Experience Life Magazine

Fending Off Adrenal Fatigue

Are you exhausted for days following your workouts? Or are you just too tired to make it to the gym? If so, you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue.


Feeling tired lately? Not just want-to-go-to-bed-early tired, but so weary that you struggle through your workouts or can scarcely muster the energy to drive to the gym or tie your shoes for a run? Depleted cortisol levels may be to blame.

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, small triangular glands located on top of both kidneys (see illustration below). Cortisol’s main job is to mobilize your body’s response to physical, emotional or psychological stresses, whether they arise from an injury, from a bad day at work or from an awful commute. Hence cortisol’s reputation as “the stress hormone.”

Cortisol is powerful stuff, and great to have available in a pinch. Get overly stressed on a regular basis, though (a condition known as chronic stress), and your adrenal glands go into overdrive. They obligingly churn out increasing quantities of the hormone, which tends to inhibit the release of other hormones, including many of those that are key to digestion and healing.

Having constantly elevated cortisol levels can, over time, lead to a variety of ailments, including weight gain and a weakened immune system. And eventually, if your overtaxed adrenal glands go too long without getting a chance to rest and recuperate, they can get worn out — so worn out that they lose their ability to create even normal, baseline levels of cortisol. The result? You get fatigued. Very fatigued.

A “Real” Problem?

Ask your doctor about adrenal fatigue and you may just get a blank stare or be told it doesn’t really exist. This is because mainstream medicine does not yet recognize adrenal fatigue as an official health condition.

“The conventional medical model is a disease-based model,” explains James Wilson, ND, DC, PhD, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome (Smart Publications, 2002). “But adrenal fatigue isn’t a disease — it’s a subfunctioning of the adrenal glands.” And so, he explains, the condition isn’t even on the radar of many conventional docs.

There is a recognized disease in which the adrenal glands fail almost completely: Addison’s disease, which affects about one in 100,000 people. Doctors treat it with synthetic cortisol and diagnose it with a simple clinical test in which they inject patients with ACTH — the body’s chemical signal to release cortisol — and then measure the strength of the ensuing cortisol response.

The problem with this test, according to Wilson, is that it’s all or nothing. Only patients who are found to be almost incapable of producing cortisol are diagnosed with Addison’s disease. Everyone else, including anyone whose adrenal glands are quite weak, but not weak enough to be life-threatening, is considered healthy. In other words, “You’re normal until you take one more step off the cliff and then ‘suddenly’ you have Addison’s disease,” says Wilson.

This loser-take-all diagnosis may soon change, though, with preventive treatment methods becoming more widely embraced. Medical researchers are now observing chronically low cortisol levels (called hypocortisolism) in patients with a host of stress-related diseases and disorders other than Addison’s disease. These include posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and even some allergies.

Symptoms and Solutions

Wilson notes that long before it causes disease, adrenal fatigue can produce a host of disruptive signs and symptoms. In addition to persistent fatigue, these include subclinical depression, low sex drive, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and weakened immune response to infections. “The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are many and varied,” Wilson explains, “because cortisol goes to virtually every part of the body. So when cortisol levels drop, lots of different systems are likely to be affected. There’s no single sign or symptom that indicates, ‘Aha! We have adrenal fatigue.’”

One of the most frustrating aspects of adrenal fatigue is that its dragged-down symptoms can do a real number on your fitness regimen. When you’re feeling tired, depressed or always fighting off a cold, maintaining your workout routine can be darn near impossible. But ironically, the best way to fight adrenal fatigue is to — you guessed it — exercise.

Moderate exercise not only strengthens weakened adrenal glands but also stimulates the immune system, eases stress, improves mood and addresses just about every other direct and indirect consequence of adrenal fatigue, according to Wilson. A study in the journal Endocrinology (July 2003) found that regular exercise increased the size and cortisol output capacity of the adrenal glands in mice.

But not just any type of exercise will do. Wilson suggests a moderate program that equally balances cardio and strength training. The general consensus is that although both types of exercise have been shown to increase cortisol production individually, a tag-team approach is likely to be most beneficial.

Breaking the Cycle

Working out can be difficult if you already suffer from adrenal fatigue, because you simply may not feel that you have the energy. So it’s important that you do whatever you can to overcome that inertia.

