BY JO-ANN LORBER – FIREHOUSE.com
How many fire service professionals do you know who are attached to their smartphones, iPads, are up all night running emergency calls, then go to their part-time job or jobs after they get off shift? Let me guess…lots! Ladies and gentlemen, we are pushing the envelope day and night. We are trying to do so much to get ahead or stay afloat, that we have forgotten to come up for air. Now our bodies are beginning to pay the price.
Adrenal fatigue is probably one of the most under-diagnosed and under-recognized conditions by physicians and other healthcare providers. However, it is estimated to affect 80 percent of people in the world. Chronic stress and lifestyle affects the body’s ability to recuperate from physical, mental or emotional stress. Whether for a short time, or a chronic condition, most people will struggle with adrenal fatigue at some point in their life. As firefighters, we have an increased chance of getting this disease as we are constantly on the go. Our work schedules and the unpredictability of calls wreak havoc on our bodies. Adrenaline soars and dips, our sleep is constantly interrupted, and fatigue eventually becomes something we just live with on a daily basis.
Functions of your adrenal glands
Your body has two adrenal glands, located just above each of your kidneys. As part of your endocrine system, your adrenal glands secrete more than 50 hormones, many of which are essential for life. They include:
- Glucocorticoids—(cortisol) helps your body convert food into energy, normalize blood sugar, respond to stress and maintain your immune system’s inflammatory response.
- Mineralocorticoids—(aldosterone) helps keep your blood pressure and blood volume normal by maintaining a proper balance of sodium, potassium and water in your body.
- Adrenaline—this hormone increases your heart rate and controls blood flow to your muscles and brain (fight or flight), along with helping the conversion of glycogen to glucose in your liver.
Ironically, although your adrenal glands are there in large part to help you cope with stress, too much of it is actually what causes their function to break down. In other words, your heart rate and blood pressure increases, your digestion slows, and your body becomes ready to face a potential threat or challenge (i.e. structure fire, rollover crash, high-angle rescue, marine fire, etc.).
While this response is necessary and good when it is needed, many of us are constantly faced with stressors such as: shift work, environmental toxins, lack of sleep, worry, relationship problems, excessive exercise, chronic inflammation, infection, illness or pain, and nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, we are in “fight or flight” mode far too long—much longer than was ever intended from a biological standpoint.
When your adrenal glands become depleted, it leads to a decrease in certain hormone levels, particularly cortisol. The deficiencies in certain adrenal hormones will vary in each person, ranging from mild to severe. In its most extreme form, this is referred to as Addison’s disease, a condition that causes muscle weakness, weight loss, low blood pressure and low blood sugar, and can be life threatening. Fortunately, only about four people per 100,000 develop Addison’s disease, (which is due to autoimmune disease in most cases, but can also develop after very severe stress). At the other end of the spectrum, as well as in between, lies adrenal fatigue. Though the symptoms are less severe than in Addison’s disease, they can be debilitating.
Signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Fatigue and lethargy are some of the most common complaints among adult patients. You may have adrenal fatigue if you have a few of the symptoms listed below:
- Fatigue and weakness, especially in the morning and afternoon
- A suppressed immune system
- Increased allergies
- Cravings for foods high in salt, sugar or fat
- Hormonal imbalance
- Autoimmune disorders
- Low sex drive
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Trouble waking up in the morning, despite a full night’s sleep
- Poor memory
Many people diagnosed with adrenal fatigue often get a burst of energy around 6 p.m., followed by sleepiness at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. (which is often resisted). A “second wind” at 11 p.m. is common, which often keeps you from falling asleep until 1 a.m. if not later. To get through our days at work or at home, we rely on coffee, soda, and other forms of caffeine to keep us going until that “second or third wind.”
There are two simple tests that either a holistic or functional medicine doctor can do: a blood test or a saliva test. The test that will recognize adrenal fatigue in any of its stages is a salivary cortisol test. This is an inexpensive test that you can purchase online and do at home, as no prescription is needed. However, if you suspect you have adrenal fatigue, a knowledgeable healthcare provider can help you with a diagnosis and treatment.
The road to recovery: a natural and simple approach
First and foremost, remember that it took time to burn out your adrenal glands. As you might suspect, it will also take time to recover.
You can expect:
- Six to nine months of recovery time for minor adrenal fatigue
- 12 to 18 months for moderate adrenal fatigue
- Up to 24 months for severe adrenal fatigue
The good news is that natural treatments are very effective for this syndrome. With time and patience, it is possible to recover.
A balanced approach
The four areas that require your attention the most, are:
- Remove stressors: The most important thing is to remove the stressor from your life or have powerful tools and strategies to address the current and/or past emotional traumas in your life (prayers, meditation, counseling, etc.).
- Listen to your body: Rest when you feel tired and sleep in if you can.
- Exercise regularly: Use a comprehensive program of strength, aerobic, core, and interval training. I suggest trying yoga as it will assist you in flexibility and mediating (quieting your mind).
- Eat nutritious meals: Eating a healthy nutrient-dense diet increases energy, provides your body with essential vitamins and minerals, improves your resistance to illness, and helps you to maintain your ideal weight.
Treating adrenal fatigue requires a whole-body approach, one that addresses the excess stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits that wore out your adrenals in the first place. While we can’t just quit our jobs and lie in hammocks at the beach, we do need to take a step back and take a deep breath from time to time. Figuring out our primary stressors and either eliminating them or reducing their impact will go a long way toward a healthier and happier you.
JO-ANN LORBER is a battalion chief for the City of Fort Lauderdale, FL. She has been with Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue since January 1996. Chief Lorber holds associates’ degrees in Liberal Arts and Fire Science Technology, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Management, and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Florida Atlantic University. Chief Lorber is a 2006 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). She has been awarded Chief Fire Officer (CFO) and Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) designations.