The adrenals are the glands of stress.  They are no larger than a walnut and sit on top of the kidneys just above the 12th rib.  Under normal functioning conditions the adrenals secrete precise and balanced amounts of hormones (epinephrine and cortisol) that keep our bodies functioning in the ever-changing environment of stress and recovery.  However, when chronic stress outpaces the ability to recover, adrenal fatigue may ensue.  Think of overdrawing your bank account and leaving a negative balance.  When the adrenals are fatigued the account is compromised.  Here’s how it works:


The HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis) functions as a negative feedback loop.

“The hypothalamus can fail under the demands of heavy training (Barron et al. 1985).  When chronic stress alters the HPA axis, the negative feedback system is altered.  This may be the result of poor training methods using excessive volume, and/or other lifestyle choices that can leave the system compromised and tired. 

Cortisol is an important hormone in regulating daily function.  Here are just a few responsibilities it provides for maintaining homeostasis.


If the adrenals are out of gas, they stop producing enough cortisol for everyday function and homeostasis is altered.  Here are a few of the possible side effects:

I would imagine a large portion of the population (athlete or not) has at one point or another fallen into one of the categories above.  If you suspect adrenal fatigue, here are 5 steps to recovery.

1.)   Drink Single Ingredient Beverages:  Caffeine increases adrenal function and depletes additional reserves.  Imagine continuing to draw money out of an account with a zero balance.  Penalties are the result.  If the adrenals are already fatigued, stressing them more by drinking colas, coffee and eating processed foods can increase visceral fat and further complicate recovery.

2.)   Take your Vitamin C: “Of all the vitamins and minerals involved in adrenal metabolism, vitamin C is probably the most important.  In fact, the more cortisol made, the more vitamin C used.”  (Wilson) Here are a few ways to incorporate this into your diet: vegetables and fruits, green leafy veggies, tomatoes, peppers.

3.)   Meal Frequency/Quality:  Try to eat at least 5-6 meals/day.  Pack snacks.  Going long periods without food drives blood sugar down.  The only way to normalize this is to increase cortisol levels that are already fatigued.  Normalizing blood sugar by increasing quantity and quality of meals is very important.  Eat real foods and avoid sweets and starchy foods (heavy bread/grains). 

4.)   Track your Stress:  Simple concept that we use with our athletes at DSC that you can incorporate in your daily life.  Rate your stress every day and see if your numbers improve over time.  Rank the following categories 1-5 below (1=100%, 5=Exhausted).

  1. Mood
  2. Overall Fatigue
  3. Muscle Soreness
  4. Stress

You can’t manage what you don’t measure.  If these numbers don’t improve continue to make small, but attainable lifestyle changes (sleep, quality nutrition, minimize stress, meditate, add recovery workouts).

5.)  Sleep:  Sleep controls mood, mood controls appetite, and appetite controls reproduction.  Sleep also aids in immune function and growth/repair.  In 1910 the average person slept 10 hours/night, now we’re lucky to get 5-6 hours of quality sleep.  Turn the lights out, close your eyes and sleep! 

Call it adrenal fatigue or just plain exhaustion.  Truth is most of us have felt this way before at one time or another in our lives.  The cumulative effects of stress can add up.  The best defense is a good offense.  The older I get, the more I realize that working in is just as important as working out.  Take small steps at improving your lifestyle and diet: sleep more, watch less, drink more water, eat your vegetables, make personal time, take your vitamins, learn to relax and have a little fun every once in a while. 


1.) Wilson, J., Adrenal Fatigue, Smart Publications, 2001.