Fatigue and Insomnia are such common symptoms that I see in my practice. Of course it makes sense that if you have insomnia you will be tired, but it works the other way as well. If you are very fatigued for a period of time, that can actually disrupt your sleep, which then makes you more tired, which makes you sleep more poorly, which makes you more tired, and so on in a repeating cycle. And of course, if you’re tired and sleeping poorly, you will be more prone to getting sick, feeling irritable, eating unhealthily, and many other unpleasant things that then make you feel more tired, (which makes you sleep poorly, etc) and so on, down into the vortex of ill health.
Whenever I have folks who are sleeping badly, one of the very first things I check (besides their caffeine intake) are their adrenal glands. The adrenals are small, triangular glands (less than an inch high and about 3 inches long) that sit up on top of each kidney. These glands secrete hormones that among other things, help you regulate your stress. Whenever you get stressed, these glands pump out hormones that help you get through it, like those used in the fight or flight response. The problems arise when people go through either long periods of continuous stress, short periods of very intense stress, or long periods of very intense stress. Basically the adrenals can only keep up for so long, before they begin to get tired and malfunction.
Please note, I am not talking about Addison’s Disease which is a relatively rare problem that arises from actual destruction of portions of the adrenal glands.
What does it look like when your adrenals get fatigued? The following is a list of common symptoms people come in with when they have adrenal fatigue. Of course each of these things can be caused by other problems besides this, but when a few of these symptoms are put together, it begins to form a picture I want to at least check.
- insomnia – either difficulty falling asleep or frequent waking (or both)
- frequent crying
- problems digesting many foods
- strong startle reflex (feeling jumpy)
- getting easily stressed about things that you feel shouldn’t stress you out that much
- mental fatigue or a lack of mental clarity
- feeling dizzy when you go from sitting to standing (though this can also commonly be due to not drinking enough water during the day)
- menstrual irregularity
Fortunately, adrenal function can be tested with a simple saliva test, and if the lab results indicate a problem, it is generally a fairly straightforward thing to fix with herbs, nutrients and sometimes a few other things. I do have the occasional case that for whatever reason, is more challenging to treat, but most of the time, people start feeling better within three to six weeks and are generally back to healthy function within six months. Again, there are always exceptions and some cases may resolve more quickly or more slowly, but that seems to be the general trend of what I’ve seen most frequently.
One note about caffeine and adrenal fatigue. It is quite common that when people are tired, they reach for a caffeinated beverage like coffee or soda to help them through the day; and while I certainly understand the urge, I would like to give this analogy for what it’s doing to your body. Imagine that you’re riding a horse. You’ve been galloping for ages and the horse is tired and frothing at the mouth. Instead of taking a break and allowing the horse time for recuperation, caffeine is the equivalent of taking a riding crop and whipping the horse to go even faster. You can definitely go faster for a short time, but at some point that horse is going to drop (the horse in this case, being your adrenals).
So if you’re tired all the time and can’t seem to wake up, except for maybe when you’re supposed to be sleeping, don’t just grab another coffee and blame it on getting older (I had a patient in her 20’s (!) who was told she was just getting older and should expect to be more tired); consider checking your adrenal function. Improved adrenal function can really and truly make your everyday life and health better.