Adrenal Fatigue and the Athlete

If you are falling flat in your training, you may need more than a diet tweak or a different workout plan.

We’ve all heard of adrenal fatigue, but what the heck is it? And more importantly, how do you spot it before it creates problems? These questions are important considering the condition impacts 80 percent of Americans at some time in their lives.

Adrenal Fatigue 101

Also known as “chronic stress,” Dr. James Wilson defines adrenal fatigue as “a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a syndrome, that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level.” The adrenal glands are responsible for balancing and regulating hormones in your body – namely cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps you deal with the “little fires” you experience any given day, including:

  • The annoyance of sitting in traffic
  • Minor injuries
  • Frequent high intensity workouts with inadequate recovery
  • Digesting processed food items and artificial ingredients
  • Low water intake
  • Eating on the go
  • Frequent usage of NSAIDs
  • Allergies and 24-hour bugs
  • Work deadlines and demands
  • Relationship spats
  • Laundry lists of “to-dos”
  • Anything else that threatens homeostasis

Hitting full-speed CrossFit metcons 6 days a week is a great way to break your body down. [Photo courtesy Cara Kobernik]

While stress is normal and a guarantee in life, when you experience constant stress over a prolonged period of time, your body can only take so much before breaking down. Try as your body may to fight, with little relief in sight, adrenal fatigue manifests in some of these common signs and symptoms:

  • General fatigue and weakness, especially in the morning and afternoon
  • Suppressed immunity
  • Difficulty losing or gaining weight
  • Increased allergies
  • 3pm “crashes” and headaches
  • Feeling wired and tired at night
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor recovery between workouts or plateaus in progress
  • Running on fumes every day
  • Anxiety, stress, and depression
  • Digestive distress
  • Cravings for foods high in salt, sugar, or fat
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Muscle and bone loss and muscular weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic headaches
  • Skin problems
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Increased PMS or menopausal symptoms
  • Low sex drive
  • Lightheadedness when getting up from sitting or lying down
  • Decreased ability to handle stress
  • Trouble waking up in the morning (despite a full night’s sleep)
  • Dizziness

Steps to Healing

If you think you might be suffering from adrenal fatigue, do the following:

Don’t self-diagnose. Know the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue so you can find professional help. Schedule an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner who can run appropriate tests. Thanks to technology and the way many practitioners work, this can be accomplished remotely if you can’t find a practitioner in your area.

Change your lifestyle. Sometimes the simplest lifestyle shifts can make a big difference:

  • Get a little more consistent sleep
  • Up water intake. Drink at least half your bodyweight (measured in pounds) in ounces per day.
  • Remove processed diet and sports supplement foods, and replace them with whole foods.
  • Add an extra rest (or active rest) day during the week.
  • Vary your workout intensity levels, and focus more on body-building style strength rather than pushing hard with WODs and heavy weights
  • “Candle down” before bed. Shut off screens. Read a book. Dim the lights. Take a warm shower.
  • Find encouragement and support to ‘not sweat the small stuff.’

Take a probiotic or eat probiotic foods 1-2 times per day. A healthy gut contributes to healthier hormonal balance.

Sprinkle, sprinkle. A pinch of sea salt in water is a great energy booster and adrenal balancer, as sodium and potassium levels tend to be off in adrenal fatigue.

Use safe supplements. Consult with a knowledgeable practitioner before using “over-the-counter” adrenal supplements. However, two great arsenals for feeling better include essential oils (especially lavender) and AdrenaCalm, a topical cream by APEX Energetics created to soothe and support crazy adrenals.

Read up. I recommend the book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by Dr. James Wilson, as well as his website. Dr. Michael Lam also has a website with a wealth of information.

Combat Fatigue With Knowledge

If you experience constant fatigue or a plateau in your training, you might find yourself saying things like, “If I just dial in my diet some more,” or “If I just add in a little cardio…” But what you really need is rest, permission to de-stress, a careful look at your nutrition, and education.

The majority of us will experience adrenal fatigue at some point in our lives. Knowledge is power, so take steps today to prevent problems in the future. 

Just what is stress doing to your training, anyway?

Lower Stress to Increase Fitness