Every one of us has experienced burnout in our lives. Whether it’s from exercise, lack of sleep, stress, or all of the above, burnout can rear it’s ugly head quickly and make it difficult to function optimally everyday. In alternative medicine circles, burnout is often referred to as adrenal fatigue. The adrenal glands regulate a number of our circulating hormones such as cortisol, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The adrenals act as the first responders to any stressful situation and will turn on our ‘fight or flight’ response by increasing adrenaline, cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. Cortisol, also called the stress hormone, is very important to natural function and serves to keep us alert, mobilize fats and proteins to be used as energy, and maintains heart rate and blood pressure.
The adrenal system has evolved to act instantaneously and last only a short duration (picture running away from a bear). The burst of cortisol and adrenaline we get from a well functioning adrenal system could mean the difference between life and death 10,000 years ago and today could mean the difference between a make or a miss on a deadlift PR. What the adrenal system was not evolved to handle is the chronic, long term stress that people are faced with daily in our society. Daily elevated stress levels coupled with inadequate sleep and poor nutrition can lead to chronic elevations in cortisol levels, which can wreak havoc on the body. Some of the effects of high cortisol include: reduced muscle mass and bone density, increased fat gain, weakening of the immune system, low energy, and impairment or digestion, mental function, and hormonal function. If you think you might have chronic adrenal fatigue, there are a few steps you should take to remedy this:
Sleep - One of the most important things to do when you’re burned out is sleep naturally. It may be difficult if you have a busy life, but do everything you can to improve your sleep quality. Buy a more comfortable matress, use a sleep mask, wear ear plugs, get a noise machine, or take a natural calming supplement like melatonin or Natural Calm tea. Another supplement that I really love for pre-bed (and building strong bones) is zinc magnesium aspartate (ZMA). You’ll feel much more refreshed if you can wake up without an alarm, so try to time your sleep cycles if possible. Each cycle is about 90 minutes long, so shoot for either 5 (7.5 hours) or 6 (9 hours) cycles and try to wake up naturally. If you have spare money lying around and want to look really geeky while you’re sleeping, check out the Zeo. It’s possible my girlfriend will break up with me if I buy this.
Reduce Stimulants - Sleeping more and waking up without an alarm should set you on the path towards doing this. Coffee, Red Bull, and other stimulants are designed to take advantage of the adrenal response and give us more energy and make us more alert. When you do this repeatedly in an unnatural way, you will be continuously spiking your cortisol, leaving you prone to the effects I discussed earlier. Cutting down stimulants and sleeping more soundly with have positive feedback on each other. If you can cut out all coffee after noon, you’ll sleep better and will further reduce your dependency on coffee by doing so.
Eat - As I mentioned earlier, chronic elevations in cortisol can take a serious toll on digestion, immune function, and hormonal activity in your body. In order to restore healthy metabolic function, it’s crucial to eat a lot of quality food in order to help your body recover from adrenal fatigue. This means healthy protein to rebuild muscle, healthy fats to rebuild other cells, and a heavy dose of vitamins and minerals from vegetables and fruit. To aid in rebuilding your digestion, it may be wise to use digestive enzymes (I like now foods superenzyme) as well as getting good probiotics with active cultures in the form of a supplement or fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut.
Moderate Exercise Intensity - Long duration exercise, whether high or low intensity, will cause a hefty release of cortisol. Doing this type of exercise at high frequency week after week can contribute significantly to adrenal burnout. Combine this type of exercise with poor nutrition, poor sleep, and high stress, and you have a potent mix of factors that will shoot cortisol through the roof. If you feel that you’re completely burned out, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is take an entire week off from high intensity effort. Since adrenal fatigue impairs your body’s recovery ability, continuing to train hard will only dig you into a deeper hole. Take a week to work on technique and mobility. Go for a few walks or a light jog. Play an easy set of tennis. By the end of the week, you’ll be chomping at the bit to get back in the gym and your body will be fully recovered by the time you do.
As strange as it sounds, most of the improvement you make in the gym is not because of what you do in the gym. The way you sleep, eat, and take care of your body on a daily basis will ultimately govern the rate at which you can advance your fitness. Remember that improvement is based on supercompensating to the stress you impose on your body in the gym. If your adrenals are too burned out to let your body recovery and adapt to your training, your progress will stop abruptly.
Train hard, sleep soundly, and eat well!