20 October 2017 | Amelia Thornycroft (BMedSci)

Feeling burnt out? It could be adrenal fatigue

Feeling burnt out? it could be adrenal fatigue

We’ve all experienced ‘flow’ – you know that optimal state of awesomeness where you move from task to task nailing everything in your path like you’re Neo from the Matrix, whilst simultaneously busting out a power pose.

During ‘flow’ the brain floods our system with pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing chemicals which have considerable impact on our creativity. According to Steven Kotler, flow is typically experienced at the “emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety — the spot where the task is hard enough to stretch us, but not hard enough to make us snap”.

But what happens when we slip (or triple jump) past this emotional midpoint? Here we discuss the 4 stages of not so awesome hormone imbalances:

Stage 1 – “In the zone”

When you’re stressed, the ‘fight or flight’ system takes over and the body produces adrenaline. Adrenaline makes your heart pound, your muscles tense, your breathing faster, and can even make you start sweating – useful when you’re running from a rabid animal, but not that great when you’re sitting in an interview. But as many of us have found, when we control these awkward physical responses, we benefit from the plus side of adrenaline and become alert and sharp.

When we’re ‘in the zone’ the body also produces the stress hormone cortisol and the anabolic hormone DHEA. Cortisol works on fat cells and the liver to make glucose available for muscles, whereas DHEA balances out the effects of cortisol by regulating metabolism, boosting the immune system and preventing the build-up of dangerous plaque deposits in our arteries.

Often people don’t experience any health issues during this early stage, and in fact many of us go in and out of Stage 1 multiple times throughout our careers and lives.

Stage 2 – “Wired but tired”

Depending on the long-term nature of the stress and how well we handle it, it can take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days for us to return to our normal resting state. But what happens during long periods of stress, where we’ve been stretched that bit too far for a bit too long?

Persistent adrenaline surges can damage our arteries, up our blood pressure, and increase our risk of heart attack. If that wasn’t bad enough, chronically high cortisol increases our appetite causing sugar cravings and a build-up of fat tissue – this often leads to ‘unexplained weight gain’. High cortisol also messes with our sleep patterns by inhibiting the hormone melatonin. DHEA production starts to drop under long periods of stress which can in turn impact levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone – bye bye libido.

At this point our clients often complain of feeling “wired but tired” as they experience the effects of over-exertion of their adrenals – they’re alert during the day but then crash hard in the evening. Many start to O.D. on caffeine during this stage.

Stage 3 – “Flat line”

As time passes but the stress doesn’t, DHEA stays low while cortisol levels drop hovering in the low-normal range. Low DHEA continues to take its toll on the sex hormones which can cause PMS, accelerated menopause, andropause (male menopause – yes, it’s a thing) and also thyroid issues. At this point we may still be able to function, hold down a job and continue a pretty normal life, but our clients often complain of tiredness, a lack of enthusiasm, poor immunity and a lower sex drive. This phase might continue for several months or even years and is often accompanied by a dwindling sick leave balance.

Stage 4 – “Burn out”

When not addressed, finally the body runs out of ways to produce stress hormones, and cortisol levels drop below normal. With the levels of both sex hormones and stress hormones low, our clients often report suffering from extreme tiredness, lack of sex drive, irritability, depression, anxiety, weight loss, apathy and a general disinterest in the world. To recover from this stage can require a total career and lifestyle overhaul, but we cover that in another blog.

Adrenal fatigue can creep up on you

As with depression, adrenal fatigue is insidious and due to multiple factors. Stress isn’t just a consequence of how enormous the task we’re faced with may seem, it’s also magnified by how supported we feel in the workplace, what kind of physical shape we’re in, what’s going on at home, how much sleep we’ve had, our emotional state and even what we’ve had for breakfast (shout out to the working mums). For many of us integrity is also an issue – if we’re not getting the support we need to deliver on our commitments, or if we don’t feel in control of our working environment or our personal lives, then this can significantly add to our stress burden. Rather than tackling the problem, all too often we tell ourselves we’re just ‘having a bad day’ - we self-talk ourselves into ‘pushing through’ in the hope that things will be better tomorrow. And sometimes they are, but left unchecked this cocktail of work, environmental and lifestyle factors can lead to a chronic stress response.

The importance of testing

A simple saliva test can measure your levels of cortisol and DHEA over the course of the day. Cortisol levels normally fluctuate throughout the day and night in a circadian rhythm that peaks at about 8am and declines in the evening – this helps us leap out of bed in the morning (or not), and wind down in the evening ready for sleep. Chronic stress messes up this cycle and the resulting hormone imbalance is evident in the results of this simple saliva test.

If you feel you might be suffering from a chronic stress response, then perhaps it’s time to take back control of your health.

Find out more with our Adrenal Fatigue Check.

Try i-screen's Adrenal Fatigue Check
amelia-thornycroft-i-screen-author
Amelia Thornycroft (BMedSci)
Amelia is passionate about Australia's preventive health agenda having worked with some of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. Amelia moved to Perth 10 years ago where she founded i-screen to democratise pathology and open access to the health data that really matters.
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