Did you know: adrenal fatigue affects more than just the average citizen. Athletes can be at high risk to develop the condition if they don’t take the necessary precautions.
When you think of adrenal fatigue, what comes to mind?
Often, it’s visions of a middle-aged male/female. Especially one who has been quite stressed (for a long time) and eating a poor diet. But that’s not the only type of person to suffer from adrenal fatigue. Well-trained athletes are at high risk for developing adrenal fatigue.
Don’t think you’re fit enough to be an athlete?
Exercise done in excess, regardless of whether or not you’re an “athlete”, will put you at risk for developing adrenal fatigue. Weekend warriors and recreational exercise enthusiasts, pay attention to the below information. Adrenal fatigue has a tendency to sneak up on you!
What happens to your adrenals when you exercise?
Exercise is a stress to your body. When you exercise, your cortisol levels will rise. And they’ll generally stay elevated for a few hours after your exercise has concluded. Not to worry, this is beneficial.
So long as your exercise is of moderate duration and intensity, the stress it places on your body is beneficial. In general, exercise creates a modest demand on your body’s resources. Small stresses like this are beneficial for your body. These types of exercise-induced stress help to build your metabolic reserve.
Think of metabolic reserve as the capacity your body has to deal with stress. A healthy frequency and intensity of exercise help to train your body to better respond to life’s stress. Another way to think of metabolic reserve is as a bank account. An increase in your metabolic reserve is like a deposit to your bank account. Stress is a withdrawal from the same bank account. So long as your bank account stays in the black, the likelihood of you developing adrenal fatigue is low. Just make sure to continue making deposits!
In one study, researchers compared cortisol levels of recreational soccer players on exercise days and non-exercise days. The exercise of choice was a 90-minute intense aerobic class. Lots of running! (1)
On both workout days and non-workout days, the participant’s cortisol rhythm remained healthy and consistent. Remember, cortisol follows something called a diurnal rhythm which mimics the light-dark cycle of where you live. Cortisol should be at its highest level shortly after waking up. Your cortisol levels should then gradually decrease as the day progresses. Your cortisol reading should be at its lowest point shortly before bed. While you sleep, cortisol levels start to rise and the cycle starts again the next day.
When participants of the study engaged in exercise, researchers found that their cortisol levels increased a few hours after exercise. (2) Do you get tired in the afternoon? A morning exercise routine is a sure fire way to beat afternoon fatigue. Remember, low cortisol levels are associated with adrenal fatigue and low energy levels.
Exercise also helped to increase participants morning cortisol readings. (3) This translates into an increased ease of getting out of bed in the morning. If you hit the snooze for 30+ minutes each day, your cortisol levels are likely not rising first thing in the morning (like they should be). Try adding a moderate exercise regimen! It’s shown to increase morning cortisol readings.
What happens when exercise occurs at a very high intensity or for a long period of time? Is it still beneficial? Or, can this type of exercise cause adrenal fatigue?
Athletes and adrenal fatigue
Exercise does have a point of diminishing return. More exercise is not always better. In fact, too much exercise can actually cause adrenal fatigue, not cure it. If not careful, athletes and those who exercise intensely on a regular basis are at an increased risk for developing adrenal fatigue. This is why following a regimented training schedule is so advantageous – it ensures you don’t overtrain.
As you now know, moderate exercise causes a modest increase in cortisol. This is beneficial. But in intense exercise, cortisol levels rise to higher levels and stay elevated for longer. In marathon runners, cortisol levels will remain extremely elevated following a race. This can result in an increased risk of infection, immune suppression, and even the development of adrenal fatigue. (4)
If you are a well-trained athlete, you will be able to tolerate a much higher level of intensity than someone who is untrained. Your ability to tolerate increased exercise frequency and intensity grow as your body adapts. For example, an untrained individual may find that CrossFit workouts actually increase her fatigue. But has her body adapts to the demands of the workouts, she will find a great benefit from a HIIT exercise program like CrossFit.
The key here is to start slowly and build your exercise tolerance over time. Athletes need to pay close attention to their tolerance zone. Training outside of your tolerance zone for long periods of time will result in the development of adrenal fatigue.
How do you know you’re training too much?
