The Burnout Epidemic: Adrenal Fatigue


Do you have clients who see you regularly with skin, hair or weight problems that never seem to make a significant breakthrough, no matter how hard you – or they – try?

As aesthetics and wellness therapists, you see clients often at their most vulnerable and a bond of trust generally develops as you help them overcome issues that concern them. In this zone they may confide in you about things they don’t even tell their partner, family or close friends.

So if you are not achieving the results they/you are seeking, it might be time to start opening conversations that include questions like:

  • Are you tired for no reason?
  • Do you have trouble getting up in the morning?
  • Do you depend on coffee to keep you going?
  • Are you feeling run down and stressed?
  • Are you dragging yourself through each day?
  • Do you crave salty or sweet snacks?
  • Do you struggle to keep up with life’s daily demands?
  • Are you unable to bounce back from stress or illness?
  • Not having fun anymore?
  • Are you experiencing decreased sex drive (this topic will take considerable subtlety and may not be appropriate to raise)?
  • Do you often feel too tired to enjoy life?

If one or more of the above questions ring true for them, it may indicate adrenal fatigue … a slow, insidious burnout that is too-little recognised, according to Dr James L. Wilson, a world-leading researcher on the subject and a keynote speaker at the annual Australasian Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine (A5M) conference in Melbourne over the weekend.

Stress-related adrenal fatigue is so common, he says, that an estimated 80 percent or more of people in Western-developed nations suffer from it at some time in their lives.

‘Adrenal fatigue occurs when adrenal gland function becomes less than optimal – usually as a result of stress,’ Dr Wilson told SPA+CLINIC.

Dr Wilson at the annual conference of the Australasian Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine 

‘Overwhelming stress from the workplace, relationships, social isolation and loneliness are key factors. Yet recognition and diagnosis is remarkably difficult; it is frequently overlooked and misunderstood by the medical community.’

In 1998, Dr Wilson coined the term ‘adrenal fatigue’ to identify a specific kind of chronic tiredness that many people experience. He says it can affect anyone who undergoes frequent, persistent or severe mental, emotional or physical stress and that adrenal function can also be an important factor in health issues ranging from allergies to obesity.

His best-selling book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, has become something of a bible for sufferers of this inexplicable burnout, fatigue and general ‘dis-ease’.

book cover

No bigger than a walnut and weighing less than a grape, each of the two adrenal glands sit like a tiny pyramid on top of a kidney (‘ad’ ‘renal’ means ‘over’ the ‘kidneys’).

‘But don’t let their size fool you,’ says Dr Wilson. ‘These powerful little endocrine glands manufacture and secrete steroid hormones such as cortisol, oestrogen and testosterone that are essential for life, health and vitality.

‘They modulate the functioning of every tissue, organ and gland in your body to maintain homeostasis during stress and keep you alive. They also have important effects on the way you think and feel.

‘The main purpose of your adrenals is to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship problems.

The adrenals largely determine the energy of the body’s responses to every change in the internal and external environment.

‘Whether they signal attack, retreat or surrender, every cell responds accordingly, and you feel the results. It is through the actions of the adrenal hormones that the body is able to mobilise its resources to escape or fight off danger (stress) and survive.

‘In a more primitive society that would mean being able to run away quickly, fight or pursue an enemy or game, endure long periods of physical challenge and deprivation, and store up physical reserves when they are available.’

Dr Wilson explains that, in modern society, these same responses are triggered by such circumstances as a difficult boss, air pollution, family quarrels, financial problems, too little sleep, infections and overindulgence in or sensitivities to food or substance abuse.

‘If your adrenal function is low, as it is in adrenal fatigue, your body has difficulty responding and adapting properly to these stresses,* he says.’This can lead to a variety of physical and psychological health problems that are themselves a further source of stress.’

For example, the protective activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant adrenal hormones like cortisol helps to minimise reactions such as swelling and inflammation in situations ranging from allergies to autoimmune disorders. These hormones closely modulate many metabolic processes, including:

  • Utilisation of carbohydrates and fats
  • Conversion of fats and proteins into energy
  • Distribution of stored fat – especially around the waist (the spare tire) and at the sides of the face
  • Normal blood sugar regulation
  • Proper cardiovascular function
  • Gastrointestinal function

‘After mid-life (menopause in women), the adrenal glands gradually become the major source of the sex hormones circulating throughout the body in both men and women,’ says Dr Wilson.

‘These hormones themselves have a whole host of physical, emotional and psychological effects, from the level of your sex drive to the tendency to gain weight. Every athlete knows that steroids (adrenal hormones) affect muscular strength and stamina.

‘Even your propensity to develop certain kinds of diseases and your ability to respond to chronic illness is influenced significantly by the adrenal glands.

‘Adrenal fatigue can wreak havoc with a person’s life. In the more serious cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that theymay have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours per day.

‘With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in the body is more profoundly affected. Changes occur in your carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart and cardiovascular system, and even sex drive.

‘Many other alterations take place at the biochemical and cellular levels in response to and to compensate for the decrease in adrenal hormones that occurs with adrenal fatigue. The body does its best to make up for under-functioning adrenal glands, but it does so at a price.’

Dr Wilson has established an Adrenal Fatigue Supplement Program that combines suggestions about lifestyle, diet, rest and body-mind techniques with specific recommendations for dietary supplementation, available through licensed practitioners. For further information contact the A5M.;

Dr Wilson has three doctorates and two master’s degrees in different health-related disciplines. He received his PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Arizona, with minors in Immunology, Microbiology, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and research in Cellular Immunology. His doctorates in Chiropractic Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine are from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College and the Ontario College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). As one of the 14 founding members of CCNM, now the largest Naturopathic College in the world, Dr Wilson has long been on the forefront of alternative medicine. For over 25 years, he was in private practice in Canada and the US. 

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