Exhaustion is rampant in our society even with reminders to slow down, switch off, and recharge. Catchy and hard to miss, this signalling from health minded sources is not to be ignored.
Exhaustion or “burn out” arises from the constant need to push on and goes against the body’s pleas to slow down and rest. As a result, the dreaded “adrenal fatigue” rears its ugly head. This misnomer is often scoffed at by mainstream medicine, while it’s the bread and butter for natural health practitioners like naturopaths and Chinse medicine practitioners. I think it’s important to distinguish just why “adrenal fatigue” is a misnomer and what we’re referring to from both a western and eastern perspective. The distinction is important and may better help you to understand what you can do recharge.
First let’s start with an anatomy/biology lesson, so we know basically what the adrenal glands are and what they do:
- They are located on top of both kidneys
- They are part of the endocrine system (there are 12 glands part of the endocrine system)
- They are comprised of 2-parts, the medulla, and the cortex which are responsible for secreting different hormones
- They secrete aldosterone, cortisol, DHEA and epinephrine (adrenaline)/norepinephrine (noradrenaline)
- The hormones they secrete help to regulate metabolism, immune system, blood pressure and response to stress + more!
- They are but two glands in a complex communication system that regulate so many functions in your body!
- They are super important, and we need to be nice to them.
Now that we know a bit about the adrenals, we can distinguish what is meant by adrenal fatigue. The adrenals can under function by not producing enough hormones. This is called Primary Adrenal Insufficiency and likely what your GP thinks of when you mention “adrenal fatigue” to them. It’s considered rare to have true adrenal insufficiency. Adrenal fatigue is referring to a dysregulation in the communication between the adrenal glands and the other endocrine glands part of the HPA axis – the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis, to be exact. This little love triangle starts to fall apart when the signalling between them gets sluggish due to an overproduction of adrenal hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenaline (aka fight or flight!). When this happens hormone production/regulation gets side-lined and we start to see the adrenal fatigue signs we’re all familiar with – exhaustion, brain fog, anxiety, and runaway inflammation.
How can an overproduction of hormones from the adrenal glands lead to fatigue? TCM explains this beautifully…
In TCM theory the Kidneys hold our Jing (or essence). Jing is with us from birth, it’s a finite source and if we don’t refill our cup with rest, good nutrition etc. there’s less of it to go around. Jing is what enriches every process in our body. Think of Jing like your genetics, if you treat your body right then chances are your genes will be happy to work in your favour. Broadly, loss of Jing too quickly results in rapid aging. In conjunction with Jing, our Kidney Yin and Yang play the more functional roles associated with what we know as adrenal fatigue. It can go in either direction – yin or yang deficiency, or some combination of the two. Eg. symptoms like water retention (kidney yang deficiency), night sweats (kidney yin deficiency), feeling cold all the time (kidney yang deficiency), dizziness, brain fog, forgetfulness – can be both! In the bigger picture, Kidney yin, yang and essence comes together as part of a larger system, just like the adrenal glands as part of the endocrine system. They all need to be working together for things to run smoothly.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, then here’s what you can do to help regain some energy and resilience to stress:
- SLEEP IS EVERYTHING. If you don’t sleep well, make this your first step. If you don’t sleep enough start putting your head on the pillow earlier, take naps, prioritise rest.
- Get off your devices 2+ hours before you go to bed. Research shows blue light from devices like phones and TV can affect our sleep. Good sleep hygiene like reading and winding down before bed can really help with deeper more restorative sleep.
- Add a sprinkle of sea salt to your water. Salt is the flavour of the Kidneys in TCM and from a Western perspective without it the human body cannot produce energy, maintain blood pressure, or even regenerate. Sodium is key in correcting adrenal fatigue.
- Address stress and trauma. Being in fight or flight all the time comes directly from our adrenals and will be a huge part of what derails the communication between the HPA axis.
- Take adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogen has become a buzz word, but it’s referring to herbs that help support how your body responds to stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Medicinal mushrooms are excellent for this! As are herbs like ashwagandha. TCM has its own combination of herbs that are excellent to support adrenal function – aka kidney yin/yang/essence.
- Adhere to a balanced exercise routine. Eg. Balance out high intensity exercise with restorative stretching and yoga.
- Say “NO”. As in, don’t say “yes” to everything that comes your way, so you’ve got time to rest. This is a big one! It’s such a simple step, but so many people are worried about disappointing friends and family by saying no to plans. You cannot pour from an empty cup, and you’ll be a better friend/family member when you’ve got some gas in the tank.
I’m always reminded about a Guru I met while I was in India. If his disciples would come to him exhausted and burnt out from overwork, he would give them yoga nidras – or yoga sleep meditations (they basically consist of laying on a bed in a half-sleep and relaxing your whole body one limb at a time). And then he would tell them to go to bed! That was it, people would travel across to the world to see him, and he would tell them to go to bed. So simple, so effective.
Andrea is available at Mornington Chinese Medicine Monday & Thursday Afternoons 2pm-8pm as well Wednesday & Saturday 9am-2pm.
138 Tanti Avenue, Mornington, VIC
03 5973 6886