Adrenal fatigue, or “burnout”, has become an incredibly common occurrence. When I share my story, I have people responding with “me too”, or “what’s adrenal fatigue? I think I might have it…” It makes me sad to know that there are so many people struggling with burnout, when it’s often a completely preventable situation. While burnout is usually associated with prolonged mental and emotional stress, it can also be a result of other imbalances. In this post I’ll cover six other causes of adrenal fatigue that are often forgotten.
If you’re unsure if you struggle with burnout, find out by taking the quiz here!
What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue, or “burnout”, is a state that your body reaches under long-term chronic stress. Often this comes with imbalances in your stress hormones, specifically cortisol. In earlier stages of adrenal fatigue your cortisol may be too high, rendering you “wired but tired”, feeling like you’re vibrating, having a hard time calming down, insomnia and more. In later stages of adrenal fatigue, your cortisol is too low and you experience burnout symptoms – fatigue, exhaustion, overwhelm, anxiety, apathy, etc.
Why does this happen? Your endocrine system (hormone system) is complex, handling all of your hormones from stress and thyroid hormones to sex hormones. The portion of the system responsible for stress is called the HPA Axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal). When we perceive a stressor, our brain tells our hypothalamus to prepare for the stress. The hypothalamus communicates to the pituitary, and the pituitary communicates to the adrenals for them to produce and secrete the necessary stress hormones. If we’re chronically stressed, we’re producing too much of these hormones, leading to uncomfortable symptoms. If we’ve been chronically stressed long enough, our hypothalamus can become numb to the signals. As a result, it stops communicating properly, resulting in less production of cortisol from the adrenal glands. This results in low cortisol leading to burnout symptoms, or feeling incapable of handling stressful situations.
Stress is one of the largest causes of burnout
Burnout is often due to an emotional, physical or mental stressor. In many cases, we can control our exposure to this stressor. It may not always be easy – for example, you can’t always run from a stressful job or money problems – but in theory they are relatively controllable.
Some of us reach burnout because of our unconscious habits and thought patterns. We must take care of others before taking care of ourselves. We must give 110% all the time. We must achieve perfection with everything we do. We must have control over our every aspect of our life. These thought patterns and unconscious beliefs are propelling you towards burnout by contributing to your feeling of overwhelm. In addition to everything you have to do, you feel obligated to do more – or to do it perfectly – without taking care of yourself. Although these are subconscious thoughts, once we recognize these patterns in ourselves we can work towards correcting them.
If you are burnt out due to stress and overwhelm, it may not be easy, but it’s possible to make key lifestyle, dietary and mindset shifts that will bring you back into balance.
Six forgotten causes of adrenal fatigue
Emotional and mental stress is one of the more commonly known causes of burnout; however, it’s definitely not the only one! Here are six forgotten causes of adrenal fatigue that might surprise you.
Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities
When you consume a food that you’re sensitive to, you trigger inflammation. While you may not be able to see it – as most of it will appear in the body – it is there. Some of the more common food intolerances and allergies are to foods like wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts and corn. However, anyone can be intolerant, allergic or sensitive to any food. Sometimes we don’t even recognize our food sensitivities until we specifically eliminate that food from our diet for a period of 3-4 weeks, and reintroduce it. Symptoms of food sensitivity can be as obvious as major digestive distress, and as simple as a light headache. Symptoms of food allergies are much more obvious as they involve anaphylactic shock.
Avoiding foods that trigger inflammation or an immune reaction is essential for overcoming adrenal fatigue. Here are some other dietary recommendations to support the body while recovering.
Blood Sugar Imbalances
If you love your sweets, or if you often consume refined flours and carbohydrates, you probably know what it feels like to have imbalanced blood sugar. You might experience hypoglycemia symptoms, where your blood sugar drops resulting in symptoms like shakiness, hunger, sweating, light-headedness, fatigue, and irritability. If you respond to those symptoms by eating something sweet, like a cookie, you’ll instantly feel better! Your blood sugar spikes. But because the cookie is filled with refined sugars and carbohydrates, it digests quickly into sugar, and you’re left with an energy crash. Then the whole cycle starts over!