To begin with, “exercise at a time of day when you tend to feel comparatively good,” Wilson says. It may sound obvious, he notes, but it’s importantbecause people with adrenal fatigue tend to experience a consistent fatigue pattern, with highenergy points around noon and 6 p.m. By timing your workouts to coincide with your personal high
points (whenever they occur), you can break the Catch-22 cycle that keeps you down.

You also need to closely gauge your reaction to your workouts and adjust them as needed. For instance, if you suddenly hit the wall in the middle of a particular session, don’t push yourself. Do a shorter or easier workout than the one you planned, or, if necessary, call it a day, rest up and try again tomorrow. If you’re finding that your typical training sessions are taxing you more than usual, cut back. “If you become inordinately fatigued within 90 minutes after your workout,” notes Wilson, “or if you’re more tired the next morning after a workout, that’s a sign you’ve overdone it.”

Finally, try to maintain the frequency of your exercise. Aim for easy workouts that allow you to train at least four times a week. Gradually, as your adrenal glands recover, you’ll be able to do longer and more intense workouts. And that will help bring your whole body up to speed.

20 Comment to Fending Off Adrenal Fatigue

  • UZ says:

    Thanks so MUCH for this article. This gives me an understanding of the challenge of feeling low on energy nowadays. I am so happy to know that you’re advising simple and healthy remedies such as exercise and eating through the day. I’m bookmarking your article so that I can come back to it in a few days. In the meantime, I’ve already started doing some of these things.

  • Crystal Moody says:

    Hello, I’ve been struggling with adrenal fatigue for what feels like several years. I have Wilson’s book and have found it to be very helpful. I have tried taking some adrenal supplements (some from homeopathic dr and natures sunshine brand) they make me extremely tired about a half hour after taking them, like sleeping pill for me. Why? Then the next thing I notice, is for exercise, I get extremely tired and feel very hungry like my sugar is dropping. My muscles tremble and I get a headache, yawning and very sleepy. I’ve tried yoga and Zumba (Zumba I do better with) and planks etc. I can’t finish a routine because I’m so tired? I would appreciate any input! Thank you

    • Ashley S says:

      I have had the same sleepy effect from adrenal supplements. My doctor said that it is because they are causing the adrenals to ramp up cortisol production, and that is the “calm” you feel when they stop overproducing adrenalin. He said it should even out in time. I would encourage you to stick with the supplements.

    • Heidi Wachter says:

      Hi Crystal,

      I am sorry to hear you are struggling to get help with adrenal fatigue.

      The magazine is not staffed with medical professionals, thus we cannot provide any medical advice.

      Our advice would be to consult with a medical practitioner.

      Good luck, and hope you find relief.


  • Ashlie says:

    My cortisol levels are half what they should be upon rising then gradually go down and plummet by noon and flat line the rest of the day then spike in the late evening. 2 years later and I’m still not well.

  • karyna says:

    I suffer from adrenal imbalance… would a ice cream cake be safe to eat. What effects would do to my adrenals

  • Ali says:

    How does sleep apnea play a role in adrenal fatigue?

  • Ironically, although your adrenal glands are there, in large part, to help you cope with stress, too much of it is actually what causes their function to break down. In other words, one of your adrenal glands most important tasks is to get your body ready for the “fight or flight” stress response, which means increasing adrenaline and other hormones.;;;..

  • KS says:

    I’ve been trying to heal adrenal fatigue as well. The first thing I did was address the hypothyroid issues. Second, I’ve been eating in ways that help keep blood sugar stable and it has been helpful in terms of energy. The worst thing you can do for adrenal fatigue is snack on chocolate, sugars etc – which is a natural thing to want when you are low on energy.

    Keeping an apple with ground up almond butter or peanut butter – the real stuff, not the jarred stuff – is great for when you are out and need to eat. Also, for breakfast, a breakfast burrito (again, a real one, not the crap they sell in the supermarket) is good. And Ezekiel cereal is fantastic for keeping energy stable and avoiding a crash. I keep cashews, raisins, and Larabar protein bars around – all those are helpful.. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or other sandwiches, are portable and reduce the temptation to stop and get a Frosty.

    Exercise has helped the late-night sleep issues. one other thing that is helpful is planning around high and low energy points and honoring low energy times by taking a break (i really don’t have any choice in that one).
    And Tazo detox tea…..

    These things have helped significantly although there is still a ways to go.

  • Jeanie Eberspacher says:

    Adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances and digestive problems. The term often shows up in popular health books and on alternative medicine websites, but it isn’t an accepted medical diagnosis.

