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What does it mean when I have "adrenal fatigue?"

Several of my patients have come in with the diagnosis of “adrenal fatigue” they got from a holistic practitioner (doctor, chiropractor, natural path, osteopath, etc). Often, they buy some “natural” substance that is supposed to give them “adrenal support.”

Chinese Medicine. In typical Chinese medicine (TCM), we look at the adrenal glands as part of the “Kidney System.” We attribute certain functions and symptoms to particular organs that don’t necessarily correlate to the organ’s functions in Western Medicine/allopathic medicine. Chinese Medicine sees how organs impact one another and affect each other.

Looking at the endocrine system.The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system. They are actually located on top of each kidney. There basically are two “parts” of the adrenal glands that have different functions.

  • The core or medulla of the adrenal gland produces epinephrine and norepinephrine. These are both hormones that are responsible for the”fight or flight” response.

  • The cortex, which surrounds the core, is responsible for the body’s fluid and electrolyte balance and secretes corticosteroids. The corticosteroids areour own natural anti-inflammatory mechanism. They are responsible for the proper metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Our ancestors infrequently and briefly called upon their “fight and flight” systems but then were able to recuperate and recharge quickly. Modern day people are drawing upon their fight/flight systems continuously and over long periods of time without the benefit of “recharging.”

What happens. Often, keeping up with all of the “balls in the air” that make up our daily lives, we end up exhausting our adrenals (Kidneys and then the Spleen). We end up being overwhelmed on many levels: organs, emotionally, spiritually. We may amaze ourselves by how long we go without any “problems,” but the moment we can actually “let down” and relax, we get sick. Many people have told me they got really sick on vacation or when they finished a major project. And then, once they get sick, they don’t seem to bounce back very quickly.

Non-specific symptoms. Some non-specific symptoms that we may experience when our adrenal glands are not functioning optimally (or when we have “adrenal fatigue, deficient Kidneys and/or deficient Spleen”) include: fatigue, cravings of sweet or salty food, poor digestion, reduced sex drive, impaired memory, difficulty in focusing, anxiety, depression, irritability, feeling weak and/or tired, and sore muscles and joints.

Improving health. So, what does a TCM practioner do to get a person back to optimal health? We work with the client on changing their lifestyle to one that supports them. That can include prescribing herbal formulas that build and support the Kidney System. It also may be necessary to get weekly acupuncture treatments especially during the winter months if you are suffering from “adrenal fatigue.”

Your Diet. Dietary changes such as cooked vegetables (sautéed or steamed); stews with bones added to make a richer broth and seasonal vegetables are all beneficial. Try to use organic meats and dairy products. There are many preservatives added to most meat. Animals are fed antibiotics and hormones – these will impact a person greatly in the long run by effecting their immune systems.

Probiotics. I also recommend that everyone should take a quality probiotic daily. (Julian Whitaker has a very good probiotic. Call 1-800-722-8008). Probiotics help because our immune system is compromised after taking antibiotics. There are lymph nodes in our large intestine. These are part of a lymphatic system that works throughout the body filtering it. In Chinese Medicine, we see the GI Tract as being compromised when antibiotics are ingested. That is why we also build the digestive tract or Spleen (you will here me speak about the Spleen often!) especially after a person has had an infection. A healthy gastrointestinal tract makes a healthy person – and probiotics can help!

Other helpful diet hints. If you have blood sugar issues, limit the amount of fruityou eat each day. Fruits that have lower sugar levels are apples, papaya, plums, mango, pears, and cherries. A person who suffers from “adrenal fatigue” should limit his/her intake of coffee, alcohol, and chocolate. Water, goat’s milk, green tea, herbal teas, natural vegetable juices, and carob (in place of chocolate) are healthy choices.

Best practice. The most important thing you can do for yourself is to have “quiet time” where you can be without any interruption for at least 20 minutes every day. Perhaps start your day before you get involved in your activities with quiet time to reflect and appreciate what you have and the people who make you smile. Taking 5 minutes of “doing nothing” will rejuvenate your spirit.

If morning doesn’t work, figure out a time to relax during the working day. Is it possible to take a few minutes at lunch time to get outside and walk around? If there is no way you can leave the building? How about walking in some quiet hallways? Or perhaps you can close the door, and close your eyes. Eat lunch away from your work computer. It is best to eat in an area away from work.

Exercise. Aerobic exercise for 20-30 minutes is important to do at least 3 times/week. Or you can break this time up into shorter segments. Keep moving – even though you feel stiff after being still in a chair or standing for a period of time. Winter’s cold and damp weather effects our joints, tendons and ligaments.

I always advocate taking Tai Qi/Qi Gong or Yoga classes for people who are feeling deficient or run down. You build flexibility, strength, and learn how to breathe.

A schedule. Go to bed every night at the same time. Turn off computers and electronic devices 1 hour before bedtime. Try not to eat 3 hours before bedtime. Each of these practices will help you sleep better!

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