fight’ hormone, which obviously provides a vital response if you’re under genuine threat, but less so if you’re just having a heated discussion in a work meeting (when fighting or taking swift flight isn’t an appropriate response). And if the adrenals are constantly pumping out cortisol, then wear on tear is inevitable, and this will have a knock-on effect on their other important hormonal functions too.

Pharmacist at Victoria Health, Shabir Daya (www.victoriahealth.com) explains how the imbalance manifests itself when you’re under constant stress. “Since the adrenals are busy producing stress hormones does he mean cortisol? So not hormones plural?, they do not produce sufficient energising hormones such as adrenaline, resulting in fatigue. Also, cortisol prevents the uptake of serotonin by the brain and since serotonin is the mood elevating hormone, the reduced amount of serotonin results in the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Serotonin, at night time, is converted into melatonin – the sleep hormone, and hence serotonin deficiency also results in sleep disturbances with most people finding that they can get to sleep but the duration of sleep is much shorter. An increase in cortisol also results in the over-production of insulin by the pancreas. Since insulin deposits fats onto the fat cells of the body, and this is why it is often referred to as a “storage hormone”, weight gain is experienced.  Insulin also depletes blood sugar levels causing carbohydrate and sugar cravings.

It is frighteningly clear then, just how crucial – and yet how easily upset – hormonal balance is to our general health and wellbeing. For competitive boxer and kickboxer, Hazel Gale, the imbalance was too great, and over too many months and years, until, aged 28, after years of excessive training and inadequate rest (multiple daily sessions and late night 10-mile runs in an attempt to lose weight for boxing contests were commonplace), Hazel’s adrenal glands were completely shot.

“First I started to get a weird, full-body malaise – aches and pains and sickness – after training that drained me of energy and clouded my mind. Next, I started to lose my memory, and found it hard to communicate. The vocabulary just wasn’t there but I remember thinking a few times that I was just too tired to care about it.”

“I put on a little weight,” she continues. “And found it impossible to shift. I developed allergies that I’d never had before and ceased to be able to tolerate my two cats. My eyes hurt, my head ached. I couldn’t even remember what a sex drive was. I was depressed and highly irritable and I had a permanent sore throat and constant digestive issues.”

Hazel had stretched her body’s ability to cope with stress so far that, physically, she had snapped. And whilst her story is fairly extreme, it’s by no means rare these days, because, essentially, human bodies, and in particular endocrine (hormonal) systems, haven’t evolved to cope with the relentless daily stress of contemporary life.

In his acclaimed book on stress, ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,’ scientist Robert Sapolsky, writes: “If you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses – but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically.”

The ‘fight or flight’ response that was previously initiated, rarely but necessarily, by a real threat to our survival can now be switched on fairly continuously by frequent long-haul flights, endless caffeinated drinks or taking on too much responsibility be it at work or at home, and trying to please everyone. All the while, the adrenal glands are having to over-feed us the stress hormone, cortisol, which, over time, has frightening results.

For Hazel, those results included a horrible battle against chronic fatigue and  fibromyalgia (a condition causing widespread muscular pain and tiredness) – two conditions that are almost always linked to, or triggered by, fatigued adrenal glands. It would take her years to recover, and even then, she would never be able to train as hard, nor live as fast, as she once had.

“I see adrenal fatigue walk into my gym every day, with sufferers getting younger and younger which, I think, is due to pressure from society to perform at an early age. Telltale signs are: big bags under the eyes; bad hair; bad skin; reported difficulty sleeping; afternoon energy crashes and nagging body fat around the midsection.”

So, just how common is adrenal fatigue? Gus Olds is an elite health and fitness professional, working with Team GB athletes and young professionals in Central London. He says, “I see adrenal fatigue walk into my gym every day, with sufferers getting younger and younger which, I think, is due to pressure from society to perform at an early age. Telltale signs are: big bags under the eyes; bad hair; bad skin; reported difficulty sleeping; afternoon energy crashes and nagging body fat around the midsection.”

