What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue, also known as adrenal dysfunction, happens when the stress response system breaks down, usually after periods of chronic stress.
The scientific name for this condition is hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction (or HPA axis dysfunction).
The stress that causes adrenal fatigue can be mental & emotional, dietary & lifestyle, or pain & inflammation. (More on stress later.)
Adrenal fatigue is a common but often unrecognized condition, affecting about 80% of the US population at some time in their life.
Most importantly, adrenal fatigue is treatable, but it does take time to recover.
Is burnout the same thing as adrenal fatigue?
Yes, for all intents and purposes, burnout is the same thing as adrenal fatigue. There are some nuanced differences, but at Vibrant when we use the term “burnout,” we’re talking about adrenal fatigue.
What is the stress response system (SRS)?
The stress response system (SRS) (Figure 1) is responsible for the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.
The adrenals, the hormones they secrete, and the nervous system make up the stress response system (or SRS). Your SRS is the basis of the mind-body connection. This network is the interface between mind and body, and is how the body communicates with the mind and the mind communicates with the body.
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What is exactly is stress, and how does it work?
Stress can generally be defined as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”
Let’s describe the typical stress response and how it affects you.
1. Your senses perceive something.
Let’s say you’re walking through the woods and encounter a grizzly bear 100 feet ahead.
2. Your brain decides if the thing you perceive is a threat.
When most people see 700-pound wild animal with teeth and claws that stands 10 feet tall on its hind legs, they will consider it a threat.
Or, more specifically, the part of the brain known as the amygdala perceives the bear as a threat.
The amygdala are small almond-shaped groups of nuclei in the brain that play a primary role in processing memory and emotional reactions. They are part of the limbic system and are responsible for emotional learning, such as fear conditioning and positive conditioning.
So, once you see the grizzly bear on the path, your brain will decide if it is a threat. And, because the bear is a threat, your stress response system (SRS) will kick in.
3. Once the threat is perceived, the brain signals the body to prepare for action through a combination of neurotransmitters and hormones.
The amygdala triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus, also known as the “master gland,” is a supervising center in the brain that links the body’s two control systems, the nervous system and the endocrine system, via interaction with the pituitary gland. The interaction of these organs is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. (Figure 2)
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The hypothalamus activates the pituitary to release the hormone ACTH.
ACTH nearly simultaneously activates the adrenal gland to release the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline) and other catecholamines.
Epinephrine stimulates the production of the hormone cortisol, which triggers changes to create a boost of energy.
4. Your body prepares for action.
The increased production of cortisol introduces physiological changes. There will be increased blood flow to areas that aid confrontation or escape (muscles, heart, lungs, etc.) and decreased blood flow elsewhere (digestion, detoxification, etc.)
Catecholamines trigger immediate physical reactions that prepare the body for violent muscular action:
- Acceleration of heart and lung action
- Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
- Inhibition of stomach and upper-intestinal action to the point where digestion slows down or stops
- General effect on the sphincters of the body
- Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body
- Liberation of metabolic energy sources (particularly fat and glycogen) for muscular action
- Dilation of blood vessels for muscles
- Inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation
- Dilation of pupil
- Relaxation of bladder
- Inhibition of erection
- Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing)
- Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)
- Disinhibition of spinal reflexes
5. In a healthy stress response, once the threat has passed, the body returns to homeostasis (normal) over the course of minutes or hours.
Let’s assume you survived the grizzly bear encounter through some application of flight, fight, or freeze physical responses – and, in the case of a grizzly bear, some very good luck.
Now that the threat has passed, your body, if it’s behaving normally, will return to its normal state.
Is all stress the same?
All stress is similar, but not completely the same. In general, there are 3 types of stress your body experiences:
Mental & Emotional – stress that involves perception, thoughts, feelings, electrical changes in the body, immune system & hormone response
Dietary & Lifestyle – Amount, type and times you eat food, sleep & rest, physical activity schedule and routine
Pain & Inflammation – Effects of headache, injury, surgery, parasites, food reactions, infections
The key thing to remember about stress: Stress, as it is normally experienced, does not result in burnout (a.k.a. adrenal fatigue). Chronic stress is another matter entirely. Long-term exposure to stress alters how our bodies work and keep us in the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode. Chronic stress adds up, negatively affects our stress systems, creates imbalance and dis-ease in our bodies, and robs us of our vitality.
What is chronic stress and what are its effects?
What happens when a perceived threat is constant, even if the actual threat is long gone? This is referred to as “chronic stress.”
