Every month, roughly 80,000 people type “what is adrenal fatigue?” into a search bar, hoping for answers.
What is adrenal fatigue?
At the top of each of your kidneys, you have an adrenal gland that releases an array of hormones. One of those hormones, cortisol, gets you out of bed, regulates blood pressure, and snaps you to attention during an emergency, among other things.
According to adrenal-fatigue theory, too much stress causes the adrenals to stop functioning properly. They either don’t generate enough cortisol, or they produce it at the wrong times (like when you’re trying to sleep).
This then leads to symptoms like:
- feeling tired and lethargic
- poor healing and recovery
- aches and pains
- having salt or sugar cravings
- having trouble falling asleep or waking up
- relying on caffeine to get through the day
Is adrenal fatigue real?
The truth: There isn’t much evidence in favor of the adrenal fatigue theory. But there is quite a bit of evidence that refutes it.
After carefully examining 58 different studies, researchers from Brazil found that, in most people tested for adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels were… normal. In other words, their adrenal glands were anything but depleted.1
They concluded: “Adrenal fatigue does not exist.” (Pretty clear where these scientists stand!)
Sure, if you dig around PubMed long enough, you’ll find a few studies that claim to support the adrenal fatigue theory. Those studies tend to measure fatigue levels—rather than actual adrenal function. In other words, they show that fatigue exists, but not necessarily adrenal fatigue.
So why do so many people swear that adrenal fatigue exists?
That’s probably because their so-called adrenal fatigue symptoms are very real, common—and frustrating.
Tiredness is one of the top reasons people seek medical care. It plagues a lot of folks.
For most of those people, stress—and not adrenal fatigue—is the more likely problem. (More about this below). Yet there’s no easy medical test for stress.
There are, however, a wide range of tests for the dozens of complex medical conditions that can also lead to fatigue, including thyroid issues, sleep apnea, and anemia.
Stress: The real reason you feel so awful
Here’s what the proponents of adrenal fatigue get right: Stress is a real problem—for a lot of people.
Chronic stress doesn’t just affect the adrenal glands.
Our stress response is a whole-body experience, affecting the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, among many other parts of the body.
Short bouts of stress followed by adequate recovery are no big deal. In fact, that’s how we grow stronger.
If that stress is ongoing and there’s not enough recovery, however, the body starts to break down.
Consider what might happen if you hoisted heavy dumbbells… forever. You wouldn’t get stronger; you’d get weaker. And that’s what happens when you’re under unrelenting stress, even low-level stress.
Reduce stress that’s within your control.
It’s not realistic (or even ideal) to obliterate all stress. But you can turn some stressors down a few notches.
Jack up recovery, in multiple areas of your life.
The more stress we deal with, the more we need to prioritize recovery.
Recovery can take many forms. We’ve noticed that the following three practices offer an enormous impact.
Eat a nutrient-packed diet
Consume enough calories to support your body and activity levels, with a balance of macronutrients (including carbs!).
Get appropriate levels of exercise
If your intense spin or CrossFit sessions feel more like they’re breaking you down than building you up, lower the intensity and/or duration.
Schedule in recovery days, and consider replacing some of your more intense training sessions with gentle, restorative movement that activates the parasympathetic “calming” nervous system. Think: yoga, tai chi, walks in nature (or “forest-bathing” if you prefer!), stretching, and foam rolling.
Form good sleep habits
While we can’t force ourselves to fall asleep on cue, we do have a lot of control over our sleep hygiene—the habits and routines we engage in around sleep.
Experiment with the following strategies and see what works for you:
- Power down devices 30 minutes before bed
- Use a journal to write down thoughts, worries, and reminders before turning off the lights
- Turn down the thermostat a degree or two
- Take a hot shower or bath before bed
- Sleep alone, so you’re not disturbed by your partner or pets