What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal Fatigue is a term that has been thrown around quite a bit in recent years, and for good reason. But, what does it actually mean? Understanding what the adrenal glands are, their function in the body, and how they become fatigued can make a huge difference in improving our health.

Simply put, adrenal fatigue boils down to a topic we can all relate to (perhaps a bit too well), which is stress.

 First and Foremost, What Are The Adrenal Glands?

The adrenal glands are two small glands located near our kidneys. They hold the immense responsibility of producing and releasing our primary stress hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine. For a more detailed explanation of adrenal gland anatomy, check out Dr. Bryan Walsh’s excellent article here.

In times of stress, the adrenals are called upon to release our stress hormones in order to react appropriately to stressful events and situations. If we think of our paleolithic ancestors, we can consider the classic example of running from the tiger. This was an acute, stressful event that needed a temporary boost in stress hormones.

Acute stressors are any stressful happening or event that are temporary. In our modern day world, this could be the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a major life change such as starting or stopping a career, etcetera. In these types of events, it is natural that our stress hormone production is increased, and we might feel this increase by experiencing changes in appetite, increased irritability or moodiness, fatigue, insomnia, or other such symptoms.

The problem occurs when our stressors are not acute, but chronic.

 While it is natural to release stress hormones in reaction to short term events, it is not natural for the body and adrenal glands to have to work in constant overdrive, and this is where adrenal fatigue can occur.

What The Body Reads As Stress

 Typically, when we think of stress, we think of the mental/emotional factors listed above. These can be both positive or negative (wedding, birth, death, etc), and are certainly profoundly impactful in our lives.

What comes as a shock to most people, is that the body interprets stress as any type of stressful event, whether it be mental, emotional, physical, or dietary. For example, check out my article on weight loss and sleep, which discusses how the body interprets insomnia as a major stressor. In fact, studies show that sleep deprivation alone raises cortisol levels.

This means that the body interprets a career change or marital problem similarly to how it would a car accident, chronic insomnia, or a diet high in toxins. Thus, the adrenal glands react accordingly.

Phases of Adrenal Fatigue

 Adrenal fatigue can be broken down into three phases in order to make it more understandable. It is important to keep in mind that adrenal fatigue is not a phenomenon that happens overnight, but instead a process that usually occurs over many years.


The first phase of adrenal fatigue usually isn’t even noticed as being a problem, and is classified as a period where cortisol levels (our primary stress hormone) are chronically high. This might have been college when you pulled all-nighters and generally didn’t treat your body very well, mixed with other stressful events that added to chronic stress.

In Phase one, you actually feel highly energetic (tired and wired), perhaps as if you don’t even need much sleep. This is because our stress hormones have taken over, which is definitely not sustainable.


The next phase is when the adrenals begin to tire, no longer able to meet our high energy demand. In this time, we begin to feel more mood fluctuations, energy dips and spikes, fatigue, and perhaps insomnia. We also might feel drained and sluggish after exercise, in a way that didn’t happen before.


This is when we are on the way to serious adrenal burnout, and feel incredibly tired, even upon waking in the morning after a full night’s rest. The body feels a constant need for sugar, refined carbohydrates, and uppers such as caffeine to keep going, and a general feeling of fatigue and sluggishness becomes the norm. Once we have reached phase 3 adrenal fatigue, it is much harder (though not impossible) to recover, so addressing the problem earlier on is highly beneficial.

Precursors To Adrenal Fatigue:

  •  Lack of good quality sleep
  • Poor food choices/lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet
  • Using food and drinks as stimulants when tired
  • Staying up late even when fatigued
  • Constantly driving yourself
  • Trying to be perfect
  • Lack of enjoyable and rejuvenating activities

Signs and Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue:

  •  Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
  • Continuing fatigue not relieved by sleep
  • Craving salty foods
  • Lethargy
  • Increased effort to do everyday tasks
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Decreased ability to handle stress
  • Increased time to recover from injury or illness
  • Light headedness when standing up quickly
  • Less enjoyment or happiness with life/mild depression
  • Increased PMS
  • Less focus/less ability to concentrate
  • Memory less accurate
  • Afternoon low around 3 or 4pm, possibly feeling better after evening meal or in the evening/night time

For more precursors to and symptoms of adrenal fatigue and other types of hormonal imbalances, check out this article by Dr. Daniel Kalish.

**In regards to testing, there are several great and relatively inexpensive labs that can effectively test your cortisol levels. Working with myself or another qualified healthcare professional to help you interpret the lab results is recommended.

 How To Heal Your Adrenal Glands

 Stress Management

 Obviously easier said than done, managing stress is essential for healing the adrenal glands. Whether that means cutting down work hours, saying no to social activities, taking a break from intense exercise and replacing it with restorative yoga or walking, or carving out quality time with those you love, lowering stress levels should be number one priority. Another great idea is establishing a regular meditation practice.

Eat for stable blood sugar

 If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, you should strive to eat a meal or snack every 3-4 hours. Make sure to always include high quality protein and good fats, along with organic vegetables and fruits.

Eat breakfast every day within one hour of waking

 Starting the day off with a hearty and healthy breakfast can go a long way in supporting the adrenal glands. Try organic eggs with half a baked sweet potato and half cup of raw sauerkraut (excellent for immune support and digestion). If you’re in a rush, make a smoothie with a whey or pea protein powder, along with unsweetened coconut milk, fruit of your choice, and a handful of greens.

Cut out processed and refined foods

 Decrease your physical stress by cutting out foods that offer little to no benefit, such as candy, pastries, cookies, white pasta and bread, and anything with an extensively long ingredient list. Stick to real, whole foods.

Add in some key herbs and supplements

  •  Tulsi tea is an excellent adaptogenic herb that can be purchased at your local health food store and consumed daily.
  • Magnesium is a safe and important mineral that most people lack in adequate amounts, as we use up our magnesium stores more in times of stress. Epsom salt baths are great ways to absorb magnesium safely.
  • Supplement with fermented cod liver oil, which give us important omega 3 fatty acids that are key to adrenal health.

Check Out Further Reading

 Two of my favorite resources on the subject are Adrenal Fatigue, the 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James Wilson, and The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott and William Kraemer.

Remember, you can heal from adrenal fatigue. Just as it can take many years for the adrenals to become fatigued, it can also be a lengthy process to heal them and feel better. Following the tips above and considering working with a qualified healthcare professional can help to speed up the process.

  1. Journal of Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine. Retrieved February 10th, 2016.
  • Rachel Fiske started Madrona Wellness Holistic Nutrition in 2010, after discovering her passion for healing and preventing illness through a real, whole foods diet and lifestyle. This passion now encompasses working with her clients to find the underlying cause of symptoms, and achieving optimal health in the short and long term.Rachel specializes in the following conditions: digestive issues, food allergies/sensitivities, blood sugar regulation, detox, fatigue, insomnia, hormonal imbalances, depression, stress, weight loss, and more. She wants her clients to understand the importance of starting with whole foods, and then proceeding to herbs and supplementation when necessary.

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