When you experience chronic stress, the body doesn’t return to normal/calm after the real physical danger has passed. The fight/flight/freeze reaction stays ‘on’ for a prolonged period of time.
Effects of chronic stress include:
- Muscle tension/pain
- Changes in sex drive
- Upset stomach
- Trouble sleeping
- Suppressed immune system
- Increased inflammation
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of focus
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Social withdrawal
When the proverbial grizzly bear is your boss (or relationships, or money, or anything else found in modern life), you face the bear every day and don’t return to homeostasis. (i.e. “normal”)
As mentioned earlier, the stress response system (SRS) is the basis of the mind-body connection. So if this system is not functioning correctly, the mind and body will be completely out of sync. The mind will perceive threats that have ceased to be “real” threats, and your body will have the physical reactions associated with fight, flight and freeze instead of live, love and joy.
This is chronic stress, and it can eventually lead to burnout, a.k.a. adrenal fatigue or HPA axis dysfunction.
So let’s talk about burnout
The word “burnout” is sometimes defined as “the cessation of operation usually of a jet or rocket engine.” But with regard to human health, burnout is defined as “Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” And, as noted above, the word burnout is just another way to refer to the condition of adrenal fatigue.
What’s it like to have burnout?
It’s different for everyone. Often burnout is more about what you can’t do and what you no longer want to do.
What are the stages of burnout?
Stage 1 burnout
When you experience stress over a long period of time (weeks, months, or years), your SRS stops working as it should. At first, the adrenals nearly constantly pump stress hormones – which puts you in a constant state of ‘fight, flight, or freeze.’ These changes in your SRS create changes in behavior. You act differently; you might become more irritable, argumentative, aggressive, withdrawn, or depressed. This change in how your SRS works is the beginning of adrenal fatigue.
Common signs of Stage 1 adrenal fatigue include often feeling “keyed up” or anxious, feeling like you need less sleep than other people, or having trouble relaxing.
Stage 2 burnout
Over time, the adrenals no longer work as effectively as before. ‘Fight, flight, or freeze’ continues, and other symptoms such as fatigue and moodiness crop up. This continuation of the impairment of the SRS is Stage 2 adrenal dysfunction.
Common signs of Stage 2 adrenal fatigue include feeling down, fatigued, mentally exhausted, weight gain (or inability to lose weight), poor memory and anxiety.
Stage 3 burnout
When chronic stress continues, your SRS does not have a chance to recover. Symptoms of adrenal dysfunction intensify and more symptoms often occur.
These symptoms become:
- Excessive fatigue
- Neck/shoulder pain
- Body aches
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Poor immunity
- Low sex drive
- Lack of concentration
- Food allergies
- Dry skin
- Poor memory
- Sleep problems
- Severe mood swings
- And much more
What are the consequences of burnout?
The physical and mental symptoms of burnout can limit the activities of daily living. Burnout changes how the world looks; even the smallest of tasks become daunting and everything begins to look and feel overwhelming.
Sufferers may either skip tasks and projects altogether or seem to not put much effort in. They may be more sensitive and perceive suggestions as criticism. Sufferers of burnout often become more socially withdrawn in an effort to manage fatigue and decreased resilience, and frequently are reluctant to make plans because they cannot predict how they will be feeling.
The physical consequences of burnout can become quite severe. What started as afternoon fatigue can become severe fatigue, minor muscle and joint aches can become intense pain, and suppressed immune function can become infection. In fact, many chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, some types of depression, insomnia, thyroid conditions, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, digestive problems, allergies, and many more likely have roots in adrenal dysfunction. The truth is your adrenals play a huge role in your health and vitality.
Can burnout be cured?
Yes, there is a cure for burnout!
Vibrant will work with you to develop a program that includes supplements, dietary recommendations and suggested lifestyle changes. It’s not complicated or expensive, but it does require a commitment from you to follow the plan. The Vibrant program to cure burnout is at least a six-month commitment. However, clients who follow their program typically notice significant positive results within a few weeks.
How do I know if I have burnout?
There are three basic ways to find out if you might be suffering from burnout, a.k.a. adrenal fatigue.
Take a look at the symptoms listed under Stage 3 burnout above. If you have a number of these symptoms, then you might be suffering from burnout. The downside of guessing is that you won’t know for sure.
2.Have lab tests performed.
This is the most foolproof way to see if you have burnout. But, before you do that…
3.Take the Vibrant burnout quiz on this website.
It’s easy to do and once you get your score, it’s very simple to set up an appointment with Dr. Clark to follow up and begin the process of assessment and healing.