Adrenal Fatigue 101
by Jimmy Smith
You know those days when you feel like your training legs are being cut out from underneath you? You’ll hear multiple reasons explaining why your training failed, but nothing explains how mentally and physically exhausted you are.
We often fail to realize one basic physiological truth: Our adrenal glands influence all of the major physiological processes in our body. That’s an undeniable truth. Our adrenal glands control everything that happens and affects us in training. In fact, controlling adrenal fatigue could help you achieve that physique transformation you’ve been striving for.
The What Glands?
Leading adrenal gland authority, Dr. James L. Wilson, has estimated that 80% of the world’s population will experience adrenal fatigue at one point. I’ve even seen current estimates which state that 96% of the world is currently suffering from it.
The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys close to the spine and just underneath the last rib. They’re about the size of grapes. Their location is very strategic since their purpose is to allow for a rapid response to hormonal messages. Everything we do, from drinking coffee to training, causes a hormonal rise in our body.
The hormones signaled by the adrenal glands strongly affect the utilization of carbohydrates and fats, the conversion of fat and protein into energy, the distribution of stored fat (in particular around the waist and face), blood sugar peaks and valleys, and healthy cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function.
If that’s not enough, the adrenal glands control the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones to reduce allergic reactions to alcohol, drugs, medication, supplements, food, and environmental allergens. Once you enter the age group of about 35 to 50 and beyond, the adrenal glands eventually become the major source of sex hormones that circulate in the body in both men and women.
Every little stressor, unless properly managed, reduces healthy adrenal function. Changes occur in protein, carb, and fat metabolism. In addition, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart function, and sex drive all experience modifications at the biochemical and cellular levels.
To hammer home the point, adrenal fatigue often lays the groundwork for respiratory infections, allergies, rhinities, asthma, frequent colds, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypoglycemia, type II diabetes, autoimmune disease, and even alcoholism. To sum it up, the ability to have sex, add muscle, burn fat, and live healthy are acutely affected by the adrenals.
That’s deep, right?
10 Signs of Adrenal Fatigue
More or less every negative thing that happens to you contributes to adrenal fatigue. It could be a death, loss of a job, or some other major happening. The main issue, however, lies with the simple everyday things that get us really annoyed: a toothache, a strained romantic relationship, an ass for a boss, a chronic cold, and even training.
When these little things go from acute to chronic, the accumulation starts to quickly matter. Any time we burn the candle at both ends we cause an over-stress to our body. I’ve seen test results of people who seem happy, yet they have elevated cortisol levels of 200-300%. Yeah, they’re storing some pretty stubborn lower ab fat!
Adrenal testing is the first thing I do with clients. I do this before a movement evaluation or anything else. I want to see how healthy their adrenals are since the results are going to dictate everything from their program design to specific nutritional recommendations.
Here are some of the more accurate signs of adrenal fatigue:
Sign #1: Difficulty getting up in the morning. It doesn’t matter the time, you just don’t feel awake enough.
Sign #2: Continuous cravings for salt or salty foods. You always need more salt than you’re getting.
Sign #3: Increased effort to do every day tasks. You love training, but now it seems like everything from your warm-up to the deadlift sucks.
Sign #4: Decreased sex drive. It just isn’t happening. Enough said.
Sign #5: Decreased ability to manage stress. The littlest things seem to set you off.
Sign #6: Increased recovery time. Any cuts you have take longer to heal, swelling stays around, that cough you’ve had is still there after a month, and your biceps still hurt from loading the bar when you were squatting.
Sign #7: Light-headedness from standing too quickly. You feel like you’re going to pass out and you see bright images when you stand up.
Sign #8: Less overall life happiness. Nothing makes you happy: training sucks, your job sucks, and the weekends suck.
Sign #9: Increased symptoms with skipped meals. You’re always hungry, every hour. If you miss a meal, you’re craving something and every meal becomes a cheat meal.
Sign #10: Less productivity. Overall, you just can’t get things done, you’re distracted easily, and you can’t work as efficiently or as quickly.
All of the above stuff doesn’t mean much unless it’s relevant to getting jacked or ripped, so here’s why it matters. We’ve all heard of that nasty thing called cortisol that eats up muscle tissue, right? One of the main functions of the adrenal glands is to regulate cortisol secretion and not allow too much to be released.
