Are you suffering from Adrenal Exhaustion?

The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and are essential to the body’s health. They excrete many important hormones and natural steroids such as adrenalin (epinephrine), DHEA, testosterone, noradrenalin and cortisol and enable the body to perform many important functions.

Adrenal exhaustion

Adrenal exhaustion is a term used in naturopathy. It is the general fatigue and lethargy experienced by people who have fought the effects of stress, usually over a long period. The concept of adrenal fatigue is a condition not fully recognised by Western medicine, except in the case of rare and severe adrenal disease such as with Addison’s or Cushing syndrome.

Tiredness is the most common symptom among patients visiting my clinic for the first time. Now obviously, there are many causes of tiredness. Adrenal stress, however, though largely unrecognised in the orthodox medical world, is, in holistic medicine, one of the most common causes of the feeling of exhaustion. It is also the most common factor in long-term ill health.


Have you noticed that everyone seems so much more stressed?

Those working, those not working, young people, old people, parents, children, even pets. According to some recent research it seems that we are all more stressed than we used to be – the average level of stress has doubled in the last four years (AXA PPP Healthcare 2010).

We now know that stress is a big cause of disease (or ‘disease’) – the problem is that it can creep up on us and before we know it we can have all kinds of physical, mental and emotional symptoms.

What is stress?

A dictionary definition of stress might be, ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances’. On a day-to-day level I would define stress as ‘the tension between what we want to happen and what is actually happening’.

Stress is not just an isolated mental thought process – stress is chemical. When we feel under pressure, our body produces hormones which are so powerful that they can change the way we function day-to-day. The stress hormones are produced by the adrenal glands. They produce the hormones adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol, which are released into the bloodstream to help us deal with an emergency. They are part of the flight or fight response. These chemical responses are only designed to be called upon infrequently, as the body has to work hard to process them and burn them up. This is usually done by literally running away. However, the kind of stress that most of us experience can be every day. We don’t have the opportunity to use up the hormones, and as a result they end up accumulating in our body. We now know that the effects can be wide-reaching, from heart disease to weight gain.


• anger

• depression

• anxiety

• changes in behaviour

• food cravings

• lack of appetite

• frequent crying

• difficulty sleeping

• feeling tired

• difficulty concentrating.

• chest pains

• constipation

• diarrhoea

• cramps or muscle spasms

• dizziness

• fainting spells, where you temporarily lose consciousness

• biting your nails

• nervous twitches

• pins and needles

• feeling restless

• sweating more

• sexual difficulties, such as erectile dysfunction or a loss of sexual desire

• breathlessness

• muscular aches

• difficulty sleeping.

The adrenals excrete hormones that help us deal with physical, emotional and biological stress. When we experience chronic stress, the constant output of hormones such as cortisol will, over time, deplete the adrenals’ capacity to summon the flight or fight response. This is because, by producing cortisol over an extended period of time, they cannot create the counterbalance hormone, DHEA, in sufficient quantity.

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue are:

• underlying fatigue and exhaustion

• tiredness upon waking, even with sufficient sleep

• feeling most awake late in the evening

• poor digestion with a tendency to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

• a craving for stimulants and sugary foods

• poor recovery from exercise or illness

• being easily overwhelmed and/or feeling on the edge (wired)

• fluctuations in blood sugar levels

• signs of premature ageing

• illness as soon as you have a holiday or a few days off

• erratic fluctuation of blood pressure

• sudden feelings of anxiety or palpitations when attempting to relax

• vomiting when stressed.
How the body responds to stress

1. Hormones such as adrenalin are excreted into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response.

2. Breathing and heart rate quicken to supply more oxygen as the body prepares for action.

3. Blood vessels constrict and blood is redirected from the extremities to the brain, heart and lungs.

4. Some organ processes such as the digestive system slow down.

5. Blood becomes thicker so that any wounds will heal more quickly.

The body is designed to deal with short bursts of stress. However, over longer periods, high quantities of stress hormones begin to circulate, which can be difficult to deal with. Fatigue, heart disease, unstable blood pressure, weight gain, immune depletion, digestive disorders, cancer and osteoporosis are just a few of the conditions that this can cause.

Eventually the mechanism the body uses to regulate and produce cortisol wears out. It is then that people fail to produce enough cortisol. At this stage people report feeling not just wired and stressed, but completely fatigued – completely burnt out.

They are often in the chronic fatigue spectrum and often have some kind of chronic condition as a result of the body being unable to control the background inflammatory factors. People then need stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine just to function.

When there is a stress factor, the body responds by releasing stress hormones which help us deal with the stressor and what it perceives as a life-threatening situation. It then attempts to return the blood chemistry back to a normal level, as the body understands that these stress hormones are toxic if they circulate for too long. If this keeps happening persistently, and if someone doesn’t have the opportunity to recover sufficiently, then eventually the body gives up and no longer produces enough cortisol. Of course, depending on their genetics/constitution, nutrition and frame of mind, some people are able to cope with stress better than others.

