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!
Taking the time to stop and smell the roses is not just a cute saying… It’s solid medical advice!
The Real Deal on Adrenal Fatigue, by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, Certified Nutrition Consultant, C.H.E.K. Holistic Lifestyle Coach
The Truth About Adrenal Fatigue, by Dr. Bryan Walsh
Wilson, James L., N.D., D.C. Ph.D.. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma, CA. Smart Publications. 2001.