Lia came to me after visiting specialist after specialist who couldn’t give her any answers about the almost unbearable symptoms she was experiencing. The physical symptoms were tough, she told me, but the hardest thing to cope with was the sense that she somehow just wasn’t herself anymore. And when she said this to specialists, she said, they simply ignored it.
Her primary care physician suggested medication for anxiety and depression. But while Lia certainly felt anxious about what was going on, she didn’t believe that was the root of her problem – and I agreed! Of course she felt anxious about losing her former vitality and zest for life. Who wouldn’t?
One of the most important aspects of my practice is my commitment to looking at the whole picture – something specialists simply aren’t equipped to do. I immediately suspected that adrenal dysfunction was causing her discomfort. What I didn’t know is why her adrenals weren’t functioning properly in the first place.
Unlike conventional medicine, functional medicine focuses on getting to the root cause of an issue instead of simply treating symptoms. After all, masking symptoms doesn’t make the real problem go away. Functional medicine is all about discovering why your health has taken a bad turn and building habits that will sustain good health for a lifetime – not just while you take a pill.
Let’s take a quick look at what adrenal fatigue is and the symptoms that might indicate an issue with adrenal function. Then I’ll tell you about two surprising factors that are often missed when looking for the root cause. Finally, I’ll give you some concrete tips for addressing those factors to heal your adrenals and finally find relief.
Adrenal fatigue – fact or fiction?
There has been a lot of debate among conventional practitioners about whether adrenal fatigue is real. I’ve talked about this a lot in the past, and you can read more about it here.
A lot of the debate comes down to semantics, I think. It’s true that the adrenals rarely reach a point of total shut down.
Instead, what often happens is the adrenals become skewed in either direction – producing too much or too little hormones, especially the stress hormone cortisol. And to complicate matters further, it’s a moving target. Sometimes, production is too high. Others, it’s too low. And often, levels are still within the “normal” range (which is far too broad to really make sense).
That’s why I typically use the terms “adrenal imbalance” or “adrenal dysfunction” to describe the issue commonly known as adrenal fatigue. The bottom line is that if the adrenal glands aren’t producing the correct amounts of hormones, the body will respond negatively.
Signs of adrenal fatigue
In hindsight, women often say that the first thing they noticed as their health began to spiral downward was a change in energy level. They found themselves needing more and more caffeine just to make it through the day. Or they wake up tired even after a full night of sleep, have difficulty getting out of bed, or get a burst of energy late at night, making sleep tough.
These energy changes are a sign that something is awry in the adrenal glands. Other symptoms include changes in mood (including anxiety and depression), aching joints and muscles, unexplained weight gain, hair loss, skin issues, low blood pressure, and lightheadedness.
These symptoms can also be a result of other problems, but it’s worth asking about adrenal function if you find yourself faced with several. There are several stages of adrenal fatigue, and if you catch the problem early, you can avoid reaching a state of total exhaustion and inability to function.
2 Surprising Factors Leading to Adrenal Fatigue
The conversation around what causes adrenal fatigue often focuses on hormonal imbalance and/or gut issues. While these are both important factors, focusing solely on them kind of misses the mark. That’s because each of these is another symptom…not really a root cause. Why are hormones imbalanced? What is behind dysbiosis in the gut? These are the things you really need to know. Where do these problems originate?
There are two “T’s” that are often the root cause of adrenal dysfunction: Toxins and Trauma. I’ve talked about each before, but it’s important to understand how they can cause problems with the adrenal glands.
Toxicity and Adrenal Fatigue
We are surrounded by toxins in our food, water, the air we breathe, and the personal care products we use. More than 300 synthetic chemicals have been found in the tissues of the human body – even some in newborns! That means these toxins can pass from mother to child and carry on for generations! We also deal with toxic stress and toxicity in relationships.
Sometimes, there’s nothing we can do about the toxins we’re exposed to. Unless you live in a plastic bubble, for instance, you don’t have much control over what’s in the air you are breathing (though air purifiers at home do help). Still, there’s a lot we can control. That’s why it’s so important to understand the role toxins play in adrenal function.
Adrenal dysfunction is most commonly triggered by chronic stress – and that includes stress that your body endures when bombarded by environmental toxins. Exposure to heavy metals, asbestos, and toxic chemicals can block the natural processes of the adrenal glands, throwing off the natural stress response.
Toxic relationships can be as serious as environmental toxins when it comes to the impact on your adrenal glands. Remember, your brain can’t distinguish between types of stress – it initiates the same stress response whenever a threat is perceived, even if it’s emotional rather than physical. Research has indicated that perspective makes a difference to health. When surrounded by the negativity of relationships that simply don’t work well, your health will suffer.
Trauma and adrenal fatigue
Trauma – whether recent or in the distant past – has lingering effects in your body. Physical trauma is obvious, and you’re likely to take the necessary steps to heal (such as resting a sprained ankle or staying in bed when you have a migraine). Emotional trauma, on the other hand, is often buried deep.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study has clearly demonstrated the impact that trauma in childhood can have on adult health. But it’s still difficult for many of my clients to process the idea that something that happened decades ago might be behind their uncomfortable symptoms.
