4 Stages of Adrenal Fatigue [+ Recovery Tips]
Sufferers of adrenal fatigue can tell you how unpleasant it is to deal with a variety of symptoms that seem to get worse every day.
Estimates show that around 80 million Americans are experiencing chronic fatigue, extreme stress, brain fog, and sleeplessness. And they have no idea why they feel this way or where it’s coming from.
All they know is that they constantly feel “off.”
However, the symptoms are just a warning sign that you’re passing through the stages of adrenal fatigue. As you progress, these signs get more difficult to avoid — and it takes longer to heal.
This article will explore the stages of adrenal fatigue and the various “signs” you should look for as this condition develops. You’ll learn how to recover from this condition using natural methods that support your body’s functions.
What’s Adrenal Fatigue?
There’s something essential to understanding the stages of adrenal fatigue: It’s a stress reaction that worsens over time.
Dr. James L. Wilson, the doctor who first studied this condition in his patients, found that adrenal fatigue and stress were intimately connected. At its core, adrenal fatigue depletes effective adrenal function.
See, it’s not just you or your body that feels fatigued. It’s also your adrenal glands that are tired of continually performing — and, eventually, overperforming — so they can offset the stress that you put yourself through every day.
The more stress you feel, the more frequently your adrenal glands are triggered to respond.
The broad number of body functions that the adrenal glands are related to explains why the symptoms and signs of adrenal fatigue are just as expansive.
Dr. Wilson identified adrenal fatigue as the overworking of the adrenal glands, which sit on the tips of your kidneys. Even though they’re really no bigger than two large grapes, the adrenal glands produce and regulate over 50 hormones such as DHA, estrogen, and testosterone.
When it comes to stress and adrenal functioning, the prime hormones that come under fire are cortisol and aldosterone.
- Control blood sugar levels
- Regulate your metabolism
- Reduce inflammation
- Maintain memory formation
Meanwhile, aldosterone regulates the salt and water balance in the body. That’s why low levels of aldosterone due to overworked adrenals can result in low blood pressure, dizziness, and brain fog.
The production of these hormones fall out of balance when you’re always responding to stressful situations. Any stress, experienced consistently, and escalating over time, causes the adrenal glands to increase cortisol levels to keep up your body’s response.
That’s why the stages of adrenal fatigue increase in intensity of experience over time.
Below, we’re going to explain what are the different stages of adrenal fatigue, and what kind of symptoms accompany them.
4 Stages of Adrenal Fatigue
Think about the development of adrenal fatigue like a cycle within a larger process. Its progress occurs like a clock that counts the hours in a day. But hours clump together to make up the overall cycle of a month.
What that means is the stages of adrenal fatigue happen every day on a microcosmic level. However, these stages are also what happens more broadly over time.
As you run through the same stages, over and over again, every day, you’ll eventually move from the first stage to the last in a way where your health deteriorates faster over time.
The 4 stages of adrenal fatigue are as follows:
Stage #1. Alarm
The “alarm” phase is a natural and necessary response to an external stressor. Sometimes, it may even be a mental stressor due to repetitive thoughts. After all, anxiety and adrenal fatigue are linked.
We need the alarm phase because it tells your adrenal glands to make small amounts of necessary hormones like cortisol, insulin, DHEA, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. That’s your body's chemistry responding to stress. On the outside, we experience the effects as alertness, focus, arousal, and rapid-fire decision-making abilities.
After this boost in “stress” or “alertness” hormones, your body needs time to come down again and rest. In the wake of this, you’ll feel a natural sleepiness and tiredness.
However, your actions can disrupt this natural cycle. Let’s say you take stimulants like caffeine to keep you awake. In this case, your body’s normal signals for sleep and relaxation are hijacked. You feel awake and continue operating — but you’re no longer at peak performance.
Sure, your body exhibits signs of being functional and productive, but it just needs that rest. In other words, the physiological need for sleep is still there. Stimulants like caffeine have only blocked the feeling of it.
Your body, faithful friend that it is, continues its response and releases the hormones you need to remain focused and productive. On the inside, however, your interruption has subtly but significantly altered your adrenal glands’ productivity.
Stage #2. Resistance
The next stage of adrenal fatigue is resistance. The resistance response is fatigue — your body’s way of trying to get you to slow down naturally.
During the resistance phase, your adrenal glands start to steadily and noticeably slow down. They can’t produce enough cortisol, fast enough, to meet the scaling demands you place on them.
How do you know you’re in the resistance response phase? You’ll experience some or all of the following issues:
- Fatigue and a general feeling of tiredness start to disrupt your daily activities.
- Your performance at work or even at home decreases, and things start to feel like a chore that takes a lot of effort.
- You’re getting sick more often (with a cold or the flu), for longer. Even when you recover, it takes weeks or even a few months to feel fully “charged” again.
- You notice an introduction or a worsening of symptoms like anxiety, PMS, mood irritability, and insomnia.
