Adrenal glands are two little glands sitting atop your kidneys and produce hormones that help regulate blood sugar levels, burn protein and fat, react to stressors such as infection, illness, or injury, and regulate blood pressure. One of the most important hormones the adrenal glands produce is cortisol.
The idea of adrenal fatigue has gained a lot of popularity as we are a culture of over-worked, over-medicated, malnourished, toxic and perpetually exhausted people. High stress, be it emotional, physical, physiological, or social, leads to high amounts of cortisol being produced by the adrenal glands in response to a threat/stressor. These high levels of cortisol completely wipe us out and drain us of any energy we had. Constant states of stress and elevated cortisol means we are chronically exhausted, completely burned out. If we can lower our cortisol levels, we won’t be so burned out. Right?
The connection between high cortisol levels and fatigue just isn’t there.
Numerous studies have been done regarding the effects of cortisol on energy and fatigue. The research has shown researchers that cortisol levels have nothing to do with Chronic Fatigue (also diagnosed as Burn-Out or Adrenal Fatigue). Researchers found that cortisol levels made no difference between those diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or Adrenal Fatigue) and those of healthy people. It was found that some people with debilitating fatigue had completely normal levels of cortisol, and those who were healthy had low levels of cortisol.
In one study, those who had been diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue had been placed into two groups and were subjects of a double-blind study. Some received a placebo and some received a medication to raise cortisol levels. They found that those on medication to raise cortisol levels had no symptom abatement. Even though their cortisol levels were brought to within a “healthy” range, they still suffered from debilitating fatigue.
Low cortisol levels do not automatically mean your adrenals are burned out. There are other factors contributing to low cortisol levels, such as: being overweight, being a night owl, late night eating, napping, certain medication, and poor sleep habits. These factors could mean you have low levels of cortisol, but that doesn’t automatically mean you have adrenal fatigue.
If low levels of cortisol is not what is causing your fatigue, then why care about low levels? Low cortisol may not cause you to be exhausted, but it does cause a down regulation on the functions of the adrenal glands and specifically the jobs of cortisol in the first place, such as controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, assisting with memory formulation, and it has a controlling effect of salt and water balance in the body that helps control blood pressure. Keeping cortisol at optimal levels is critical to health, wellness, and even survival.
That being said, raising cortisol levels artificially to levels beyond what the body wants naturally is extremely damaging. Elevated cortisol suppresses the immune system, weakening its ability to fight infection. Other damages include: disrupted digestion, impaired brain function, impaired metabolism, loss of muscle & bone, impaired healing & cell regeneration, mood swings, depression, low sex drive, thyroid imbalance, weight gain, and hair & skin problems. High levels of cortisol make your body think it is dealing with a threat, and all immune, digestion and even thyroid function is put on hold.
As you can see, balance is key. Not too high and not too low. Having too high or too low cortisol is detrimental to overall health in many ways… yet, having low levels are cortisol is not likely the cause of your fatigue. So what is?
The mitochondria in our cells have 2 main functions. One function is widely known and that is to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – energy – for the cell so it can perform its cellular duties. The other job of the mitochondria is cellular defense. It will detect when there is a danger or threat then direct energy to defense. When are mitochondria are constantly in “detect-a-threat” mode, they are less in “produce-energy” mode, which leaves leads to chronic low energy – fatigue.
Every system of the body requires ATP, your heart, lungs, brain, gut, etc. If the mitochondria is not working properly and not producing energy because it is constantly in detect and defend mode, then those systems requiring energy (which is every system of the body) decline and/or shut down.
Now, let’s touch on what is suffocating us at a cellular level. Things like home toxins (cleaning products, candles), environmental toxins, food toxins, leaky gut, beauty products (soaps, lotions, make-up, deodorant), poor sleep, psychological stress, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, and being overweight all contribute to averting the function of your mitochondria into constant battle-ready mode. This leaves you, at a cellular level, always using up stores of energy rather than creating more, leading to constant burn out and fatigue. Interestingly, this fatigue reaction is your body’s way of trying to preserve itself. It slows you down for survival, it is a survival response to extend your life. Your body can’t indefinitely be in defense mode without burning out to the point of complete shut-down. This “hibernation” your body goes into may preserve some years of your life, but you won’t be thriving. You’ll be exhausted.
Graphic from The Energy Blueprint
Eliminate Fatigue and Exhaustion for Good
When it is too much for too long spent in detect and defend mode, your body gets “stuck” and forgets how to switch to energy production mode. Thankfully, there is a way to train your body to be able to effectively handle stress. We can train our body to be able to detect then defend against a treat and then return to energy production.
Hormesis is when you deliberately stress the body in safe, effective and short-lived ways to strengthen the body’s ability to handle stress. Exposing yourself to various stressors have a positive and beneficial effect on our physiology. Things such as:
- Showers alternating cold/hot water
- HIIT exercise (high intensity interval training)
- Intermittent Fasting (IF)
- Cold water plunges
Basically, get comfortable with getting uncomfortable. Temporarily anyway.
Just as with weight training, the more you lift, the stronger you get and eventually you can lift heavier. The body doesn’t just compensate for the weight you are currently lifting, it overcompensates and you recover stronger and can then lift heavier. The same goes for dealing with stressors. Hormesis is training the body to handle stress and strengthen its ability to handle it next time around which in turn boosts your ability to get stronger, healthier, and more resistant to disease than you were before.
Remember, it needs to be a short-lived bought of stress. As we discussed previously, being constantly in a state of stress turns off energy production in the mitochondria and turns on energy depletion mode in the form of defending against a threat (stress or illness).
The trick to optimizing the stress and recovery response – SLEEP. During deep sleep, your body goes into a natural “self-eating” mode called autophagy. Your cells create membranes that will search out scraps of dead, diseased, or worn-out cells; feed on them; use the molecules for energy or to make new cell parts; then your body will eliminate the waste. It’s like your body’s own recycling system.
With intermittent fasting and deep sleep, specifically, you will maximize autophagy and regenerate new, healthy cell parts.
To summarize, too high or too low cortisol levels are dangerous and lead to many chronic and debilitating health conditions. Maintaining optimal levels of cortisol is important, but cortisol levels have no bearing on energy levels. What does greatly affect energy is mitochondria function. Mitochondria is either producing energy or depleting energy by shifting into detect and defend mode. If it is in detect and defend mode it isn’t producing energy therefore fatigue sets in.
Eliminate or greatly reduce cellular suffocation (overweight, poor sleep, home, food, & environmental toxins, psychological stress, nutritional deficiencies etc.) and add in metabolic stressors (HIIT exercise, phytochemicals, IF etc.) to strengthen ATP production within the cell.
There is no one magic bullet. There are multiple magic bullets. Eliminate the bad, add in the good. It takes conscious effort but chronic fatigue is not a life-long sentence. It is 100% preventable and treatable.