Other symptoms, says bioscientist Corney, include: trouble getting out of bed in the morning; ongoing fatigue; decreased libido; craving salt and sugar; mild depression; increased PMS. Nebulous symptoms, certainly, which could relate to various conditions, from mental health issues to simply being in need of a holiday. It’s partly this, along with issues of ‘money and politics’, says James Wilson, in his book ‘Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome’, that has led to the condition going so under-diagnosed in the past: “Low adrenal function is one of those problems that have become invisible to modern medicine,” he writes: “There are no patentable treatments for adrenal fatigue produced by pharmaceutical companies. There’s just no ‘big money’ to be made.”

Certainly Hazel experienced what she refers to as “the disappointment of being told constantly by doctors that’s “it’s not a real disease”. After researching her symptoms mostly herself, via books, the internet and alternative practitioners, she began to make improvements.

“Initially it was a simple matter of lowering my stress levels by learning to listen to my body and take much more rest. After a couple of months, I was like a different person (mentally and physically) but? felt I still couldn’t train hard though without becoming ill or exhausted or both. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I did some therapeutic work (cognitive hypnotherapy) that I truly believe made the difference by helping me unravel the unconscious thought patterns – mostly developed in childhood – that kept me pushing my body forward into illness and exhaustion.”

But Hazel shouldn’t have needed to self-diagnose. Nor should she have had to subject herself to guesswork, says bioscientist, Corney, who together with co-founder Calum Gore, has set up bioscience testing business, Gore Bioscience (www.gorebioscience.com). Last year they launched a new test – the first of its kind in the UK, called a Urine Hormone Metabolite test – which aims to assess each client’s differing levels of hormones, particularly cortisol, so they make the crucial diet, supplementation and lifestyle recommendations via follow-up consultations. (Shabir Daya recommends, recommends Magnolia Rhodiola which, together with AD206, provides a combination of nutrients to support healthy adrenal function.)

The tests aren’t cheap (around £300, though that includes several advisory consultations too), certainly, though it’s arguably a small price to pay for the knowledge that might help us circumnavigate full-blown adrenal fatigue. After all, catching the condition early seems fairly critical for recovery. Despite the huge efforts she has gone to, to heal herself, Hazel still regards herself as “around 90-95% recovered”:

“Perhaps that last 5-10% is irredeemable,” she says: “I still have to monitor myself when comes to certain things: overtraining, caffeine, gluten etc, or I risk a “tired spell”. I think my immune system has taken a bit of a battering, and as a result I tend to get every cold that’s going around. So I’m not able to simply push through a tough spot anymore; these days I need to stop and rest.” On the positive side, Hazel’s experiences have led her into a career as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist (www.hazelgale.co.uk), which allows her to help others tackle similar issues, on a daily basis:

“Nowadays, I hear clients, friends and family members following exactly the same self-destructive patterns as I did. I read somewhere that 1 in 5 people in London will suffer from adrenal fatigue at some point and I definitely think that’s true. It seems to be a simple physiological response to too much stress, and people in London are under constant stress – not just ‘trying to get to the top of the ladder’ or ‘my boyfriend is cheating on me’ kind of stress, but also pollution, travel, long hours, toxic food, too much physical exercise (not combined with important rest and recovery methods) drinking alcohol, excessive sugar / nicotine / caffeine, and taking recreational drugs to ‘relax’. It’s all forcing us into a state of over stimulation.

And it’s not just those in huge cities who are prone. The Gore Bioscience experts, although keen not to indulge in supposition, suggest,  “the only thing that stands up to generalization perhaps, is job types and the prevalence of adrenal fatigue amongst doctors, nurses and airline pilots.”

But, if we bear in mind that it’s not only stress caused by, say, excessive activity or poor sleep, that causes the adrenals to overwork, but also our responses to the stress of daily life that can, via our negative thinking, instigate more stress hormones to be released, then we begin to realise our potential power in protecting ourselves from adrenal fatigue too.

Developing a more conscious awareness of stress, and taking steps to reduce it – such as using daily meditation to enhance your sense of calm – can be the first important step in the reduction of it. Stress isn’t a sign of weakness, but it is a sign: it’s your lungs body telling you they want fresh air; your body telling you it needs real rest and recuperation and your mind screaming at you that it needs space. Feeling exhausted is not – or shouldn’t be – normal. It means your adrenal glands are working over time, and, if you keep pushing them, they may well give up the ghost.

– By Lucy Fry

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