BURNOUT: From Stress to Adrenal Fatigue

July 13, 2016


It is important to differentiate between stress and burnout.  Many people will incorrectly say that they are burnt out when they are actually feeling stressed. 


While it is true that excessive and prolonged stress can eventually result in burnout, they are not exactly the same.  Think of stress and burnout along the same continuum with stress at one end and burnout at the other end. 



In other words, the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree.  The key is to recognize stress before it turns into burnout.  However, if you are reading this, you may consider yourself closer to the burnout side of the continuum. In any case, it is important to understand how things can progress from stress to burnout in order that you can make lasting changes in your life. 




Here is a simple explanation of what happens.  When you are stressed, your adrenal glands in your body body release hormones, the two main ones being adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones are responsible for the "fight or flight" reaction, causing more sugar to be released into your bloodstream so that this energy can be used by your large muscles to "fight or flee" the situation.  The hormones released also cause an increase in your respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating.  When under stress, it is the sympathetic system in your body that goes into action. 


Short periods of stress, whether you perceive the stressful situation as good (such as when you are moving or getting married) or bad (such as studying for final exams), can be beneficial to allow you to stay motivated and ready to take on the world.  It is when this stress becomes prolonged, that your body begins to retaliate and you are at risk of entering the burnout side of the continuum. 


When you are stressed, it can affect your body emotionally, cognitively, physically, and behaviorally. 


Here are some signs and symptoms that indicate that you are stressed:


Physical symptoms include headaches, frequent colds due to a poorly-functioning immune system, heart palpitations, upset stomach, and more.


Cognitive symptoms include negativity, excess worrying, etc.


Behavioral symptoms such as appetite changes, nervousness, or use of drugs, alcohol, or nicotine are also potential problems of too much stress. 


Chronic stress can result in medical problems such as depression, anxiety, heart disease including high blood pressure and risk of heart attack, stroke, and much more. 




While short periods of stress can energize you to get things done, when stress becomes chronic, you also move along the continuum toward burnout.  When you are suffering from burnout, you no longer feel energized and exhaustion predominates.  This is a consequence of chronic stress.  At first, you may feel just tired all day, but as time passes, you are so exhausted that it is difficult to get through the day and even to get the little things done.  You feel both physically and emotionally drained.  A night of sleep does not relieve the fatigue.  You feel like you are just surviving, and no longer living. 


Although some of the signs and symptoms of burnout can mimic those of when you are feeling stressed, when you are burnt out, daily life and the challenges it brings feel insurmountable. 


Other signs and symptoms of burnout include:


  • Withdrawal from activities and people that used to bring you pleasure

  • Decreased motivation to get things done

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia despite being exhausted

  • Changes in your appetite

  • Feeling hopeless

  • Decreased productivity in your home and work life

  • Negativity and negative self-talk

  • Feeling irritable, and getting into fights and arguments

  • Physical symptoms - headaches, heart palpitations, digestive disturbances, dizziness (your blood pressure may be low), etc.

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Depression

  • Anxiety


    How does adrenal fatigue fit into the equation?


    If you are suffering from burnout, you can almost be sure that you are also experiencing adrenal fatigue.


    Adrenal fatigue may also be referred to as adrenal exhaustion or adrenal burnout, and it is not recognized by mainstream medicine as an "accepted medical diagnosis."  Although Addison's Disease (when your adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones - cortisol and aldosterone) is recognized as it can be life-threatening, less life-threatening forms of underfunctioning adrenal glands are controversial. 


    Remember this though.  Just because most mainstream physicians do not recognize it or give you this diagnosis, does not mean it does not exist.  For years, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was not recognized as a true illness, and yet now you can find it discussed on the Mayo Clinic website.  Although they do state that it is a "complicated disorder...that can't be explained by any underlying medical condition," at least there is finally some acknowledgement that it exists.  Another controversial chronic condition, that took years to be recognized, is fibromyalgia.  It did not receive the medical attention it deserved until the 1970's, and only in 1987, was it recognized as "an emerging condition" by the American Medical Association according to the Stanford Medicine website. 


    So do not despair.  It is not all in your head.  There are ways to get better. 


    However, before we get to that, let's explain what adrenal fatigue is.  In a nutshell, think of your adrenal glands as your "stress glands."  You have two adrenal glands, and each one sits atop your kidneys.  As glands, they secrete hormones, two of which are cortisol and adrenaline, responsible for blood sugar levels to increase as the "fight or flight" reaction also occurs in your body.  They are responsible for regulating your blood pressure, heart rate, and converting carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy for your body. 


    Under normal circumstances, your adrenals should only be called upon for short periods. However, during times of prolonged or repeated stress, they are called upon incessantly and cannot keep up with the demands being placed upon them.  Your adrenal glands then fatigue or burn out too. 


    Many of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are the same as those described for burnout above, but you may also notice the following symptoms:


  • Weakness

  • Feeling lightheaded.  You may black out temporarily or feel like you are going to faint when you stand up due to low blood pressure.

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning


    What is interesting to note is that not everyone experiences stress the same way, and there can be many other contributing factors to adrenal fatigue, in addition to the prolonged stress, including:


  • Not getting enough sleep

  • Poor diet

  • Caffeine

  • Being a negative person

  • Anger

  • Smoking

  • Environmental toxins


    Unfortunately, as already mentioned, adrenal fatigue is not really recognized by mainstream medicine. Mention it to your physician, and you are quite likely to get a funny look.  Dr. Wilson was the first person to use the term "adrenal fatigue" in 1998.  He has received some criticism from the medical community, but there are many others (mainly in the alternative health community such as naturopathic doctors and so forth) who have embraced his ideas and moved forward with treatment options for those who have the symptoms of burnout and adrenal fatigue.


    One of the most common ways to test for adrenal fatigue is to do a saliva test which measures your cortisol levels.  It is best to take four samples over the course of a day so that you can compare levels at varying times of the day. 


    Your cortisol levels tend to be highest in the morning at around 8 a.m., and gradually decrease throughout the day, being lowest between 12 a.m. and 4 a.m.  Whenever you eat, it provides a small elevation in your cortisol levels. 


    To complicate matters, hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue can co-exist.  This may be recognized when treatment for hypothyroidism does not respond positively.  In addition, some of the adrenal hormones assist in converting thyroid hormones (T4) into the bioavailable form (T3) that your body uses.  If you have hypothyroidism and co-existing adrenal gland fatigue, you will also need to heal your adrenals before you can begin to feel better from the hypothyroidism. 


    In any case, this blog is intended to help you get better from burnout, which likely is affecting your adrenal glands negatively. Therefore, it is important to address this aspect in order that you can understand some of the underlying physiological changes that occur, so that you can understand WHY you are implementing particular techniques of healing.  In the next chapters, we will discuss a number of different things to consider and change in your life so that you get better.  You will want to look at it as a full, positive lifestyle change. 


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