I often come back to the phrase “our issues are in our tissues.” Our body holds on to trauma long after the source is gone. And eventually, the buildup of emotional trauma in these tissues manifests in physical ways, such as the symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Emotional trauma can also create chronic stress, sometimes leading to specific disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although the acute trauma has passed, the long-term impact is devastating. The brain’s natural response to trauma of any kind (real or perceived) is to flood the body with adrenaline and cortisol, leading to the “fight, flight or freeze” reactions. Individuals with PTSD have a hyper-aroused response system, meaning even the slightest perception of a threat can result in a full-blown stress response.
Being on “high-alert” means your adrenals are constantly called upon to produce more stress hormones, leading to elevated levels of cortisol (and a range of painful symptoms). The longer this goes on, the harder it is for your body to produce these hormones, and eventually the adrenals may not be able to keep up, leading to a whole different set of problems, including chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
Reducing the impact of toxins and trauma
The good news is that once you understand that your troubles may begin with the toxins and trauma you’ve been exposed to, you can start taking steps towards healing. While you can’t eliminate all toxic exposure, you can certainly reduce it! And though past trauma can’t be changed, it can be faced so it won’t keep triggering your stress response.
Pay attention to what you put in your body
So much of my advice comes back to making sure you are consciously choosing what enters your body. Processed foods are never the best choice. Whole, organic meats and produce are the best way to avoid pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics that are so prevalent in commercial foods.
Water is essential to good health, but if it’s coming from plastic bottles it can often contain unwanted chemicals. I recommend filtered water over bottled water for just that reason. If you can invest in a whole home filtration system, you won’t be showering in unwanted toxins either. Avoid drinks loaded with sugar, artificial flavorings or colorings. If plain water bores you, try adding some fresh fruit or infusing it with mint. Flavored seltzer and herbal tea are also great options.
In public, you can’t do much about the air quality. But at home, you can use an air filter, keep dust to a minimum, and address any areas with mold immediately.
Examine relationships to see if they are serving you well
This is much easier said than done sometimes, but if you’re feeling like a relationship isn’t what you’d like it to be, it’s time to really take a look at what you get from it. Exposing yourself to toxic people just because they are family, for instance, is doing yourself a great disservice. Find ways to set healthy boundaries with parents, siblings, friends and significant others. It’s okay to let go of relationships that don’t work for you – especially if you’ve tried to set boundaries without success.
I know a lot of women tell me they simply can’t see a way out of a bad relationship. This is one time when putting yourself in front of others is essential. The longer you wait, the harder it gets to leave – especially once children are involved, or finances are intertwined. But even if you’ve been in a toxic relationship for years, you CAN get out.
If the relationship has turned abusive – physically or emotionally – I urge you to reach out to a domestic violence agency for help. If the relationship is unhealthy, but not abusive, you can turn to a trusted friend, or seek therapy or other resources to help you decide what’s best for you.
Address past emotional trauma head on
I know how tempting it can be to bury your head in the sand. So many women tell me a past trauma is behind them and they just want to forget it. Unfortunately, your body won’t let you. Unless you’ve really dealt with the issue, you’ll continue to feel the effects, even years later.
Healing from trauma is best done with the help of a professional. There are many amazing programs that clients have found success with, including the Hoffman Process and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). Psychotherapists have a range of programs and tools at their disposal. You may need to try a few options before you find the one that’s right for you. But don’t give up – this work is too important!
Choose better household products
Many of the women I talk with tell me they’ve never even thought about what’s in their cleaning products, laundry detergent, or personal care products. This is a mistake! Far too many have chemicals that can really wreak havoc on health. This is where a lot of those toxins that end up in our bodies come from!
There are so many great, natural options for cleaning and personal care – and a lot of them are a lot less expensive than commercial products! Baking soda and vinegar are the two top ingredients for creating cleaning products and detergent that won’t add to your toxic load. If you prefer commercial products, check the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for the best options. Their website also offers valuable tips on what to look for when reading labels and selecting products.
When choosing skin care products and cosmetics, be sure to read the labels. If you need guidance in selecting the best products for your needs, the Environmental Working Group has a great guide on their website.
Move towards healthier lifestyle habits
The best way to combat the impact of trauma and toxicity is to lead the healthiest life possible. That includes breaking bad habits, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol, and eating poorly.
It also means building healthy habits, such as routines that promote quality sleep, and getting plenty of physical activity. Spending time outdoors is a healthy lifestyle choice that naturally boosts Vitamin D (when you expose yourself to sunlight without sunscreen for twenty minutes per day).
Stress reduction is also critically important to supporting your adrenal glands, so finding ways to relax and rejuvenate are especially important. Yoga, meditation, practicing gratitude, and setting aside time just for yourself every day go a long way in reducing stress.
Remember Lia? I’m happy to say I was able to help her when no one else could. It took some time, and a commitment to change on her part, but we did it. And looking at her toxic load and past trauma played a big part in her success!
Adrenal fatigue can be debilitating, but when you understand the underlying factors that can lead to the hormonal imbalances behind the condition, you can make a difference in your life. Dealing with toxins and trauma can help you get to good health faster, allowing you to lead the healthy life you deserve!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD