I am suffering from adrenal fatigue. It is something that has plagued me for a few years, which I can’t seem to fully recover from. It is estimated to affect around 80 percent of people in the world and yet some doctors refuse to believe it exists. The term ‘adrenal fatigue’ was coined in 1998 by a naturopath called Dr. Wilson, who wanted to distinguish between below optimal adrenal function resulting from stress and adrenal insufficiency caused by Addison’s disease and excess cortisol caused by Cushing’s Syndrome. He wrote what is now a very celebrated book called Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome and described a condition that he had observed after years of working with stressed-out patients in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist at the private Nightingale Hospital for mental health issues in London and the author of Tired But Wired, has seen a 50 per cent increase in clients showing early signs of adrenal fatigue. “Ten years ago, about two people in a room of 30 would put their hands up. Now a fifth of my clients show signs.”
She describes the key early sign as digestion problems, “as stress takes blood and energy away from the large organs such as the intestine and diverts it to the muscles to prepare for ‘fight or flight’ during stressful situations”. This is a natural response, she explains, but it’s meant to be over quickly so the body can recover. “Today, most people live permanently in this ‘fight or flight’ state, constantly releasing stress hormones and never letting themselves recover.”
I believe my problems started way back in 2009 when I was suffering prolonged, chronic stress; the culmination of which ultimately led me to fall completely over, mentally and physically in 2010 and from that day forward I had to rebuild my life. What we call a complete burnout, I guess. Turns out my adrenal glands – two walnut-sized glands that sit just above my kidneys – also burnt out. It is only recent studies that are corroborating this fact. A 2013 study, published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, reported that those with burnout were found to have lower levels of cortisol because their relentlessly stressed-out adrenal glands had lost the ability to produce it.
The World Health Organisation recognised adrenal fatigue as a disorder in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, fatigue is one of the most common Adrenal Fatigue symptoms, but there are many other different ways it can present, both physical and mental, and people can present different “packages” of symptoms as well.
After my burnout I found it almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning and I spent most of my day feeling awful and fatigued. I was also getting constantly sick. I now know that consistently high levels of cortisol, which present in the early stages of adrenal fatigue, suppress your immune response and leave you vulnerable to infection. I am now in a much later stage of Adrenal Fatigue, which presents as consistently low levels of cortisol. This has an array of symptoms, including causing me to have really low blood sugar in the morning, which now does the opposite to before and wakes me up at sparrows because I feel so hungry!
My doctor explained to me that basically my adrenals have become unable to produce enough of the hormones I need, so my cortisol is low, along with neurotransmitters like adrenaline and norepinephrine. This causes me to have constantly low blood pressure that makes me feel dizzy when I stand up (my midwife commented that if her BP was as low as mine was she’d be dead), decreased enjoyment in life sometimes and a low libido, my memory is foggy and my fuse is dangerously short and I use coffee just to keep going. I also have other weird symptoms that I can only link to my adrenal fatigue because they are there when my cortisol is at its lowest: weird dry skin around my finger nails, pain in my lower back, extreme tiredness an hour after I exercise, a constant need to pee and possibly the weirdest is a kind of numbness in my fingers that causes me to have a terrible grip, making me drop things I grasp for.
One of the most upsetting symptoms for me though, due to these hormone imbalances and especially because I am a mum, is the short fuse and my complete inability to handle stress; much more so than the low energy levels throughout the day that I cope with, even though on some days I feel a completely unrelenting tiredness.
It’s bad. My life is busy and stress is unavoidable. I have a nearly 3 year old who could contend for an Oscar for the drama she finds in most every day situations and I am working too and juggling that with her and my 3 month old. For people not affected by adrenal insufficiency, when stress inevitably happens the adrenals release hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. These hormones regulate the stress response and increase strength, focus and awareness. What happens to me is more like something out of a horror movie. I lose it, I shout, I get anxious and then most often I feel deeply depressed about how I have reacted because my loved ones bear the brunt of it. I used to see these emotions as my enemies and hide from them, dismiss them and pretend they never happened. I have stopped doing that now in favour of a better way, which I will talk about in a minute, and I have committed to replenishing my adrenal energy, which has already made a massive difference to how I feel each day.
The first thing I did was remove hard-to-digest foods from my diet and toxins/chemicals from my environment. As you’ll see if you follow Essential Mum I do really well with this latter thing!! The diet took a bit of a hammering during my pregnancy though, where I slipped back into some really bad habits. So in January I began doTERRA’s TERRAfit programme and it’s really helped me to get back on track with eating regular, healthy meals, especially nutrient-dense, refined sugar free foods packed with healthy fat, fibre, good quality proteins and as many organic mineral rich vegetables as possible, which is going to help me overcome this adrenal insufficiency. I have also started using a magnesium spray every day and added himalayan salt to my diet (it has a LOT more minerals than table salt that benefit adrenal glands.) TERRAfit also provides me with a comprehensive, effective exercise programme, although I have to be careful not to cause more adrenal fatigue by exercising too vigorously.
I am also trying to minimize stress. Another really amazing thing about TERRAfit is that it motivates you to look at your health from the inside out and work on much more than weight loss. I have taken time to focus on the things that make me feel stressed and how I can eliminate or minimise them and I have invested in me by identifying where I can dedicate some time every day to self care. I am not going to deny that I still feel completely overwhelmed some days. Luckily, I am one of these people whose default is to act like the completely opposite is true when someone asks “how are you”… cue big smile and the word “GREAT!” 😉 Luckily, this is also a journey in progress.
A big part of my journey has been the use of my essential oils. There are a few that can help with Adrenal Fatigue, that I won’t list here, but instead share what is working for me. I am using a healing combination of Serenity, Balance and Frankincense to de-stress and calm my nervous system, Wild Orange to stop anxiety in its tracks and perk me up in the afternoons, Bergamot when I feel down and for general immune support, adrenal support and to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and burnout, Slim & Sassy to regulate my blood sugar and finally, geranium for immune support and as a general overall tonic for stress, anxiety and mild depression.
There are 3 ways you can apply essential oils and timing/location is important. For example, Frankincense is one I am now using every day. It increases my ability to focus and grounds me. I use it every day in the morning. Serenity helps me sleep, so I use it every evening.
I make Geranium part of my beauty regime. I use it as a moisturiser mixed with fractionated coconut oils and I rub it over my kidneys, which is where your adrenals are located.
On those days where I do feel completely exhausted I add in Rosemary to my routine. It is a good strengthening tonic for the whole body.
If you are interested in learning more about how to use essential oils for emotions I am running a course this Thursday night, March 17th, in Bucklands Beach, Auckland, where I will talk in detail about how to master your emotions using essential oils and we will make your very own action plan to integrate them and other emotional support and therapies, in order to increase your capacity to enjoy life, cope with stress, and focus on important personal priorities.
If you too are suffering from adrenal fatigue there are 10 things that you can do straight away to begin your healing journey, and in my opinion they are things we should do anyway for wellness!
- Rest when you feel tired; don’t try and be superman/woman and push through!
- Sleep between 8–10 hours a night
- Avoid staying up late and stay on a regular sleep cycle — ideally, in bed before 10 p.m
- Laugh and do something fun every day
- Minimize stress
- Eat on a regular food cycle, and reduce your caffeine and sugar addiction
- Exercise (even moderate exercise and walking can help)
- Avoid negative people and negative self-talk
- Take time for yourself (do something relaxing) every day
- Seek counsel or support for any traumatic experiences
Numbers 4, 8 and 9 are 3 things we will look at in the Emotions Course! Thankfully, our bodies are made to heal, but the words we say and the things we do, especially in reaction to stress have a great impact on our body and its ability to heal. Before I said that I used to see my emotions as my enemies and hide from them, dismiss them and pretend they never happen. Now I acknowledge them and I am kind to myself. I assess why I reacted the way I did (both the situation that was causing the stress and my emotional state at the time), how I could have reacted differently, how I can react better next time and how I can minimise the stress that caused the reaction in the first place. This isn’t causing change overnight! This is a long journey and I am changing habits and healing damage that has taken years to create. So, I am being kind to myself. I am ridding my mind of negative thoughts and choosing to be around positive people and stay positive about myself as well. And heck, sometimes now I am even able to laugh about those reactions, especially with the help of my little girl! She really is a little too wise for her own good sometimes. Her acknowledgement of my reactions, while horrible that she does see this other side of mummy, is a good thing because she is helping me to change me and be a better person and we laugh together. And as we laugh and have a hug I feel the stress decrease and my whole body relax! Don’t underestimate the value of laughter and enjoyment as a recuperative tool.
Much love x x