Adrenal fatigue has become a household word among health-conscious people. A common condition where the body can’t respond properly to life’s stresses, it causes a variety of symptoms that are disruptive to daily living. Some common symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Ongoing fatigue
- Weakened immunity and headaches
- Feeling lightheaded, shaky, or irritable between meals
- Insomnia, especially between 3 and 6 a.m.
- Not feeling rested after sleep
- Dizziness moving from sitting to standing
- Afternoon “blahs”
- Sugar and caffeine cravings
Typically, people ask what supplements or medications will help support the adrenals, when in fact there are certain lifestyle habits that are equally — or more — important in supporting adrenal healing and stability for the long-term.
Tiny glands, big job!
To understand why lifestyle habits are so important for adrenal health, let’s take a look at the big job these little glands perform.
The adrenal glands are roughly almond-sized, and sit atop the kidneys. Endocrine powerhouses, they have the vital job of producing hormones that control the function of every cell in your body to maintain balance during stress. Stress can be external (an argument or blocked traffic), or internal (low blood glucose or systemic inflammation), yet the adrenals respond no matter what. Simply put, your adrenals are your personal emergency response team that comes into play when any stress happens.
When looking at adrenal fatigue, the vital hormone cortisol comes to mind first. Cortisol affects blood glucose levels, metabolism, and blood pressure. It plays the dual role of instigating the immune defense mechanism as well as damping it down at the right time to prevent undue cell damage from uncontrolled inflammation.
Normally, the adrenals secrete extra cortisol to help the body adjust to stress, then the cortisol fades, the body returns to normal function, and the adrenals can rest. Under chronic stress, the adrenals don’t rest, but keep pumping out cortisol, which remains in the system over time, damaging body tissue. This constant state of “red alert” also causes the adrenals become worn out, losing their ability to produce cortisol and respond to stress. This is where adrenal fatigue symptoms set in.
Cortisol, inflammation and autoimmunity
Chronic inflammation plays an important role in the varied symptomatic soup that many autoimmune (AI) patients deal with every day. Healthy adrenal function and cortisol output are essential for minimizing damage from rampant autoimmune inflammation. A body with depleted adrenals has a hard time keeping up with this demand. In addition, adrenal stress weakens the immune barriers in the lungs, gastrointestinal tract and blood-brain-barrier, which can lead to large proteins and other antigens entering the bloodstream and brain where they don’t belong, driving more AI-related inflammation.
As you can see, proper adrenal function is critical to a healthy body, especially when living with autoimmunity, but our body’s “red alert” response to chronic life stress makes that difficult to achieve because the adrenals get too exhausted.
Ask “What can I do?” not “What can I take?”
When considering adrenal fatigue, people typically ask, “What can I take to heal my adrenals?” This reflects a common, yet misguided belief that a pill is the first answer for health issues. For the adrenals, supplementation can be a valuable tool, but it’s only part of what’s needed for supporting healthy function. Equally – or more – important than herbal or medical options is supporting the adrenals with proper lifestyle habits.
The beauty of this is that you have powerful tools at hand right now to start helping your fatigued adrenals.
Below are 8 lifestyle habits you can practice every day to help support adrenal health and stability. Whether or not you currently experience symptoms of adrenal fatigue, these are great habits to embrace for the long term.
8 lifestyle habits to support adrenal function
Regular, plentiful sleep is one of the best ways to support adrenal health. Even with insomnia, the following habits can help create change:
- Go to bed by 10 p.m. every day.
- Get 9–11 hours of sleep every night you can.
- Avoid all digital screens for the hour before bed, to allow brain waves to shift gears in preparation for sleep.
- Have a small snack just before bed that’s strong in protein and healthy fat, and low in carbs and sugars.
2. Avoid excess sugar, processed carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils
Excess carbs and sugars cause blood sugar to spike, then plummet. The adrenals are then required to release extra cortisol to bring back blood glucose balance. Over time, this depletes adrenal function. Industrial seed oils cause inflammation that depletes the adrenals as well.
3. Quit stimulants, especially caffeine
Yes, coffee. Caffeine is one of your adrenals’ worst enemies! Caffeine and other stimulants cause the adrenals to release extra stress hormones, which done repeatedly, depletes the adrenals, driving you into deeper exhaustion. That coffee/tea caffeine “pick-me-up” is not actually the help you need… at any time of day. Read on!
