Theresa Vernon, L.Ac. is a licensed acupuncturist, Chinese herbal therapist, and nutritionist. She has helped thousands of patients worldwide to address their chronic fatigue and its complexities. We are grateful for her contribution.
Author: Theresa Vernon, L. Ac., hTMA
Energy is the source of all life and health. Everything that happens in the body takes energy. Each cell must be able to produce the energy of life. Chronic fatigue is an inability to regularly produce adequate energy within the body. The production of human energy has been blocked. Chronic fatigue is what happens when the energy producing functions within the cells have been disrupted. All chronic fatigue includes a chronic under functioning of the adrenal glands, but the particular factors that have led to the weakness in adrenal activity and hormone production vary.
Cellular Energy. Psychophysiological energy begins at, and is an expression of, energy production at the cellular-level. Cellular energy production is achieved through a set of the metabolic reactions and processes that take place in the cells of organisms to convert biochemical energy from nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and then release waste products (cell respiration). The reactions involved in respiration are catabolic reactions, which break large molecules into smaller ones, releasing energy in the process as they break high-energy bonds. Respiration is one of the key ways a cell gains useful energy to fuel cellular activity.
Nutrients that are commonly used by animal and plant cells in respiration include sugar, amino acids and fatty acids, and a common oxidizing agent (electron acceptor) is molecular oxygen (O2). The energy stored in ATP can then be used to drive processes requiring energy, including biosynthesis, locomotion or transportation of molecules across cell membranes.
The adrenal glands are our stress glands. We must have strong adrenal function in order handle the stress of life. In fact, life is literally impossible without the adrenals. With adrenal insufficiency, life's emergencies become overwhelming — fight or flight quickly becomes "crash and burn." We are unable to respond effectively to life's challenges. When we have pushed ourselves to the limit of our capabilities, our energy collapses and we can no longer cope with life as we once did. External stress such as prolonged overworking, mental and emotional strain, and infectious conditions that take their toll are important and always play a part in the onset of chronic fatigue. But long before these outer conditions tip us over the edge beyond normal stress and fatigue into chronic fatigue — internal weaknesses and imbalances have been developing within our cells for many years which have been creating a constant source of stress that drains and weakens the adrenal glands.
Chronic fatigue is a primary factor in all chronic illnesses whether or not we feel fatigued. The total collapse of energy production comes at the end of a long road of break-down within the body. Once the adrenal function has reached a particular degree of disturbance, a broad range of conditions can take hold because every single life process requires energy.
The most severe derangement of adrenal function short of total failure is called "adrenal burnout." Burnout can go on for many years before various conditions finally force us to admit how exhausted we are.
Burnout causes more frustration and guilt, and loss of self esteem than any other human phenomenon. The person whose life has been gutted by stress-damage usually does not know what hit him — and usually has no idea what is really wrong with him. Lacking a proper physical explanation, the person often turns inward and blames himself. This creates a problem of low self-image that no amount of psychological analysis can ever correct. The only solution to this emotional dead-end is to restore the energy-producing systems of the human body. Energy, by Colin and Loren Chatsworth
Although evidence of impaired adrenal functioning as an important factor in chronic fatigue and disease in general has existed within medical science for many years, it has been nearly completely ignored in modern drug therapy. Perhaps this is because drugs cannot rebuild proper adrenal function.
The extensive use of synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of the adrenal hormone cortisone is an indirect acknowledgment of the essential and life-saving functions of the adrenal glands. But replacing normal adrenal function with synthetic cortisone (called steroids) produces some of the most severe and damaging side effects in medicine. It does not cure anything but it does strongly suppress the symptoms of adrenal gland problems while allowing the deterioration to continue.
Prior to this moment of truth, we will resort to many coping strategies in order to keep going. The primary way of coping is to use a wide range of stimulants to whip the adrenal glands to force them to produce higher levels of hormones so we can feel somewhat normal. As long as we can continue to overcome our fatigue with stimulants, we may not be aware of just how exhausted we are becoming until we experience the straw that breaks the camel's back. Now we have chronic fatigue.
In the years leading up to this degree of breakdown in our ability to produce energy, many other problems will have occurred:
Mental problems can range from insomnia to anxiety and depression, mood swings and even psychosis. Adrenal fatigue and burnout can cause all of these problems and more because every body function requires energy.
Caffeine is used as a stimulant, and most people rely on it to some degree. But from the point of view of the adrenal glands, nearly all drugs are stimulants. The toxicity of the drug creates stress reactions, an adrenal emergency. Alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and eventually harder drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine all work by forcing the adrenals to work harder, giving the illusion of energy.
Other adrenal stimulants can be emotional and behavioral. Anger is a reliable adrenal stimulant and will often provide some temporary relief from the effects of adrenal fatigue. Those who seem to be addicted to ‘drama’ and who constantly create emergencies in their lives may be unconsciously seeking a feeling of energy they can't get otherwise.
