Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Adrenal Fatigue & Cortisol Management

Adrenal fatigue is a collection of symptoms, that result in the adrenal glands functioning below the necessary level. What is the basic function of adrenal glands? They produce much of our body's hormones - epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol - to help us during moments of stress. When we are in a crisis situation, the hormones are released; putting us in a "fight or flight" mode to better help us deal with those situations.

The trouble comes when our crisis situation or stress level is of a prolonged nature. This leaves our glands working overtime - constantly releasing hormones. When we have continued high levels of cortisol dumped into our system, we severely interrupt our bodies ability to process fat, protein and carbohydrates; which, in turn, interrupts our ability and/or desire for fat loss.

That state of fatigue can be present every day with stressful jobs or a difficult boss, air pollution, family quarrels, financial problems, too little sleep, illness, overindulgence in or sensitivities to food, getting too many days of training and not enough days of rest & recovery (i.e., excessive training, particularly metabolic conditioning - metcon - exacerbates the condition).

How do we know if we are in or near the state of adrenal fatigue? Easy.

* Tired for no reason?
* Trouble getting up in the morning; even with reasonable sleep?
* Feeling run-down or overwhelmed?
* Have some struggle bouncing back from stress or illness?
* Crave salty or sweet snacks?
* Zero sex drive?

So, what do we do if we think we might be suffering from adrenal fatigue and/or excessive cortisol levels? This part may not be so easy for some, but realizing you are headed for physical, emotional and physiological disaster may make you re-think your priority levels and force you to readjust lifestyle. The following simple changes can drastically help to manage cortisol levels and reverse adrenal fatigue:

* Eat right - Paleo or Paleo-Zone. At the very least, switch to gluten-free.

* ZZZZZZZ. Get your sleep! This cannot be emphasized enough! Ideally, getting 8 hours of sleep can do wonders to lowering cortisol levels. However, getting appropriate sleep-cycles in a 24-hour period, can also help if you have a hard time getting in all your sleep in a 8 hour sleep cycle. A 75-90 minute nap in the middle of the day is also effective sleep-cycle wise. The key is getting that total number of sleep for the day/night. If you are not getting the 8 hours with day/night combined, you are headed for cortisol-overabundance-havoc.

* If you are going to obssess about anything, do it with your down time. Take time off from everything by doing things that requires little to no effort. Take your dog on a leisurely walk, alphabetize your spices, sit back on your couch and stare at the cobwebs on your ceiling (but don't dust!!). When was the last time you had a 1 WEEK rest cycle regarding wods (that's right, one week off!). If the answer to that question is either "never" or "can't remember", your approach to optimal health is flawed. The top performing athletes in Crossfit know how important that is.

* Perform your wods but reduce intensity (lower metcons, work on strength instead).

* Abstain from caffeine and other stimulants if adrenal fatigue is severe. It has also been suggested that greatly reducing the amount of alcohol one consumes aides towards efficient management of elevated cortisol levels.

* A small PWO meal can help reduce cortisol levels post wod (P/C combo)


  1. Maria,
    How often would you suggest taking an entire week of WODs off? Once a quarter? Twice a year? Or just when the symptoms of fatigue set in? Or would it be better to just cut back on workouts (ie. instead of 5 per week, cut down to 3 per week?)

  2. Each individual is different, with varying degrees of wod intensity and nutrition requirements. However, a general recommendation is to take 1 week off every three months and go from there. Always keeping a check on your recoveries from wods, your sleep patterns, etc. Some people need that week off after only a couple of months. Again, depends on intensity of wods and how often you do two wods per day (typically, those are the folks that are competitive athletes).
    Hope that helps.

  3. wow.. good stuff Maria, I hear about all of these symptoms from our athletes (myself included) on a weekly basis

  4. Carol -
    Heed the warning signs! (for your athletes and yourself!)
    This is especially true for newer athletes that are trying to do too much too soon and veteran athletes trying to get into the competition scene and not balancing rest/increased nutrient intake with increased wods. The athletes that might be doing two wods a day or are involed in the games lab series...they need to really pay attention to the change in symptoms and progress.
    Some times, it is up to the coach to intervene, since often times they do not realize what is happening! :)

  5. Damn! I suspected I might be afflicted with this since I feel tired all the time and my work output has been dismal to say the least. I went through the "checklist" and have just about all the symptoms.
    Looks like I better start by taking a week off from the gym. Difficult to face, but sounds like it's the first step.
    Thanks for this info - very valuable!

  6. If you already know you have adrenal fatigue, howlong is a recommended time away?

    I've been doing 0 workouts for a week now, except yoga and walking.

  7. Mel -
    Length of time will vary on severity of adrenal stress. Remember there's more to recovery than just no exercising.
    Sleep, maintaining quality nutrition by eating foods that are anti-inflammatory, removing any exposure to caffeine, taking a quality fish oil if your nutrition is lacking, taking a quality vitamin D as well. And, of course, removing as many stressors as possible!

    Having said that, if you are following that kind of protocol, I would think you would see some improvement over the course of 2 weeks, but some people can take 1-6 months, depending on individual stressors and condition of adrenals.

    I would get re-tested in a month to see if there have been improvements.

    Hope that helps!