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Decoding Burn-out Syndrome: An Adrenal Fatigue Her-Story

I'm an accredited journalist working at the intersections of science, food and public health, and a certified nutritional practitioner.

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Conventional diagnosis of adrenal fatigue

As a functional medicine practitioner, I’m normally the one guiding people out of their health problems. So when I saw the symptoms of adrenal fatigue creeping into my own life, I knew I had to start practicing what I teach.

From my own research, I suspected suboptimal functioning of the adrenal glands, especially under the kind of stress I had been prior to symptoms occurring. But I was stunned that, despite the abundance of information (though mostly anecdotal) about this condition, there was no scientific consensus for its development.

Simple diseases tend to work like a chain of dominoes, with a clear cause setting off a series of possible symptoms, which hint at a diagnosis, and, usually, a standard treatment. Adrenal fatigue is more like a pile of pick-up sticks: a collection of symptoms, a giant mess in which no one can see a beginning or end.

Through asking different health practitioners about their experience of working with people with adrenal fatigue, I rapidly learned that adrenal fatigue is not really an adrenal problem, but a brain problem.

Typically, problems arise when a ‘brain-adrenal’ axis, known as HPA axis, is not working so well. This dysfunction causes levels of cortisol, dubbed our stress hormone, to abnormally fluctuate - dropping to low levels when it should be high, and high when it should be low. Cortisol is just one of the physiological variables used to study something as abstract, and personal, as adrenal fatigue.

There are multiple other factors at play, but this faulty cortisol release leads to a set of identifiable symptoms similar to mine, including disrupted circadian rhythmicity - that can be roughly conceptualized as our body clock. I had erratic sleep-wake cycles and severe insomnia.

Other symptoms that came up included important cognitive impairment (poor executive functioning, memory and learning), uncontrolled weight loss paired with muscle wasting, gastrointestinal issues and frequent low blood sugars.

It took me a while to piece it all together, partly because I was considering all of them separately, until interdisciplinary research came my way and laid out the big picture.

decoding-burn-out-syndrome-an-adrenal-fatigue-her-story

A psychosomatic view of adrenal fatigue

As I hinted earlier, there is a nervous connection from the brain all the way down to the centre of the adrenal gland. This connection is part of a larger system, known as the autonomic nervous system, and its role is well appreciated in everyday life - especially in extreme environments like intense emotional reactions or prolonged work or family stress.

This part of the nervous system has two branches, and according to evidence I gathered, their balanced activation is paramount for preventing and treating adrenal fatigue due to these stressors.

The first branch, known as the sympathetic system, is most relevant to my condition for it is concerned with protection. It responds to perceived threat or chronic stress by activating the glands and organs that defend the body against attack, like the thyroid and adrenal gland. In turn, a subpart of the adrenal called the medulla secretes the partner hormone of cortisol, epinephrine. Epinephrine is essentially adrenaline, and its hyper-secretion contributes to the suppressed digestive system, alertness and disrupted circadian rhythm we see in adrenal fatigue.

The second, opposing branch of the autonomic system is called the parasympathetic. It devotes energy to body functions beyond basic survival need, such as nourishment, healing, elimination and regeneration of the body. Its nerves stimulate digestion, and the immune system and eliminative organs, including the liver, pancreas and stomach.

It is, of course, healthier to be in this state rather than the former. The problem is that the over-activated sympathetic system in adrenal fatigue powerfully inhibits it while experiencing high levels of perceived stress.

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Although the course of adrenal fatigue is still being discussed, it is thought to be this overexertion of the sympathetic state from stress that eventually flips the body into a slow oxidation mode in which sympathetic organs (thyroid, adrenals, muscles and brain) are operating more sluggishly. This could explain the lack of focus, general tiredness, apathy and depression I felt.

Further research I came across even suggested that a depressed thyroid due to adrenal “burnout” contributes to amenorrhea, which I concurrently experienced for over six months.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that the emergency system, the sympathetic, takes precedence over the relaxation and healing, and go into overdrive. But everyday stressors, real or imagined, don’t constitute an emergency.

decoding-burn-out-syndrome-an-adrenal-fatigue-her-story

Bioenergetic origins of adrenal fatigue

While searching for answers about recovering from adrenal fatigue, I came upon a body of literature at the intersection of quantum physics, the psyche and energetic therapies that turned out to be life changing.

It opened my eyes to the fact that we are so eager to explain everything in scientifically measurable ways in the Western world that molecular behavior can be entirely explained with the laws of physics without ever weighing in on cognitive-emotional triggers.

It may be true that the conscious mind, and more largely, the “psyche”, is a distinct reality from matter, but it is capable of communicating or interacting with it.

It holds that our perception of typical sympathetic signals gets converted into selecting the right - or wrong - proteins or catalysts for body responses. This made me reflect upon the lens through which I viewed life events that unfolded prior to diagnostic, and the answers were really out there waiting to be discovered.