Unfortunately for most of us, under both acute and chronic stress situations we over-secrete cortisol since our adrenal glands are too fatigued to perform properly. Any little increase in cortisol will cause fat to be stored preferentially around our waist ??” say good-bye to your lower abs.
As if that isn’t bad enough, adrenal fatigue also has an effect on our blood sugar levels. If cortisol helps to keep our blood sugar at appropriate levels to meet our energy demands, then once cortisol drops due to adrenal fatigue, our body can’t maintain adequate blood sugar levels.
A quick drop in blood sugar then affects our ability to store nutrients where we’d like and creates a state of insulin resistance in the muscle cell. Now we’re storing nutrients as fat, and since we have a rapid state of hypoglycemia, we’re more likely to cheat on our diet and eat whatever we crave.
To throw more fuel on the fire, 80% of individuals suffering from adrenal issues also suffer from some type of decreased thyroid function. Most people who have a low thyroid are unresponsive to thyroid medications, and in order to get better the adrenals have to be supported. We’ll also see a sudden increase in allergies and joint pain since cortisol is the most powerful anti-inflammatory in the body. Cortisol drops and our response is an inflammatory reaction that increases the severity of our allergies and joint pain.
Remember that one of the signs of adrenal fatigue is a craving for salt. Well, we’re more than likely going to resort to some type of salty food to curb the craving. It’s worth repeating again that insulin controls everything and all of our other hormones follow insulin’s lead.
You’ll often see advice from armchair experts telling us to just eat unrefined carbs, but it’s not that easy. We literally can’t eat that food because our body doesn’t allow it. I’m not trying to make adrenal fatigue a scapegoat for the laziness in the failed diets out there, but we need to treat the underlining issue.
Now that we have a clear understanding of what adrenal fatigue is and how it affects us, we need to know what to do about it. I won’t make any outlandish claims, but if we take the right steps in handling adrenal insufficiency, the gains will come easier and quicker.
Honestly, there’s no overnight fix; no step-by-step process exists. I have multiple protocols that I use with my clients on a regular basis, but fixing adrenal fatigue is a consistent, sustained effort.
It’s not the sexiest choice, but until a serious attempt at de-stressing our lives takes place, we’re not going to recover, no matter how much we modify our nutrition and training. Simply put, we need to do something every day to relax ourselves.
Adrenal fatigue is a result of continued stress that we experience in our daily life. Most of us just get frustrated and try to deal with it as best we can. There are things we can’t change, but we can control our reaction to them.
Having daily activities that relieve us of stress is a must. If you have people around you that zap you of your positive energy, you need to get away from them. Generally speaking, most people are negative and they don’t like to see others get ahead and are quick to call you irrational. So just try to spend five minutes doing something you like everyday.
2) Meal Timing
In this situation, meal timing is as important as what you eat. Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock that regulates cortisol values over a 24 hour period. Our peak cortisol times come when we wake up (since cortisol is low-grade adrenaline that rises to tell you to wake up), at 10:00 AM, 3:00 PM, and at the beginning of our sleep cycle.
Having adrenal fatigue will cause higher than normal cortisol peaks during these times, so it’s necessary that we find ourselves consuming the proper nutrients then. Have you ever noticed how you get tired at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM? Most of us will attribute it to the blood sugar crashes from the common American diet. While that might be true, again there’s an underlining issue.
When dealing with adrenal fatigue, it’s not as easy as upping protein, upping fat, and dropping carbs. We have to look into each nutrient further.
The main issue with protein in people suffering from adrenal fatigue is that they also have lower levels of the hydrochloric acid (HCL) that’s needed to break down the protein. As a result, typical high protein meals that are consumed when attempting to add size or drop body fat will typically leave you bloated, gassy, or increase the feeling of heaviness in your stomach.
Most of us then turn to more carbohydrates, since they’re protein sparing and further aggravate the adrenal fatigue. We want to keep the protein high, but we must increase our HCL intake.
We need to make sure our carbohydrates come from fibrous sources. Our first step is to limit sugars and include fruits. Whether it’s glucose or fructose, our body doesn’t handle sugar as well during times of adrenal insufficiency. The majority of our carbs should actually come from rice and vegetables in the beginning stages.