Over-reacting, stressing, worrying and all fear-based emotions such as anxiety or panic, create a level of stress in us that will activate the fatigued adrenals. Excessive activity, sexual addiction, over-working and exercise are other ways to stimulate a feeling of energy. A sign that this is occurring, is that the person feels exhausted if they slow down or take a break. This will eventually become exercise intolerance when the adrenal glands can no longer respond adequately.
Drug and alcohol addiction are always related to adrenal burnout. Addicts are exhausted. The adrenal burnout will cause copper toxicity and retention of various other heavy metals that the person may be exposed to. Nutritional support can make a world of difference in addiction recovery.
The tricky part with alcoholics in particular, is sugar addiction and food addiction generally. They usually have all of those and they need to be handled as a unit. Nearly all alcoholics have food allergy/addictions that need to be identified. If they are still eating foods they react to, the cravings for alcohol will not fully subside. Also, many alcoholics go right into over-eating sugar when they cut out alcohol. Sugar is just as addictive as the alcohol and will prevent recovery from the adrenal burnout.
The most common stimulant for most people including children, is sugar. Flooding the blood stream with sugar through the use of sodas and juice drinks, candy, breakfast cereals or even refined white flours and white rice which convert to sugar rapidly, creates an emergency in the body which the adrenal glands must respond to.
High blood sugar threatens the integrity of every cell and must be dealt with immediately. Any emergency, within or without, is a job for the adrenals. This is why an adrenal fatigue diet has to be a low sugar or even a low carb diet.
A secondary effect of high sugar intake is the promotion of systemic candidiasis (candida albicans yeasts) as well as the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the intestinal tract. These organisms produce a wide range of toxic substances that demand an adrenal response as well as having mind-altering effects.
Candida grows through a process of alcoholic fermentation which creates a constant source of toxic alcohols and alcohol breakdown products that are absorbed directly into the blood stream. Sugar also causes zinc to decline, and copper to rise. Copper has a stimulating effect on the mind and can mask feelings of fatigue initially. Eventually, the build up of copper becomes a major cause of fatigue.
Good digestion is essential for health and the many conditions that impair it are always present with chronic fatigue. Dysbiosis, or bowel flora imbalance, as revealed by candida and other opportunistic infections is always a factor. Sugar feeds candida, viruses and pathogenic bacteria, not the beneficial flora.
Poor bowel flora leads to food allergies, leaky gut, candida, low hydrochloric acid and digestive enzyme production, and gall bladder dysfunction. The bowel flora are essential for healthy intestinal wall cells (enterocytes). The enterocytes rely on the beneficial flora for 60 - 70% of their nutritional input. The final stages of digestion and absorption of food and supplements happen at the intestinal wall. If the enterocytes are undernourished, so will you be.
As the intestinal wall weakens, food sensitivities or food allergies will begin to develop as the body allows poorly digested foods into the bloodstream. Food allergies also provide a stimulant effect until the body begins to wear out under the strain.
Constantly eating certain foods such as wheat, dairy, corn, soy, yeast or other common food allergens creates a toxic reaction in the body. This is another constant emergency that forces the adrenal glands to respond. Even the habitual use of certain personal items such as perfume or hair sprays can be a sub-conscious use of stimulants because of the toxic reaction they cause in some people.
Another source of many of these problems which is often over looked by all kinds of therapists is toxic metals. Heavy metal exposure has become a constant factor in the modern world. One of the most damaging effects of adrenal fatigue and burnout is an impairment in the ability to properly excrete heavy metals. This can include heavy metals such as copper, manganese and iron that are essential nutrients in the proper amount but which can become toxic when they build up in the body.
Once a certain degree of adrenal insufficiency exists, heavy metal imbalances and build up will occur. The most common toxic metals are aluminum, mercury and cadmium. The most common essential metals that can become toxic are copper and manganese.
Once these metal imbalances and accumulations have occurred, it is impossible to experience a full recovery without balancing body chemistry and eliminating them from the tissues. They cause many disturbances in the cellular production of energy and the utilization of nutrients including being toxic to the bowel flora. Until these metals are cleared, they will continue to create on-going, 24-hour a day stress, no matter what else you do to relieve stress in your life.
Is there any hope once all this has occurred? Yes. Very much so.
Rebuilding health as opposed to suppressing symptoms is a very different process. Stabilizing the body with medication may even be an important part of the process. This buys time for the work ahead. But unless the time is used wisely in creating the conditions which allow medication to be discontinued, eventually the medication becomes the cause of more serious problems.
Once the body is detoxified and cleared of toxins and dietary imbalances and given exactly what it needs to restore balance in the cells, it will go right to work rebuilding the body. This is automatic as the body always does the best it can with what it has. The body is always creating a state of balance that results in the least amount of damage over all. As soon as conditions improve, healing begins.
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