Many of us in the fitness industry — both instructors and participants — tend to be passionate, motivated, and hard-driving individuals. It is not uncommon for instructors to do their own workouts in addition to the (often multiple) fitness classes and training sessions they have scheduled in one day. Some people may say, “how lucky that you get to work out for a living!” Yes… To a point. But there is a serious downside to pushing ourselves to capacity both physically and mentally: BURNOUT. Specifically, I am referring to adrenal fatigue (also known as adrenal exhaustion).
Adrenal fatigue can be disastrous for those of us who make our living (or for those of who maintain our physical and/or mental health) by way of fitness. Adrenal fatigue “sucks the life” out of sufferers, making them feel bone-tired and weak.
What — and where — are the adrenals?
The adrenals are two triangular shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of your kidneys (note: endocrine glands secrete hormones into the blood stream). The adrenal glands are part of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis), meaning that they respond to input from the brain by secreting the “stress hormones” epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline), as well as cortisol.
Stress includes everything from what we normally think of as “stress” or “stressful,” such as negative emotional situations that leave you feeling anxious and on-edge, to positive (but highly excitatory) situations like a new job or a new business venture. Stressors can also include PHYSICAL stress from over-exercising/over-training, to illness, chronic inflammation, and even the long-term effects of poor nutrition.
Stressors trigger a chain of hormone-producing reactions along the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. A repeatedly excitatory response to stressors can push the immuno-endocrine system completely off balance. Basically, if the brain (the hypothalamus) is in a constant state of “alert,” it will constantly be sending messages to your adrenal glands to produce stress hormones, causing you to over-produce cortisol.
What happens next? Well, some theories state that your adrenals become “exhausted” due to over-production of cortisol and eventually wear out and under-produce. Other theories suggest that you may be over-producing OR under-producing based on excitation or inhibition at the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus. The PVN is like a gatekeeper that receives a variety of inputs and ultimately “decides” whether cortisol production will be stimulated or suppressed.
Regardless of theory of causation, all theorists agree that when a crisis point is reached and adrenal fatigue occurs, one thing is certain: The adrenal response is “out of whack.” The way we can bring our adrenal health back into balance  is to deal with the stressors in our lives that are setting off the HPA Axis to begin with.
Let’s get personal… How is YOUR stress level?
Adrenal fatigue may appear suddenly, such as during or after an acute illness or significant life event, but it is usually the result of the cumulative effects of multiple stressors. I share my personal journey into adrenal fatigue in my recent blog post titled, “My path to adrenal fatigue and my recovery so far (click here).” In a nutshell, I have always been a “Type-A” personality, taking on a lot of projects and tasks simultaneously, and recently — since the focus of my vocation has turned from clinical physical therapy to fitness training — I have been seriously over-exercising. Although the entire focus of my vocation is the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, I wasn’t healthy myself!
I healed myself through a combination of rest, proper diet and nutritional supplementation, and relaxation strategies that worked for me and my personal needs. It took about a month to feel like “myself” again, but I got there!
Some symptoms worth noting, which may be indicative of adrenal fatigue or imbalance, include changes in energy and mood, difficulty falling (or staying) asleep at night, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, inability to quickly and appropriately recover from exercise, irregular menstrual cycles, and a weak immune system or allergies.
Although often blown off as “no big deal,” or “symptoms of fast-paced, modern life,” I encourage you to take these symptoms seriously. Adrenal fatigue or not, your body is sending you signals to slow down and get some rest. Again, this can be hard for those of us who are involved in the fitness industry, but remember: You will NOT look or feel your best if you are off-kilter internally!

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Taking the time to stop and smell the roses is not just a cute saying… It’s solid medical advice!

Sources:
The Real Deal on Adrenal Fatigue, by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, Certified Nutrition Consultant, C.H.E.K. Holistic Lifestyle Coach
Wilson, James L., N.D., D.C. Ph.D.. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma, CA. Smart Publications. 2001.

