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So, How Are Your Adrenals Doing?

Adrenal fatigue is a term you have probably heard. It’s become more mainstream, as more people realize they have it. When I look at our members, I see hard working people. Not just in the gym. But home, work, play, everywhere. We commute to work, we take our kids to practices, we have employees, we have bosses, and in between we have Facebook. So what does this have to do with those little adrenal glands? In a word: STRESS.

First, what are the adrenal glands? Well, in this picture, they look like tiny T-bone steaks...

They are the two glands that sit atop the kidneys. They are small, about 3 inches long and 1.5 inches high. However, they are responsible for the secretion of very important hormones:

  1. Epinephrine (Adrenalin) and Norepinephrine (Noradrenalin) -->Fight or Flight

  2. Cortisol -->Blood sugar regulation, immune response, heart and blood vessel toning, central nervous system stimulation, stress reaction normalization

  3. Aldosterone-->Balances sodium and potassium in the bloodstream

  4. Sex hormones, DHEA, Pregnenalone --> Antioxidant, tissue repair, anti-aging, balances cortisol

What is the relationship between stress and these hormones?

These hormones work together with organs in the HPA Axis to keep your body in homeostasis. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenals function as the HPA Axis. It works like the thermostat in your house. In theoretical terms, if your homeostasis is 70 degrees, and Fran takes you to 110 degrees, these organs turn on and start secreting hormones to get you back to 70 degrees. Just like the heat going on in your home when you open a window on a snowy day. But, the trigger could be anything stressful, the body does not differentiate between what the stimulus is. Maybe it’s Fran, maybe it’s a deadline, maybe it’s a fight you had in the car with your spouse, a grumpy email from your boss, a picture of your ex enjoying an amazing night with his/her new companion on Instagram…anything. Consider the things you see when you scroll through Facebook. Here’s what’s on my feed right now:

“Beware of Facebook Posts Asking users Type ‘Amen’ to Help Children, Adults or Animals.”

Most attention-grabbing ads/posts are designed to elicit an emotional response. Whether you realize it or not, that is stress. When you have an emotional response, like fear (of weirdos asking you to say Amen on FB), the hypothalamus/pituitary communicate with the adrenals to whip into action. This is a primal response programmed in your body for survival, for things like running from an enemy or hunting for food. This system in our bodies has not adapted to the constant drip of stress we now encounter day to day. So our hormones function the same way for any type of stressor, and take action. Let’s talk about what that looks like:

Cortisol is secreted throughout the day and night, and can be sporadic from person to person. But it should be at its height in the morning at about 8:00am, to wake you up. That’s when it should peak. Then it should steadily decline with a few spikes here and there, until its lowest point, at bedtime. When it is called into action, this hormone gets your blood pumping to deal with the glucose that’s being dumped into your blood. Because your body thinks you are gearing up to run from a bear. But really, you just opened your inbox to 100 emails.

Adrenalin, elicited when something specific happens, not like the steady flow of cortisol, pulls all that increased blood flow, oxygen, and energy into your muscles, lungs, and heart. Because your body thinks you’re running from a bear. But really, you’re experiencing road rage at rush hour.

Aldosterone works like cortisol in that it’s parasympathetic and is steadily and always balancing the sodium and potassium in your bodily fluid. Continued stress will lead to an imbalance where sodium and potassium need to be pulled from fluid surrounding your organs to stay in balance. As an athlete, this may feel like poor recovery, stiff muscles, and slowed regeneration of broken down muscle groups.

Bottom line. Here are potential signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue:

  • Difficulty getting up in the morning

  • Craving salt or salty foods

  • Lack of energy

  • Increased effort to do everyday tasks

  • Decreased libido

  • Increased time to recover from illness, injury, or trauma

  • Light headed when standing up quickly

  • Mild depression

  • Less enjoyment in life

  • Increased PMS

  • Constantly needing to snack or drink soda/coffee

  • Fuzzy thinking/less focused

  • Memory less accurate

  • Not really awake until mid morning

  • Energy lull in afternoon between 3:00 and 4:00pm

  • “Second wind” after dinner/late evening

  • Trouble falling asleep

  • Everyone annoys you/more irritable

  • Trouble staying asleep

  • Weight gain

Considerations for the CrossFitter

  • First off, get your nutrition together. (Haaaaayyyy challengers *high fives*)

  • Listen to your body-if injuries are not healing, if you are always sore, if you are experiencing lethargy in workouts, take a rest day.

  • Consider when you workout. Are you fueled before your workout? Do you have recovery fuel within 30 minutes of working out?

  • Feeling amped up after a workout is a natural physiological response, but if you continually feel a crash, rather than energized, post workouts you may be overdoing it.

  • Have you seen a decrease in your performance, a drop in your results? Make sure you get outside the box, do something outside, change it up, and rest.

  • Are you unmotivated? Feeling like working out is a drag/not fun anymore? Again, rest. Or give yourself a break at the gym. Back off on the weights or intensity. Keep your body moving, but take a week or two without red lining it.

  • My personal opinion, is I think it's great to periodically, maybe 2-4 times per year, take a week off.

Nutritional suggestions to support adrenals:

  • Eat whole foods, varied, close to a ratio of 40% carbs, 30% fat, 30% protein

  • Intake of electrolytes after workouts (sodium and potassium)

  • Eat foods with lots of Vitamin C (strawberries, pears, kale, cherries, kiwi)

  • Eat often, 4-6 meals a day

  • Eat lots of colored vegetables

  • Consider supplementing with Vitamin C (500-1,000 mg), and magnesium at night (around 300 mg)

  • Avoid stimulants like coffee and soda

  • Avoid sugar


  • Relax (whatever that means to you)

  • Meditate

  • Take an electronics break one hour before bed. No phones, tv, or laptops for that time, and definitely not in bed

  • Find ways to laugh

  • Move if you work an office job-walk or stretch

  • Get some sun on your face

  • Find ways to have fun time with those you are closest to. Make sure life with your family/loved ones, especially, is not all business all the time

  • Be creative/get inspired-get out of the grind. Creativity comes in all kinds of forms-it might mean taking a class to learn something new, write, go to a movie and then discuss it with someone, go to a concert, make a new recipe, nerdy stuff that Matt does on weekends that I have no idea what's happening, tinker with a bunch of raw materials and then magically make treasure boxes like Ryan does, whatever makes you happy!

On Saturday, I will be chatting in more detail about this topic! I will have a questionnaire for you that will give us some insight into your specific adrenal activity/stress. We’ll do some problem solving with those results. And I will also dive into the topics in this blog with a little more depth! All are welcome, and this will be great information for those of you doing the nutrition challenges!

Source: Wilson, J. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. 2001. Smart Publications: Petaluma, CA.

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