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Stress, the Workplace, and Adrenal Fatigue


September 3, 2009 | Published by

stressed man at desk

How many companies do you know give an employee award for a balanced life? In reality, most businesses unknowingly encourage stress in the workplace. Many operate on a crisis to crisis basis, going from one urgent short term goal to the next. They reward and encourage the person who stays late and comes in early day after day. Missing lunches, pushing through fatigue, living for work, and adding extra responsibilities to an already full workload often earn applause rather than words of caution from superiors. We have created a culture in which many individuals take pride in how much stress they are under.

However, the physiological effects of stress often go unnoticed and build insidiously over time until they become too disruptive to ignore. Some people experience total burnout, but most just experience a gradual decline in their productivity, powers of concentration, ability to handle stress, energy and enthusiasm. They find themselves missing deadlines, getting sick, quarreling with coworkers, and playing catch-up more and more frequently. Understanding the changes that occur in your body as a result of stress may give you some insights that can help you design your workplace and your life to minimize these problems.

Stress affects everyone from the CEO to the entry level clerk in similar physiological ways. Your adrenal glands respond to every stress you experience by secreting hormones that mediate the many physiological accommodations your body must make to adapt to the stressor and maintain homeostasis. In physiology, these walnut-sized glands situated over your kidneys (hence their Latin name, ad-renal) are known as the “glands of stress” because their primary function is to produce adequate responses to all the stresses your body experiences. Stress elicits the same physiological reaction whether it is from a physical, psychological or emotional source.

At first your adrenal glands can adapt and increase their production of hormones to enable your body to handle more stress. However, these higher levels of circulating stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, can have detrimental effects on your body when they are repeatedly or chronically elevated. The damage they do then becomes an additional stressor. With continued stress and too little rest and replenishment to allow recovery between stressful times, your adrenal capacity to respond to stress gradually diminishes. I coined the term “adrenal fatigue” in 1998 to describe this state of low adrenal function.

Adrenal fatigue is a decrease in your body’s ability to respond to stress because your adrenal glands are no longer able to function optimally under stressful conditions. This dysfunction can range all the way from being mild enough to only slightly interfere with daily life, to being so severe that you become nearly incapacitated. In its more moderate forms adrenal fatigue has become a common occurrence in the workplace, affecting all occupations, work levels, body types and ages. Burnout and “breakdown” are severe types of adrenal fatigue caused by stress. People vary in their ability to withstand stress; some have congenitally low adrenal function due to maternal or inherited factors, and some lose hardiness through poor environment, lifestyle choices or illness. When chronic or severe, adrenal fatigue accelerates aging, and can have a negative impact on many aspects of health, including immune function, allergies, libido (lack of sex drive or function), blood sugar metabolism, hormone balance, sleep patterns and mental acuity.

Because the hormones secreted by your adrenal glands affect almost every gland, tissue and organ in your body, decreased adrenal function can manifest itself in a variety of ways. 85% of patient complaints to their medical doctor involve some sort of fatigue, but only adrenal fatigue produces this unique daily fluctuation in energy. The cardinal signs of this episodic daily fatigue pattern are:

  • Unexplained tiredness upon rising – even after 8-9 hours of sleep
  • Difficulty getting going or feeling awake in the morning without the help of caffeinated drinks such as coffee and cola beverages
  • Low energy in the mid to late afternoon lasting from 15 minutes to 2 hours that may be so slight you just want to sit for awhile or so severe you need to lay down
  • Renewed energy at around 6:00 PM that lasts until 9:30 or 10:00 PM (like a switch is turned on making you feel better than you have during most of the day)
  • New burst of energy around 11:00 PM that can last until 1-2 AM
  • Best, most refreshing sleep between 7-9 AM in the morning

What is unique about the typical adrenal fatigue energy pattern is its episodic waxing and waning throughout the day at specific time periods. No other fatigue pattern has this unique characteristic. If you recognize this energy pattern in yourself and you answered yes to the questions listed in my previous article, you are probably experiencing some level of adrenal fatigue.

Stress, the Workplace, and Adrenal Fatigue – Part 2

Stress, the Workplace, and Adrenal Fatigue – Part 3

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