Brianne Grogan

Brianne is a women’s health physical therapist, an AFAA certified group fitness instructor, and the founder of FemFusion Fitness. Originally from Oregon, she currently lives in Germany with her husband and son. Brianne teaches FemFusion group fitness classes in her local community and on U.S. military installations. She recently released her first book, FemFusion Fitness for Intimacy. Visit Brianne at Fem Fusion Fitness or on Facebook.

9 Comments

  1. Meg
    Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 at 8:22 pm ·

    Brianne ~ I too, have a lot of experience with adrenal fatigue. I don’t eat wheat or gluten nor drink caffeine. Caffeine is bad for the adrenals! I also take adrenal rebuilders by Dr. Wilson daily. Thank goodness for my holistic doctor! I had to collect saliva in a tube for testing along with a ton of other stuff. I’ve learned as a dental hygienist the oral cavity is a huge indicator as well.
    I had mono in high school and that is a defnite warning! Once affected, any number of ways we get stressed, whether physical, mental, emotional, can trigger adrenal fatigue. I won’t get into it too much, but let’s just say, I’m no longer riding century road races. I still ride with my team, but intentionally ride with the slower group below what I can “really” do. When I teach Spinning, almost every class I get off my bike throughout the ride and coach off the saddle. I’m also deligent about active and passive recovery days.
    I thoroughly enjoy teaching willPower & grace to my senior crowd! It’s a good excuse to stay at level 1 or 2 the whole time…much of the time even extreme basic. :)
    The references you gave are wonderful sources for even those that want to read up on it. This is a very important topic and I am thrilled you wrote such a wonderful piece about it as I feel everyone should be educated on this.
    ~Meg

  2. Jennifer DeLuccia
    Jennifer DeLuccia
    Thursday, February 21st, 2013 at 7:50 pm ·

    Thanks for this informative post. I’m currently on Day 14 without caffeine! First time in 20 years without coffee. Thanks for reminding me why it’s not good to put your adrenals on overload!

  3. kris
    Thursday, February 21st, 2013 at 11:20 pm ·

    I can completely understand adrenal fatigue. I’ve had it off and on for three years. I will definitely be trying some of this . I’m a group ex instructor as well and often push myself to hard. I enjoy the play. And am also a type A personality. I have learned to tame it down in class, but have never fully recovered to my old self.

  4. Tracy Vicente
    Friday, February 22nd, 2013 at 1:49 am ·

    Thank you for writing about a very important issue. I think many are suffering but feel the need to push on, that they would be “weak” to rest, which is ironic and actually adds to that vicious cycle. I have been seeing a natural specialist as well for adrenal fatigue and Hashimoto’s for months now. I had to also re-evaluate what I was doing and make changes, and, most importantly, be ok with it.

  5. Meg
    Friday, February 22nd, 2013 at 5:02 am ·

    Tracy ~ I have to reply back when you say, “weak to rest.” Wow. Spot on! I use to think that. Uugg! My adrenals had gotten so bad that I was beyond tired and my sympathetic system (fight or flight) would not turn off. Even the heaviest of drugs would not allow me to sleep as tired as I was. It was the worst feeling in the world. Then my vision became affected. I was diagnosed with Lyme disease on top of that and a history of mono. I couldn’t see straight, literally, and felt sick from being dizzy and seeing not blurry, but wiggly. My eyes could not diverge and converge properly. I was in vision therapy for 2 years…after rehab on my back for 2 years! Ugg! I then took 2 years off from Mad Dogg. Talk about feeling like I was weak if I rested. That was NOT emotional intelligence and it took an array of illnesses to put a break on things. Sometimes we need that to become educated and to listen to ourselves. I’ve learned SO much from it and stress it more when I present now. Rest as hard as you play! Using WOW is a great way not just to over-load our systems (which on occassion we need too) but to really hone in on ourselves.

  6. Brianne
    Monday, March 4th, 2013 at 6:32 am ·

    Meg — “rest as hard as you play” — I love it. YES!