    • K Thornton says:

      It may not be a ‘recognised’ diagnosis yet, but it’s easily confirmed with salivary cortisol tests. My endocrinologist is extremely interested by my results – she can’t explain my peaks and troughs by anything other than adrenal fatigue.

      • Teresa says:

        The most reliable cortisol level test is an early morning, fasting, blood test to determine cortisol levels. It’s worth asking your doctor to prescribe the test. Cortisol levels are normally highest at that time. Extreme fatigue and subnormal cortisol levels can be the precursor to Addison’s Disease (AD, which I have). Other things to watch for is faintness and dizziness when you stand up from a resting position because your blood pressure suddenly drops (orthostatic hypotension).

        Full Addison’s Disease can take a long time to completely manifest as the outer layer of the adrenal cortex is slowly being destroyed (autoimmune problem) so if your blood test is normal but extreme and worsening fatigue continues, have the test repeated after a year. I am not a doctor or medical personnel, I am relating from my own experience, and understanding of AD literature. Extreme fatigue does not automatically mean AD so use your judgement and talk to your doctor.

    • Jojo says:

      My gyno recognizes it and was very quick to pick up on it.

      • Cassy says:

        My very respected, and otherwise fantastic GYNO told me to see a neurologist for the brain fog and a psychiatrist. Ya, that was helpful NOT!!

    • Dot Wiggins says:

      That is what the author said in the article and explained as to why.

  • Paula says:

    D- Try taking 100 mg of 5-HTP at night to help you sleep. My naturopathic doc just recommended it to me, along with a host of other supplements, as I’m suffering from AF as well. The 5-HTP started to have a noticeable effect within a week for me. I’m also taking Ashwagandha – 2 pills, 3x/day. It’s an herbal supplement furor adrenal support and is known to help balance out your cortisol levels. You do need to take a few times a day or you’ll notice a crash later in the day. I hope this helps. Good luck!

  • D says:

    Hi. Just read thos article on Adrenal Fatigue and exercise. Obviously this is an issue I deal with personally, so I really appreciate the info you’ve presented here. I especially appreciate your input on the use of moderate, and therefore fairly frequent, exercise to actually help restore adrenal function and to get over adrenal fatigue, and I hope to be able to get to that point, and indeed to get back to heavy weight training -within reason of course.

    One of my major problems is the disrupted sleep patterns that generally accompanies Adrenal Fatigue, where I often wake in the middle of the night/early morning -often with what “feels” like “hunger” (part of the AF I believe) – and I therefore have issues with energy during the following day. I know this likely is associated with a cortisol spike during that time (the “Cortisol Awakening Response” I think, though I could be wrong), and it of course interferes with even wanting to try to do moderate exercise, especially in the evenings after work. And this interrupted sleep would itself also contribute to issues with abdominal weight gain and difficulty losing the weight, appetite irregularities, and impaired insulin sensitivity.

    Do you have any advice on how one might deal with the discontinuous sleep associated with the Adrenal Fatigue? I figure some sort of night-time cortisol control, but I have tried this with little success in terms of regularly getting continuous sleep. I know that if I can get a handle on this then that would be major progress for me.

    Sorry for the long email but again, I greatly appreciate your info and appreciate any further insight.

    Thanks musch.


    • Hank says:

      Something else to consider. I’ve found a couple things that affect my sleep. Surprisingly I’ve found the worst thing lately for my sleep is breads, maybe due to a carbohydrate crash or more likely from gluten withdrawal as rice breads don’t have the same effect. I stay away from wheat breads in the afternoon.

      Other factors, MSG/Natural flavor(s) is a major stimulant for me and there are so many other unknown/unreported ingredients buried in processed foods that I stay away from them all. All isn’t lost on the comfort foods front though, I make awesome ice-cream from scratch and it doesn’t affect my sleep.

      • Robert says:

        based on what I have been reading about adrenal fatigue, I think I may have it moderately. I find that when I exercise (even moderately) I am very tired the next day. I don’t start feeling myself until the following day. My other symptoms are that I do wake up maybe twice per night and, although I have no problems in getting up the next morning, sometimes I don’t feel very energetic.
        Your comments will be very much appreciated. Thanks, Robert.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

City and state are only displayed in our print magazine if your comment is chosen for publication.

Experience Life welcomes your comments and suggestions. We simply ask that they be on topic and respectful of the conversation. Here's our full comment policy.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>