4. When you’re tired, avoid stimulants and sugar
When you get that afternoon slump, you might be tempted to grab a coffee or sweets. That will only serve to further bankrupt your adrenals, by spiking blood sugar and driving cortisol release. Instead, nourish your body with a combination of protein, healthy fats, and minimal carbs to support healthy blood sugar and brain function, which is what you really need to kick the blahs.
5. Moderate, not extreme exercise
Exercise is important for good health. However, if your adrenals are struggling, rigorous exercise can be too taxing for them and leave you depleted. If you suspect adrenal fatigue, keep exercise moderate and stop before you get tired.
6. Eat regular, well-balanced meals
Not only what you eat, but when you eat has a major effect on adrenal function. Low blood sugar brought on by irregular meal timing causes the adrenals to go into emergency mode, pumping out extra cortisol to fix blood glucose imbalances. Regular meals help keep blood sugar stable, which helps the adrenals to maintain steady function.
- Always eat breakfast, and make it high in protein and healthy fat, with no added sugars or stimulants. Eat a small breakfast even if you aren’t hungry. It sets the stage for your day.
- Avoid fruit and sweets before lunch to prevent blood sugar swings early in the day; it helps prevent that afternoon “crash”.
- Eat every 2-3 hours to keep blood sugar stable.
- To keep blood sugar stable and help maintain even adrenal function, include some protein and healthy fat at every meal – including snacks.
7. Have fun, and take time for yourself
Pleasure and relaxation reduce stress, which helps your adrenals to function properly.
- Play! Laugh! Goof off!
- Every day, create at least ten minutes of quiet, stress-relieving activity for yourself, such as lying with your feet up, meditating, or breathing slowly while sitting still.
- When you feel tired, respect your body’s message and lay down for a few minutes.
8. Address life stress
Indeed the hardest item to address on this list, ongoing life stress is a deal-breaker for adrenal function. The adrenals respond to any stress – internal, external, large or small. Stress is unavoidable in life, but certain stressors can be removed. An honest look at what is bringing stress into your life will reveal aspects you need to eliminate or reduce. Friends you feel bad around? Awful job? Chairing too many committees? Everyone has a different list, and a different stress tolerance level; determine yours, and take action to remove those stressors you can remove, while reducing those you can’t remove. One at a time. Every single source of stress removed supports your health.
Extra Credit: Address underlying inflammation
Although not specifically about lifestyle habits, underlying inflammation deserves honorable mention, because without addressing it, complete adrenal health is impossible. As you have learned, the adrenals play an important role in moderating inflammation, including the rampant inflammatory processes characteristic to autoimmune reactions. During adrenal fatigue, it is less likely that your adrenal glands can produce enough cortisol to adequately counter this extra inflammation. Talk to your health practitioner about addressing underlying sources of chronic inflammation such as food intolerances, gut infections, brain inflammation, environmental toxins, chronic infections and other autoimmune issues. Unmanaged inflammation keeps the immune system on constant red alert, which can over-tax the adrenals over time, resulting in debilitating adrenal fatigue symptoms and preventing adrenal healing.
If you suspect adrenal fatigue, ask your medical practitioner about having the 24-hour Adrenal Stress Index (ASI) done; it’s a simple saliva sample done at home that reveals your current adrenal status, and can be a great tool in determining your adrenal recovery path.
Where to start?
Whether or not you have debilitating adrenal fatigue, this list may seem daunting. You may say, “But I have to be so diligent!” Remember that adrenal fatigue is mainly caused by chronic stress, driven by lifestyle habits that deplete adrenal function. Do you want to continue feeling awful, or do you want to feel full of vitality, with an alert mind and enjoyment in life?
Start with one item from this list that you can manage. Commit to increasing these adrenal support habits one at a time until this list becomes your daily norm. It may be easier than you expect, for when you start supporting adrenal health, your energy begins to increase, and you’ll find more motivation to take the next step. Every single thing you do to support healthy adrenal function is a worthwhile move toward health and vitality, and the more you integrate these habits into your daily life, the faster – and stronger – your recovery can be.
Capital District Vitality Center website, (7/4/13). “7 things that cause adrenal fatigue.”
Chris Kresser website, (nd). “5 Ways that Stress Causes Hypothyroid Symptoms.”
Adrenal Fatigue.org website, (nd). “Adrenal Function in Autoimmune Conditions.”
Functional Health Minute website, (nd). “8 Healthy Habits to Better Manage Adrenal Fatigue.”