It can be incredibly confusing to determine whether or not you’re exercising excessively. If you are an athlete, I’d strongly encourage you to perform laboratory testing. By measuring your cortisol levels during intense periods of exercise, you’ll be able to determine if you are within your body’s tolerance zone or if you’re heading towards over-training.
A more subjective means of determining if your athletic endeavors are too much is simply by paying close attention to your energy levels after exercise. If you find that it takes you more than two or three hours to recover your energy following a workout, it’s too intense. If after a workout you feel energized, the intensity is within your tolerance zone.
Remember to build your workout length and intensity slowly. This allows your body time to adapt to the new stress.
If you’ve been away from the gym or your exercise program for a couple of weeks, ease your way back to the intensity level you left off at. After sitting on a beach for two weeks, eating and drinking foods you typically avoid, your fitness level is going to decrease. Upon returning back to your exercise routine, decrease the weight/intensity for a couple weeks. This will give your body time to adapt.
Another way to gauge the intensity of activity is through your heart rate. If you’re just starting an exercise program, try to keep your heart rate within 50-70% of your maximum. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Multiply your number by the percentage you’re trying to achieve.
For example, if you are 45 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 220 minus 45. Therefore your maximum heart rate would be 175. 70% of 175 is 123 beats per minute. If you’re an athlete, you’ll want your target heart rate to be 85-90% of maximum. The same 45-year old athlete would want to keep her heart rate around 150 beats per minute.
If you are training intensely or preparing for a competition, be sure to pay close attention to the signs of over-training. These include: (5)
- Persistent muscle soreness
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Increase in a number of colds/flu you catch
- Increase in the number of training injuries
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Decreased performance
- Slowed recovery
- Inability to complete workouts
- Low appetite
How can athletes prevent adrenal fatigue?
The best way to prevent adrenal fatigue is to keep exercise within your tolerance zone. Continued training outside of your tolerance zone causes adrenal fatigue. But sometimes a competition may push you to train outside your tolerance zone. This may be the only way to remain competitive with your peers.
Before any supplementation regimen is created, I strongly recommend athletes follow a nutrient-dense, whole food diet. This will ensure your body is not undergoing additional stress from the foods you eat. Remember, low levels of inflammation, like those that occur when you eat a food you’re sensitive/allergic to, can cause adrenal fatigue.
In instances where intense training is absolutely critical, I recommend athletes follow a structured supplement regimen. Please note that supplements should be used only in the short term. I do not advocate the use of long-term supplementation. The supplements allow you to extend your body’s tolerance zone. This allows you to train more intensely for a longer period of time.
Basic supplements for adrenal health in athletes should include:
- Vitamin C
- Your body needs vitamin C to produce cortisol. (6)
- During athletics, there is an increased demand for vitamin C.
- B vitamins
- B vitamins are also required to produce adrenal hormones.
- A deficiency of B vitamins may impair both aerobic and anaerobic exercise performance. (7)
- Odds are, you’re deficient in magnesium. (7)
- Athletes have an increased need for magnesium. Even a marginal magnesium deficiency impairs exercise performance and amplifies the negative consequences of strenuous exercise. (8)
- Female athletes should take 220 mg/day.
- Male athletes should take 260 mg/day
- Phosphatidylcholine is a component of your cell walls (membrane). It helps to protect the cell from oxidative stress.
- Phosphatidylcholine has also been shown to lower cortisol levels. (10) Remember, intense exercise elevates cortisol levels. Phosphatidylcholine will help keep your cortisol balanced through intense training.
Nutrition aside, there have been studies that show athletes who train outside may have improved cortisol response. Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy. (11)
Including a revitalizing practice such as yoga has also been shown to improve athlete recovery and help to better balance the way your body perceives and experiences stress. (12) If your training schedule consists of five intense training days each week, try to include one or two days of a restorative yoga practice. I recommend avoiding intense yoga classes such as Bikram. Instead, focus on a yin-style, restorative yoga practice during your non-training days.
Ok, now all you athletes and weekend warriors know how to avoid adrenal fatigue!
It’s time for me to hear from you. What practices have you found to keep you performing at the highest level?
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Also published on Medium.