After experiencing these signs, you may turn to medical doctors and specialists who will each treat just one of these symptoms with their recommendations.
For example, a primary care physician might prescribe antidepressants for the fatigue, mood changes, and anxiety. An endocrine specialist will look for hormonal imbalances and might prescribe something for thyroid function.
They’re not wrong and these may even help to “boost” you in the short-term. But that doesn’t mean you’re not in the resistance stage of adrenal fatigue.
Unless your behavior changes and you make more holistic transformations to your habits, you will progress into the next stages of adrenal fatigue.
Stage #3. Adrenal Exhaustion
The most obvious indicator that you’ve hit the adrenal exhaustion stage is a drop in cortisol output. To make matters worse, you’re still stressed out — and, this time, you’re profoundly feeling it because there’s not enough cortisol to keep you naturally alert and focused.
Your adrenals are overworked and will likely go through a series of crashes. You’ll experience these as highs and lows of energy through the day, with a fog of fatigue still dominating your overall health. Even if you rest, it takes longer and longer to feel refreshed again.
Everything from libido to digestion slows down because your body is playing a game of conservation. It needs to decide what is most important for your survival right now — and that’s simply keeping your energy up.
A prevailing sign that you’ve hit a new stage of adrenal fatigue is this:
Even with other coping mechanisms like naps through the day or caffeine, you still can’t seem to return to a baseline feeling of wellness. You’re still unable to function “normally.”
Stage #4. Burnout
Even the word “burnout” sounds serious — so why don’t we take it seriously enough?
During the burnout stage of adrenal fatigue, you can experience many coexisting dysfunctions in the body.
The adrenal glands support the functioning of other organs in the body. That's why you may start to experience physiological issues in your thyroid, your nervous system, and your reproductive system.
Adrenal burnout looks like this:
- Low blood pressure
- Hair loss related to adrenal fatigue
- Muscle and joint pains
- Increased skin issues due to imbalances in ovarian hormones
- Cold hands and feet because of poor circulation and thyroid dysfunction
- Digestion issues like IBS and constipation
Essentially, there are no more “cyclical” changes. Instead, your body is a constant “crash” state.
How to Recover From Adrenal Fatigue
Like the stages of adrenal fatigue, the recovery methods require time to bring you back to optimal function. Their effects are progressive and positive, but you’ll need to be prepared to transform the way you’ve been eating, healing, and exercising.
One of the best places to “start” your healing process is supplementation.
Studies show that smart supplementing can respond to your body's deficits and give it what it needs.
Now, there are two “types” of supplementation you can incorporate when healing from adrenal fatigue.
The first is dietary supplementation through specific vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, D, and B-vitamins. B-vitamins are especially beneficial in combating fatigue symptoms common in adrenal overwork.
The second is to use specific adaptogenic herbs for adrenal fatigue in supplement form. These are natural herbs and roots with proven medicinal properties that:
- Boost immune function
- Increase the body’s ability to fight (or “adapt”) to external issues like stress, and
- Return the body to a natural state of equilibrium.
For adrenal fatigue, you want to address the issue from two directions: The first is to find ways to calm your body and improve its stress response naturally. Organic ashwagandha can help you achieve these goals.
The Joy-Filled blend of ingredients also includes ashwagandha, so you can opt for this formula instead. You can experiment with both for two weeks to find which option works best for you.
For a complete list of supplements you can use, check out our article about adrenal fatigue supplements.
You are what you eat, right? But, in the case of adrenal fatigue, you heal based on what you eat.
The foods and snacks for adrenal fatigue include those that provide you with essential vitamins and minerals, amino acids, and healthy sources of blood sugars and proteins.
- Low sugar fruits
- Healthy fats from sources like coconut oil, avocados, and olives
- Fatty, Omega-3-rich foods like salmon and herring
- Seeds and nuts like walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds
- Lean meats like grass-fed or milk-fed beef and veal and free-range chicken and turkey
As you can see, these foods are the key to maintaining a healthy, well-balanced body overall. It doesn’t just have to remain an adrenal fatigue-specific diet.
You’ve secured your body’s wellness and resiliency from the inside. Now, it’s time to address the physical fitness and strength of your body. Building your body’s health back up with exercises geared to adrenal fatigue is the smartest way to boost healing.
You can start slow with low-impact exercises like bodyweight-only circuits, brisk walking, yoga, Pilates, dance-based aerobics, and low-intensity interval training.
Remember that the key here is to take it slow and keep your exercising consistent. You may feel great after just a few weeks of 15-20 minutes exercising, but don’t overdo it. Your body is still recovering from fatigue.
Check out this article to find out how essential oils can play a role in adrenal fatigue recovery!
Never forget that your body’s functions are built for wellness and designed to keep you protected. Even though the stages of adrenal fatigue can make you feel like your body is being unhelpful, it’s actually the opposite.
Now that you know what to look for, you can heed the early “warning signs” in a much more responsive way. Never forget, though, that it’s never too late to turn your health around.