We have neuropeptide cell receptors in the emotion centers (limbic structures) of the body. This suggests interaction between the emotional body and the physical body, just like the activation of certain brain areas during conscious activities shows that the conscience used the brain to transmit orders and information.

As I delved more into this interaction, I discovered that the etheric, or physical, body is a depository of emotional energy influences.

A whole field built around this concept is the chakra system. It links disturbances in the centers in our body in which energy flows, called chakras, to physical manifestations. On occasion, parts of the body can be locations of energetic stagnation and high entropy.

According to the chakra system, adrenal and liver problems may originate in blockages between the third and fourth chakra, respectively known as the solar plexus chakra and the heart chakra. As for depression and negative emotions, evidence pointed to an imbalance in the lower “earthbound” chakras: the root and sacral.

The more I was learning about these individual chakras, the more dots I was able to connect. Was it in fact a blocked heart chakra that contributed to social isolation, negative life outlook and feeling unloveable? The sacral chakra governs sexual organs, is this what led to amenorrhea? It all seemed plausible.

I was surprised to find that so many chakras could be involved. For example, the solar plexus chakra is associated with dysfunctional adrenals. But so is a root chakra imbalance, as it governs the adrenal cortex.

I now understand it to be a dynamic system whereby changes in one chakra set off a destabilizing chain reaction in the others. Given the interplay between these chakras, different approaches could be complementary. So I adopted a few beneficial practices impacting all of them, or at least addressing major themes that they shared to some degree.

For me, those themes were mainly fear and issues surrounding surrender. In hindsight, most of my anxieties were linked with uncertainty and feeling uncomfortable, which I was wasting my time trying to avoid or control.

I have been using surrender affirmations in an attempt to open the heart chakra, and I learned to accept uncertainty as part of life, which is healing to the sacral chakra. To balance the root chakra, I sought new ways to ground myself (music, barefoot walking) as well as a healthy outlet, such as journaling or creative writing, for my feelings.

I also knew that consciousness shifts can affect multiple chakras, and I thought of the practice of mindfulness as the closest that we have to an instruction manual for human consciousness. It is a good way to deal with those issues without using pharmaceuticals like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that have a high dependence potential and side effects.

decoding-burn-out-syndrome-an-adrenal-fatigue-her-story

An integrated treatment approach

Alongside chakra balancing, I received guidance to engage the parasympathetic system based on The Kalish Method. Its author, Dr Daniel Kalish uses comprehensive lab tests to uncover the hidden root causes of adrenal fatigue.

I had some of those labs done, including a DUTCH hormone panel and a Genova CDSA stool testing. The hormone panel confirmed that I was in the alarm stage of adrenal fatigue, with very low sex hormones, significantly higher free cortisol compared to metabolized cortisol, low melatonin and high DHEA driven by stress. The CDSA test revealed low digestive enzymes, a weak gallbladder, limited growth of beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria and an overgrowth of Klebsiella Oxytoca - a bacterial strain that can cause serious gut issues.

The treatment protocol was majoritarily centered around dietary approaches aimed at improving the gut biome and replenishing certain nutrients used in greatly increased quantities during high stress states. Examples include B vitamins like niacin (involved in the NADP-NADPH enzymes of the adrenal cascade), vitamin C, magnesium and vitamin E.

In the short-term, I utilized a very helpful template called the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol (AIP), which neatly cuts almost all antinutrient-containing foods and dietary contributors to overworked adrenal glands. In the long-term, I supported the adrenals with regular meals to prevent dysglycemia while still avoiding some of the biggest culprits.

The solution always starts with food, but as it turned out that was only half the solution. I found solace in a wide range of lifestyle modifications designed to decrease the mental, emotional and physical stress load, including but not limited to: moderate exercise as opposed to overtraining; minimizing commitments and creating some free uncommitted time everyday; sleeping in late whenever possible; and recognizing and eliminating “energy robbers.”

Therapeutic sessions that keep the autonomic nervous system in better balance, like chiropractic care, massage, reiki, acupuncture, aromatherapy, were an important part of my recovery too.

Within a few weeks of implementation, I noticed a big difference in mood and reactivity. I was also able to sleep soundly for eight uninterrupted hours for the first time in months, and bowel movements normalized.

According to specialists, mild adrenal fatigue with proper treatment takes about six months to subside, while moderate adrenal fatigue takes a year to 18 months and severe adrenal burnout takes up to two years or longer. Right now, I am about nine months post-treatment, and I obtain a lot of relief from applying all of the combined strategies mentioned in this article.

I gained a whole new appreciation of self-healing through mind and body throughout my personal journey with adrenal fatigue. It also sparked in me the desire to help others who are struggling to understand this complex disease, like I once did.

decoding-burn-out-syndrome-an-adrenal-fatigue-her-story

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Camille Bienvenu

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