Are you running on fumes?

We have an epidemic these days.

An epidemic of women burning the candle at all ends. An epidemic of women who are perpetually exhausted.

We do so many things to mask feeling tired when we really should just sleep. Instead, we try to exist on 5-6 hours of sleep a night and when we feel tired we eat, we have a coffee or a soda, a little sweet pick-me-up or hammer out 30-60 minutes on the spinning bike or treadmill or elliptical because we want to feel like we’re doing something to take care of ourselves.

Actually, if we really want to take care of ourselves, we’ll sleep when our body says it’s tired. Instead we squeeze just one more thing in – one more load of laundry, one last TV show, one last scan through Facebook updates – before we stumble off to bed at midnight or 1am or 2am only to face the alarm clock bright and early at 6am.

Hopefully, you, like me, are avoiding this kind of lifestyle like the plague. But chances are, if you’re not currently in the thick of it, you’ve been there at one point.

I see more and more clients with symptoms that indicate the high probability that their adrenal glands are running on fumes.

Not familiar with your adrenal glands or where they live in your body? Your adrenal glands are small little caps of tissue that sit on top of each of your kidneys (see image below left)

Your kidneys sit just below the bottom of your ribs, under your layers of back muscles (image below right).

If you removed the contents of your abdomen and were able to look at the very back of it, you’d see your kidneys on either side of your spine along with the little cap of your adrenal glands sitting on top of each one of them.

Your adrenal glands secrete hormones – chemical messengers. Some of the hormones they secrete, you may be familiar with – cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine). They also produce precursors to testosterone and estrogen.

Here’s how James L. Wilson N.D., D.C., Ph.D., author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome sums up the functions of the adrenal glands. “The hormones secreted by your adrenals influence all of the physiological processes in your body. They closely affect the utilization of carbohydrates and fats, the conversion of fats and proteins into energy, the distribution of stored fat (especially around your waist and at the sides of your face), normal blood sugar regulation, and proper cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function. The protective activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones secreted by the adrenals helps to minimize negative and allergic reactions to alcohol, drugs, foods and environmental allergens. After mid-life (menopause in women), the adrenal glands gradually become the main source of the sex hormones circulating throughout the body in both men and women. These hormones themselves have a whole host of physical, emotional and psychological effects, from the level of your sex drive to the tendency to gain weight.”

Here’s what I notice when I suspect adrenal fatigue is going on with my clients. They just don’t have the energy they used to, they feel unmotivated and worry they’re becoming lazy. Their body weight was stable for years and now 5-10 pounds have crept on inexplicably over 2-3 months. Aches and pains they used to recover from fairly quickly are lingering instead of going away. They tend to chalk it up to “aging”. I call bullshit.

This is not aging!

This is the effect of over-riding your biological signals so much that your body simply can’t do it anymore. Every time you ignore a biological signal or over-ride it with something other than the appropriate response, you create a state of alarm for your adrenals.

What do I mean by biological signal? Fatigue, hunger and thirst are the biggies. If you have a cup of coffee when you’re tired instead of going to sleep, you’re responding inappropriately to a biological signal. The more you do this, the more you put your adrenals in an ongoing state of alarm. Do this over and over again (coffee instead of food, anyone?) on top of all the other lifestyle choices that put demands on your adrenals (keep reading) and your adrenals just can’t keep up. This is what results in adrenal fatigue, adrenals that are worn out and simply can’t keep up with the demands being placed on them.

The problem is, burning the candle at all ends has become so ingrained in our culture that no one sees anything particularly wrong with it. Everyone does it, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that it comes with a really steep price – quite simply, your health.

Did you know that sleep gives your body time to do its necessary repair work? Without enough sleep, tissues that should get repaired (eyes, adrenal glands, intestines, joints, blood vessels, etc.) simply don’t.

Did you know that, in order to function optimally, your adrenal glands need a body that’s properly hydrated (with water not coffee or soda) and a steady blood sugar.

Here are some other clues that can indicate adrenal fatigue –

  • You’re dizzy when you get out of bed first thing in the morning or stand up “too fast”.
  • You’re super sensitive to light and can’t go outside without their sunglasses on.
  • Your blood pressure tends to run really low, which is why you don’t think anything of being dizzy when you stand up “too fast”.
  • You can’t remember the last time you and Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On had anything in common

You also want to pay attention to

  • How much sleep do you typically get? If it’s less than 7-8 hours, you’re probably running short.
  • What time do you usually go to bed? Your adrenal glands do a lot of their repair work before midnight so the more hours you clock before then, the better.
  • Do you eat breakfast? After a night of fasting, it’s important to eat within an hour after waking up to help reset your blood sugar and minimize adrenal stress.
  • Do you drink coffee or soda? These sources of caffeine and sugar can wreak havoc with your adrenals.
  • Do you drink water? When you are dehydrated, your adrenal glands are programmed to respond to that biological stress signal and it creates more work for them.
  • What’s your energy level like? Are you feeling steady or do you have peaks and valleys or feel like you’re just getting by?
  • What’s a typical day of eating like for you? Do you eat when you’re hungry, tend to eat mostly carbs, lots of sugar, low fat/no fat and/or minimal protein? All of these things can impact your blood sugar – when it’s not nice and steady, your adrenal glands have to do more work to compensate.

If I hear from a client that they’re getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night, when ideally they should be getting 7-8, I know their adrenals are under stress and that their body tissues are not getting enough time to repair.

If I hear that they have a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee for breakfast, I know that their body is working to balance the effects of a high carb breakfast served with a kick of adrenalin.

If I hear that they skip lunch to cut back on calories, I know that their adrenals are getting stressed because a) the adrenals work to balance blood sugar and b) adrenals go into a state of alarm whenever a biological signal (hunger) is ignored or when something else is substituted (coffee or soda) for the biological need.

If they eat a low fat/no fat diet, lots of carbs and no or minimal protein, I can be pretty sure that their body is working harder than it should to keep its blood sugar levels steady because they’re missing out on fat and protein which helps sustain blood sugar levels.

If their exercise of choice is high intensity exercise (why walk when you can run), I know that additional demands are being put on their adrenal glands because that’s the nature of high intensity exercise. If they do high intensity exercise on top of lack of sleep on top of coffee on top of soda on top of not eating well, I know that their adrenal glands are being asked to do way more than they’re designed to do for any length of time.

What can you do? Start with yourself.

Take a minute to tune into your own adrenals. One of my favorite times to do this is during a psoas release. Put your hands behind you, on either side of your spine where your ribcage ends. You can leave your hands there, or, once you have connected with your adrenals, let your arms relax. Take a few breaths to center yourself as you tune in.

  • Say hello to your adrenals and notice what qualities are present there. You may notice the adrenals feel like they’re holding their breath, are juicy and energized, flat-lined, clenched, dried out, depleted, deflated, on red alert, balanced, steady, etc.
  • How does the right side compare to the left? Be aware that each side may have a very different story.
  • As you sit with your adrenals, allow their stories to surface. Take a minute to ask your adrenals how you can support them, what do they need from you?

When you’re done, feel your feet on the floor and return your awareness to your breath.

Never force anything with your intention, you’re not trying to force your adrenal glands relax – as if we could ever force something to relax! Simply offer your loving support through your listening and attention and see how your body responds.

The more we know about the body, the better we’re able to support and serve it, helping it to function at its best.

I look forward to hearing about your adrenal gland experiences and invite you to share in the comments below!

Recommended reading:

Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way A Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success by Shawn Stevenson

Why most people are sleep deprived and what to do about it

The Real Deal on Adrenal Fatigue