If you experience blood sugar spikes and crashes regularly, your body can be pushed into early stages of adrenal fatigue. Your body is constantly being asked to balance blood sugar, which is a physical stressor. Plus, a constant stream of insulin and high amounts of sugar in the blood will result in inflammation, which then leads to more cortisol production. Cortisol triggers sugar cravings, so the vicious cycle continues.
Exercise is incredibly healthy – no one can deny it. It’s been proven time and time again. However, over-exercise is very possible, and is more common than you might think! Too much exercise can contribute to high levels of stress, as exercise causes your adrenal glands to release cortisol. If we push ourselves too hard, too often, it’s possible that we can trigger our body into adrenal fatigue. And when our adrenals aren’t producing proper amounts of cortisol (we create too much, or too little), exercise will contribute to the added stress further.
Depending on what stage of adrenal fatigue you’re in, you may be advised to change your exercise routine. Those in later stages who have burnt out completely, are advised to do nothing more vigorous than walk. That’s because cardio and strength training can increase the demands on our adrenal glands, forcing us to produce cortisol. If the body can’t even produce enough cortisol for day-to-day life, it won’t be able to produce cortisol in response to exercise.
Always be mindful about your exercise. If you’re tired, allow yourself to rest. Although I’m not a personal trainer, I’ve learned to understand when my body needs a break. Every person’s body is different, but knowing your threshold is important for optimal health.
Imbalance of Good Gut Bacteria
Your gastrointestinal tract is filled with trillions of bacteria, known as the microbiome. Many of these bacteria are good – they help us with digestion and assimilation of nutrients, they support our immune system shielding us from pathogens, and they can even affect our mood and food cravings! However, sometimes the good gut bacteria becomes compromised, leaving the opportunity for bad bacteria to thrive. When this happens, we can experience something called “leaky gut”, which means our intestinal lining becomes more permeable. Small particles of food, bacteria or other organisms passing through our digestive tract can cross the intestinal barrier and enter our bloodstream, triggering major inflammation.
As we know, chronic inflammation over long periods of time can lead to adrenal fatigue. It’s believed that the inflammation and immune reaction resulting from leaky gut not only affects our adrenals but can also trigger autoimmune disease.
Environmental and Household Toxins
Consider some of the major chemicals and toxins you’re exposed to on a regular basis: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, household cleaners, cosmetics, beauty products, chemicals from furniture and building supplies, electronics, fuel sources, heavy metals like lead and mercury… the list goes on. Depending on our lifestyle and eating habits, we may be more exposed to these toxins than others. If we choose organic vegetables, clean our homes with natural products, use air purification systems, make homemade skincare, and choose natural products, we may reduce our exposure to some of these chemicals. However, it’s impossible to completely eliminate exposure to all toxins. Heck – it’s in the air we breathe and nearly everything we touch, and so many of these chemicals stick around in the environment for years.
Unfortunately, most of these chemicals we come into contact with have not been tested for human safety. They can bind to our tissues and cells in numerous systems, changing their function. They can be stored in our fat cells if they’re not able to be detoxified and eliminated effectively. They contribute to inflammation and increased oxidative stress, which can lead to a whole host of disease and illness. Due to all of the inflammation and stress they put on our bodies, they can contribute to adrenal fatigue.
Bacterial, viral and fungal infections
Chronic infections can lie just beneath the surface, causing low-grade inflammation, without our knowledge. Viruses like the Epstein-Barr virus (known to cause mononucleosis) and can remain in the body for years. Stress can sometimes lead to reactivation of dormant infections because it alters how our immune system’s response. This becomes a vicious circle, because as we become more stressed, our bodies are less capable of managing these infections, leading to more inflammation.