Adrenal fatigue isn’t an accepted medical diagnosis and involves much more than the adrenal glands, including the thyroid, but I am using the term because it’s common and well, a lot of people have it. Adrenal fatigue involves impaired cortisol rhythms (higher at night lower in morning), lethargy, brain fog, falling out of hair, low libido, low blood pressure, vitiligo , and poorer sleep. Extreme exercise especially with dieting can cause these symptoms like clockwork. As more and more gym junkies are starting to emphasize compound movements such as squats and deadlifts, or circuiting them as in crossfit, or challenging themselves to train for tough mudder competitions, more people are getting adrenal fatigue. I don’t know what the exact numbers are but it happened to my girlfriend recently and I thought it was time for a post on the subject.
I have been trying to improve my vertical leap and explosiveness for six years. The training I do has involved heavy and explosive training that is tiring to the central nervous system. When I was on a raw vegan diet I could feel more acutely the depression in my nervous system days after my most intense training sessions in the gym. My mood, energy, and motivation was just a step lower than usual. I thought this was normal until I started eating more meat and dairy and I didn’t notice any adrenal fatigue after intense workouts any longer. Over the years however I noticed very subtle changes in my mood and energy levels that caused me to rethink my addictive training regimen. I was performing heavy weighted dips and pullups, squats, deadlifts, bench, and rows every week without any deload or rest week. Typically strength trainees take a week off every now and then to deload and allow their nervous system to recover. I didn’t feel the need to so I tried to progress linearly, maxing myself out every week. I also sprinted two times a week on the track: I would usually do short sprints but I would go up to 150m sprints and rarely 300s, rain or shine.
Although I got a lot stronger (and leaner), around senior year of college (just over a year ago), my eyes were burning throughout the day and felt much groggier than usual in the mornings. This eye fatigue started a couple years before that at least, but it was getting to the point where it affected me almost all day long. After my squat doubles or triples (two or three reps) my eyes were visibly red. My hairs were turning gray prematurely and this scared the sh*t out of me. The outer third of my eyebrows were nonexistent (a sign of hypothyroidism). My feet were colder. My sensitivity to light was greater and I was squinting outside. I wasn’t as aggressive as usual because I felt tired. My motivation was lower and I felt burned out.
This took place when I was maxing out during my squat sessions in my effort to get to a 2x bw squat. I did get there (squatted 335lbs at 160lbs with a narrow stance in vibrams), but I didn’t get the athletic results I wanted. I decided to stop squatting but my next obsession became heavy lunges and heavy single legged deadlifts. With a 100lb dumbell in each hand I would go for sets of three or four on lunges. The next day I clearly felt the eye fatigue in the morning with greater light sensitivity as well.
My girlfriend similarly without changing her diet noticed her hair falling out and grogginess in the morning which was unusual for her as a morning person. She also noticed a decrease in libido. She started to think she had excess fat and did the workouts I recommended a while back: circuited compound lifts. It took her a month or so of intense training to achieve these remarkable changes in health.
Recently I took over a week off from training (including lunges and other heavy stuff I have still been struggling to tone down) and my light sensitivity improved dramatically: I could practically stare at the sun if I wanted to whereas before I would need to squint all the time in bright light. My brain felt more wired and I felt chirpier. This always happened when I took rest but only recently have I decided that I need to maintain that state of health regularly instead of smashing it with iron in the gym.
So how is this possible? Critics of my adrenal fatigue workout will say that I didn’t eat enough: but I have been eating more than enough for the past year while maintaining my training. Previously I may not have eaten enough, but that’s what allowed me to stay fairly lean while increasing my strength and thinning my eyebrows . Over the past year I have been eating more processed foods, white rice, restaurant food, sugar, salts, and anything I wanted to in the effort to restore thyroid function. It hasn’t helped as much as taking time off from the gym, although the outer third of the eyebrows did improve considerably.
The reason taking off has helped me feel more visible improvements in energy, light sensitivity, and other symptoms of low thyroid or adrenal insufficiency is because strength training requires the body to release a lot of cortisol and can make it worse every single session imo. Cortisol is released in response to ACTH form the pituitary gland, which is released in response to CRH from the hypothalamus. The adrenal glands become less responsive to ACTH and produce less cortisol resulting in fatigue (Brooks and carter, 2013). This progression is common in endurance athletes. I have been hard-pressed to find the mechanism of adrenal fatigue in anaerobic/power athletes but it’s probably the same. Heavy lifting requires the body to secrete a lot of cortisol. It’s clear to me that as I became overtrained, my desire to clench my teeth together aggressively became dampened. I suspect this is due to two things: a lower cortisol release but also perhaps a tolerance of some sort to the heavy training.
Anyway: most people don’t lift maximally all the time but when you become obsessed with achieving a certain goal, you might, in order to reach your goal faster. Smart strength training never involves maximal lifting or lifting to failure regularly (except in the case of olympic lifters who use very low volume). Weight training isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but too much is. I used to think the workouts the average person does in the gym are wastes of time, but now, I see it as people preventing themselves from burning themselves out. Doing an overhead press with 15lb dumbbells seems a lot more difficult to the untrained woman of average fitness than doing light curls or skullcrushers with 5lbs, her natural predisposition in a gym. Going to the elliptical on a low intensity for twenty minutes then going to the stairmaster for another twenty and then jogging slowly for another 20 on a treadmill according to fitness professionals including myself previously is much less effective than HIIT. HIIT however takes a toll on the nervous system and common sense tells us that too much makes us feel tired. Becoming “dedicated” in the gym can thus become very dangerous.
In the next post I will share the actual adrenal fatigue workouts.