When the adrenals get tired from being over-stimulated, we tend to resort to stimulants such as caffeine to function normally. In Chinese medicine, the function of the adrenal glands is called the kidney’s qi. It has been recognised from ancient times that the strength of this energy is the foundation of all health and that the most common causes of its depletion are fear, overexertion… and stress.

Sources of stress

‘Pressure’ on the body can be physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual. When the demands placed on the individual are greater than the internal resources available, pressure becomes ‘stress’. Stress, howsoever caused, can lead to disease, and adrenal exhaustion can be at the root of most diseases.

In the twenty-first century our bodies have much to deal with: toxicity from the environment such as chemical pollution, electromagnetic radiation, poisoning from mercury fillings, root canal fillings, vaccinations – the list goes on. And, living in this world of information overload, we have developed an addiction to constant stimulation.

Our brain doesn’t distinguish between emotional and physiological stress; the biochemical reactions are the same – and equally detrimental.

Mental patterns that contribute to internal stress include:

• being a perfectionist

• procrastination

• over-concern about other people’s opinions

• not being able to embrace uncertainty.

When we have had traumatic events happen to us, we might develop the habit of responding to potential stress negatively. We begin anticipating danger in an inappropriately fearful way. We all have different stress thresholds. The journey to optimum health involves knowing your limits. Watch out for feelings of being overwhelmed and make sure you get the support you need in your life. An optimistic outlook will help to combat stress; however, pretending that problems don’t exist and projecting a veneer of apparent positivity is not helpful.

Dealing with stress

You can reduce stress by tackling its causes, especially those concerning relationships and finances, head on.
Take action – procrastination can lead to frustration and low self-esteem.

Other action you can take to reduce stress includes:

• Cut out caffeine, sugars, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and stimulants. These force the adrenals into action.

• Take vitamins and fats. B12 is especially important for restoring the function of adrenals and is frequently deficient. Vitamin C is also important for the adrenals and can be found in vegetable juices, wheatgrass juice, rose hips, parsley, kiwi fruits, lycii berries and amla fruit (Phyllanthus emblica). Fats are used by the body to produce adrenal hormones. Good sources are flaxseeds, hemp seeds, avocado, coconut oil and butter.

• Work with the natural rhythms in the body and eat at the sametime each day. There is a lot of focus on what we eat, but not enough on how and when we eat. Eating at erratic times of the day disturbs digestion, disrupts blood sugar levels and plays havoc with the adrenals.

• Reduce the time you spend on the computer and watching TV, particularly at night. These are stimulating activities and can affect the quality of your sleep.

• Learn to meditate. Methods which invoke deep relaxation will help to rest your adrenal glands. Some people are more suited to activities such as yoga and tai chi.

• If you are a perfectionist…stop it!

• Be spontaneous. New activities can help establish a new you. Consider taking up acting, singing, group therapy or 5-Rhythms dance.

• Sleep it off. Studies have shown that people who sleep less are more likely to suffer from diabetes, obesity and other chronic disorders. Most people need eight hours’ sleep to be at their best, though many can only achieve six. Make sure you get the hours that you, as an individual, need. Establish a routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. (Eastern medicine states that waking up before sunrise is best.) Make sure you sleep in a darkened room, which helps your brain produce the hormone ‘melatonin’. Use black out blinds if necessary. This supports deep regenerative sleep, and the maintenance of a healthy weight and immune system.
‘The secret of health preservation is first of all sleep. It can regenerate the essence, improve health, invigorate the spleen and stomach and strengthen the bones and muscles. (Li Yu, Qing dynasty)

• Working with a therapist or a therapeutic group can help identify unhealthy beliefs and provide an opportunity to release blocked emotions.

Treating stress

Acupuncture and cranial osteopathy can work directly on the nervous system and the adrenal glands. Anything relaxing will help; try deep massage and body work. Tonic herbs (scientific name adaptogen) are very powerful herbal medicines that maintain and help restore the adrenal glands, thus helping you adapt to stress.


• ashwagandha

• astragalas

• fresh oat seed

• gotu kola

• liquorice

• panax ginseng

• reishi

• rhodiola

• schisandra berry

• siberian ginseng.

More and more research is being published about the effects of adaptogens and we are starting to understand the positive impact they have on the immune, hormonal and cognitive functions. Mineral-based medicines, such as Shilajeet from the Himalayas, are called rasayanas in Ayurveda (literally translated as the elixir of youth). They ‘tonify’ the body. However, they need to be made correctly and by hand. Many of these types of tonics take several months to prepare properly. At my clinic we make tonics based on ancient prescriptions originating from Indian, Chinese and Arabic medical traditions. Good quality tonic herbs, prepared correctly, can bring about a remarkable improvement in health. However, like people, herbs have different personalities, so they need to be taken according to body type.

Extracted from ‘Make Yourself Better’ published by ‘Singing Dragon’.

Philip Weeks is an expert on natural medicine and is a Master Herbalist and Acupuncturist.