• What is adrenal fatigue? 

  • Charlotte Watts explains how you can learn how you can avoid 'burnout' by embracing mindfulness

  • If you are struggling to control stress, you can find a therapist here

Adrenal fatigue is a term your doctor might not know or even agree with if they have. It’s one used by natural practitioners like nutritional therapists and naturopaths, to describe the state where long-term stress results in feelings of fatigue, exhaustion and demotivation.

It is so-called because it describes how the adrenal glands have become depleted after long periods of time continually pumping out stress hormones to react to challenge. It is often felt as a crash in energy after feeling you’ve been on ‘constant alert’ or ‘running on adrenaline’ for a while.

This is the result of levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropping, as our ability to produce it as needed is lessened through tired adrenals. Some equate the term adrenal fatigue with ‘burnout’ and indeed medical opinion is acknowledging that this mental and physical collapse is characterised by lowered cortisol levels, particularly on rising in the morning. In a healthy body, cortisol is naturally high at this time to motivate us to get up and move. When it is low, energy and enthusiasm for the day can be difficult and this can be accompanied with feelings of depression.

You wouldn’t expect your smartphone to keep going if you didn’t recharge the batteries, would you?

Burnout falls outside any categories doctors have for a ‘true’ disease, but has shown that it is a state where responses to stress become dampened. Over a long period of agitation (and even anxiety) where the brain is continually signalling ‘alert’ to the whole body, those signals shut down and we can be left feeling unresponsive, unable to get going and even like we just don’t care. One issue with this state is that if the stress has been a situation like a job or a relationship that doesn’t make us feel safe or happy, we then lack the willpower to leave when we may need.

So it is crucial to notice the signs and avoid reaching this this tipping point. We may not even see the signs if we’re just used to pushing on through and it is part of our normal existence to strive and strive and strive. Many people I see admit to not knowing how to relax and so these warning signs may just feel like states they believe to be usual, but they are to be listened to as indications that you are expecting too much of your body.

If you can say ‘yes’ to two or more of the following statements, a reprioritising of your time may be in order:
  • You feel like you lurch from ‘high to low’ all the time, sometimes energised and excited, then suddenly with no energy at all
  • You are quick to anger or prone to irritability or moodiness
  • You panic that if you let go of the reins it will all fall apart
  • You don’t make leisure time away from technology, letting your whole body relax
  • You need sugar or stimulants like caffeine to get you through the day
  • You are showing stress-related symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, depression, IBS and skin issues
  • You often find yourself clenching your jaw, holding your breath and feel tight in the shoulders and neck

All of these are indications that you are running things at a really high rate and that is simply unsustainable for any organism. At some point there needs to be recovery and recharge and if that’s not happening as part of your everyday life, then you’ll force the issue where your body will move to a state where you have no choice. You wouldn’t expect your smartphone to keep going if you didn’t recharge the batteries, would you?

The irony is that doing too much runs the risk of eventually not being able to do much at all.

The thing is that stress hormones aren’t simply ‘bad’. They are necessary for galvanising energy to get things done, but they need opportunity to come down and let the mind and body reach a point where it can heal, rebuild and find the equilibrium that ensures we can function on every level. The irony is that doing too much runs the risk of eventually not being able to do much at all. Finding balance with work and action alongside enjoyment, natural movement, healthy nutrition and relaxation isn’t just good for your well-being – it also improves your quality of life!

3 ways mindfulness can actively boost your brain cells

Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally experiencing the present moment – with compassion and without judgement. It means paying kind attention to how we are feeling, not just think we are feeling at any given time. This allows us to become aware of the sensations our body is feeling and how these constantly change.

Mindfulness can be practised as a formal meditation, sitting to notice the sensations of our breath and our body. Allowing ourselves to be patient, accepting, soft and open-minded means that we can start to meet any thoughts, feelings or emotions that arise without the need to label them good, bad or even neutral. We can learn to simply be with them and without needing to react or be taken away from the present moment.

Mindfulness can also be brought into daily life to find more space, calm and peace. So being attentive to the whole experience while you eat, participate in a conversation or a work meeting, while in a yoga pose or even as you’re washing the dishes means you are fully engaged and not simply ruminating on the past or conjuring up an imagined future. At any point in life, we can ‘drop in’, notice how we feel and simply make the choice to be present in one or two breaths.

Spending time in mindful states has shown to actively change the ways our brains are wired and how we respond to challenges and the world around us. Mindfulness helps your brain by:

Lowering resting cortisol levels

This means that you more easily come back to a calm state after a challenge, helping your brain function away from the stress response. This means we make decisions from a more reflective and less impulsive place; less knee-jerk reactions that we might not be happy about later!

Helping your mind

Become more adaptable, flexible and resilient. Mindfulness actively helps us build grey matter and create new neural pathways, so continually creating new thought patterns and not getting ‘stuck in our ways’. This means thought processes can be more creative and inspired, more open to possibilities and curious, rather than fearful of change.

Allowing us to adopt the lifestyle habits that keeps us most healthy

When we pay attention to how satisfying and rewarding it is to look after ourselves, our minds and bodies register that this is good for our survival and we are more and more drawn to repeating them and enjoying the consequences.

Further reading

How to cope with workplace stress

How our relationships protect us against stress

How stress manifests in different areas of the body

Cortisol: friend or foe?