Note that oatmeal and yams are fibrous carbs, but they tend to be very hyper allergenic to some of us. After about four to six weeks, I’ll slowly begin to add oatmeal and yams into the diet. The most important thing to remember is to eliminate all sugar from your diet if you suffer from this.
Fats and Oils
Fats and oils should be heavily relied on during adrenal recovery periods. Our total Testosterone is lower and our free Testosterone is bound up in cases of adrenal fatigue, so we’ll need fats to increase Testosterone production.
Our first choice is going to be an omega-3 supplement. I prefer Flameout, since the combination of omega-3′s and CLA has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity.
We also need to get our fats through various seeds such as sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower. Some acceptable nuts include cashews, almonds, and walnuts.
Most trainers or coaches go out of their way to tell people to forget about supplements and just train hard. Under situations of adrenal stress, this just isn’t going to happen without the proper nutrients to restore adrenal health. Some of the better supplements are:
1. Essential Fatty Acids
Again, it’s vitally important that we consume high amounts of healthy fats when we’re attempting to recover from adrenal fatigue. A combination of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA found in Flameout should be the first line of defense. Not only does it lower the insulin response during and after the meal, but essential fatty acids also help to reduce cortisol when it gets too high.
2. B Vitamins
The entire B complex is needed throughout the day to deal with the adrenal cascade. B vitamins can be thought of as the gas to fuel the adrenal car. Specifically, we should individually supplement with B5, B6, and Niacin.
B5, necessary for the conversion of glucose to energy, is present in all cells but in higher quantities in the adrenal glands. B6 and Niacin are both important in several of the enzymatic pathways in the adrenal cascade.
3. Zinc and Magnesium
Both zinc and magnesium act as a sparkplug of sorts for your adrenal glands in that they’re involved in the energy production in every cell in the body. Several energy-producing steps depend on zinc and magnesium, and since a stressful environment is created in the body when these nutrients are deficient, it’s essential to supplement with them. ZMA is a good choice.
4. Adaptogenic Herbs
An adaptogenic herb is any substance that helps the body to function closer to its normal levels. Nutrients like licorice root, rhodiola rosea, and various ginsengs all help the body to cope with stress and they balance out natural hormonal processes. These specific herbs can help to normalize blood sugar, decrease cortisol, and increase IGF-1. If we’re training for an anabolic response, we need to do our best to make sure we’re getting the most we can naturally.
As always, there’s a flipside and there are certain supplements that we want to run from. Supplements like yohimbine, caffeine, ephedra, or any type of stimulant isn’t going to do jack for us if we have adrenal fatigue. That means we also have to stay away from coffee or tea.
This is typically very hard for most of us to understand, since we all want to lose weight. Ephedra makes it nearly impossible to naturally see your lower abs. These stimulants provide a quick pick-up to your adrenal glands and cause an over-secretion of cortisol.
Dealing with adrenal issues isn’t all nutrition related. A big percentage of adrenal health or lack thereof can be directly attributed to training program design.
When you look at the hormonal responses following both higher volume and lower volume training, you see noticeable hormonal differences. This brings about the need to modify sets/reps and intensity on a daily basis. Too many people are volume-based and since most usually perform a body part split, they have no problem coming in the next day and hitting another muscle since they have more local fatigue.
Undulating periodization is a way to start, but we should essentially have two hard and two light/speed days where our intensity is nowhere near the previous day. The biggest offender to adrenal fatigue is training consistently to failure, which actually suppresses proper adrenal function. I’m not the first to say it, but don’t train to failure, ever.
Here are some rules of program design you should follow when treating adrenal fatigue:
Rule #1: Separate the two heavy days by at least three days ??” two days off and one light day.
Rule #2: Limit the amount of eccentric (negative) training.
Rule #3: Eliminate the use of intensity methods such as drop sets, pre/post fatigue, etc.
Rule #4: Stick with full body movements and their variations.
Rule #5: Focus on incomplete rest periods to minimize total training time.
Rule #6: Absolutely forego all steady-state aerobic work and limit intervals to two or three times per week.
Rule #7: Include less overall total volume on the light/speed days.
The Final Word
Adrenal fatigue has only been scantly discussed in physique circles until now, but hopefully you realize the impact it has on building a perfect body. You’d be surprised to see how well your training responds once you treat adrenal fatigue!