The adrenal imbalance epidemic

A hidden health epidemic is affecting Type-A exercisers. Here’s what you need to know.

Ever feel like you can get through a workout, but nothing else in your busy schedule? Going to work, running errands, even socializing totally saps your energy. But when you're breaking a sweat at the gym, you feel better, more alert and strong. If this sounds familiar, you may have an adrenal imbalance.

What Is Adrenal Imbalance?

The adrenals are tiny endocrine glands, located right above the kidneys, which secrete hormones, such as cortisol, adrenaline and DHEA, to help you heal from daily stressors such as fear, anger, inflammation, low blood sugar and even caffeine. When these stresses become too demanding on a regular basis, your adrenals can get thrown out of whack. “The first phase is when the adrenals are in overdrive—they're outputting too much to deal with an acute stress,” says Gabrielle Francis, DC, ND, a holistic physician based in NYC. “If you continue to have a surplus for long enough, you can go into adrenal fatigue. If this isn't treated, over time you will move onto adrenal exhaustion, which is when almost every category of hormone is depleted. It's almost like your battery has lost its juice.”

Who Gets It?

“Adrenal imbalance is an epidemic of modern culture,” agrees Francis, found most often in Type A personalities, perfectionists and workaholics. “Rather than slow down and build more balance, most people who admit to feeling fatigued will just go harder, feeding off the small buzz from fired-up adrenals,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, whose book Stressaholic is due out in February. “Exercise is a great way to do that. It gives you that quick hit of energy, which lets you ignore your symptoms,” she adds. “Problem is, working out is stressful in itself, and though it triggers the release of cortisol and feel-good endorphins, your body might not have the resilience it needs on the cellular level to repair itself.”

How Can You Treat It?

Getting more quality sleep, as in 8 to 10 hours a night, will help, but it won't be enough to hit the reset button. There are so many hormones and neurotransmitters involved that treatment is really unique to the individual. “You can have 10 people who have adrenal fatigue, and they will each have different patterns of imbalance of the gland,” Francis says. If you're interested in working with a holistic doctor, you can find one near you through the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Acupuncturists, chiropractors and integrative doctors may also be able to diagnose your imbalance. Once you pinpoint the problem, you might be put on a nutrition and herbal supplement plan to help repair your imbalance. “It could take anywhere from two months to a year, depending on your lifestyle,” Francis says.