We’ve all heard the terms adrenal stress/fatigue/exhaustion to explain tiredness and stress as well as a range of other symptoms like poor sleep, weak immune function, poor exercise tolerance and recovery, low libido and brain fog.
However, its not quite as simple as ‘adrenal fatigue’. The commonly understood concept that stress causes low levels of cortisol and makes us tired is not exactly supported by scientific research.
The term HPA axis dysregulation is a more accurate and useful description. H is for hypothalamus, that part of the brain responsible for a whole bunch of things, including sending messages to the pituitary and adrenals. P is for pituitary, a gland at the base of the brain responsible for producing various hormones. A is for adrenal, the glands just above the kidneys also responsible for producing hormones, like cortisol, DHEA, adrenaline and dopamine.
The complex interaction between these 3 organs as a reaction to stress is responsible for a cascade of hormone and neurotransmitter release. Over time, chronic stress affects our body’s ability to respond to our changing environment. This can lead to changes in cortisol output (either too much or too little), changes to cortisol rhythm through the day and changes in production of other hormones that relate to the HPA axis, like DHEA (a precursor to repair and sex hormones), melatonin (sleep hormone) and adrenaline.
When the HPA axis is affected it impacts many other organs and systems in the body – brain, gut, thyroid, metabolism, reproductive system – and so explains how HPA axis dysregulation can have such wide-ranging symptoms.
HPA axis dysregulation is more than simply the adrenals getting fatigued and not producing enough cortisol. In fact, the problem is often not the adrenal glands themselves as cortisol production originates in the brain and central nervous system and involves complicated interplay and feedback through the system.
Symptoms can include:
- Sleep problems, insomnia or difficulty waking
- Brain fog or fatigue
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Blood pressure or circulation problems
- Blood sugar problems
- Digestive problems
- Lowered immunity or low wound healing
- Low mood, depression, anxiety or inability to handle stress
- Dizziness when standing too quickly
- Cravings for sugar, salt or stimulants like coffee
If you’re experiencing any or all these symptoms, get help from a health practitioner to address the underlying issues. In the meantime, there are some simple things that may help recovery.
Take a break. Slow down and rest and rejuvenate. This doesn’t mean blob on the couch, but instead restful find activities that leave you feeling recharged – meditate, take a walk, read a book, spend time with family or get out into nature.
Reassess your exercise regime. While exercise is good, too much exercise while you’re exhausted may be counterproductive. Consider restorative exercises like breathing exercises and mobility or yoga classes to give balance to high intensity exercise. Instead of looking to your exercise to expend energy use it to rebuild your energy. Try these breathing exercises.
Take in the morning sun. Exposure to sunlight in the morning can help set you up for a good night’s sleep by encouraging melatonin production at night. Sunlight also stimulates vitamin D production which impacts hormone production and energy levels through the day.
Focus on unprocessed wholefoods. Ensure you get a wide variety of unprocessed nutrient dense foods into your diet to provide you with the nutrients you need to feel your best.
If you think HPA axis dysfunction could be an issue for you, get in touch with me about saliva testing and a recovery protocols.