Your adrenal glands, a pair of small triangular glands perched atop each kidney, excrete the stress hormone cortisol whenever you need it (say, when you’re racing through an airport terminal to catch a plane and need to put on a burst of speed). The problem is, when you’re chronically stressed out, the adrenals tend to overdo it — at least until they can’t anymore; then they switch to underproducing the stuff that keeps us on our toes. This condition, called adrenal fatigue, is marked by extreme, chronic weariness and can have profound effects on your overall health. So if you’re feeling perennially exhausted regardless of how much sleep you get, consider asking your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
“Adrenal fatigue is an issue where the sympathetic nervous system — our fight-or-flight mechanism — disrupts and suppresses the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our ‘rest and digest’ mechanism,” says Jade Teta, ND, naturopathic physician and coauthor of The Metabolic Effect Diet: Eat More, Work Out Less, and Actually Lose Weight While You Rest. “These two aspects of the nervous system function like a seesaw that must stay balanced for us to perform at our best and recover and adapt.”
Maintaining your fitness while working through adrenal fatigue isn’t easy, but exercise, which can retrain your adrenal glands to produce cortisol appropriately, can be an important part of the healing process. The key is to focus on short bursts of activity.
“Overly taxing, very-long-duration exercise will further disrupt and worsen your condition,” Teta says. “If you add periods of rest and recovery within short, high-intensity exercise, on the other hand, you can retrain both the sympathetic system [in the intense work phase] and the parasympathetic system [in the relaxation phase] to function properly.” Try this workout for starters:
Go Hard, Go Easy
- Wearing a heart-rate monitor, do a one-minute bout of intense exercise near your maximum effort.
- Rest. Walk slowly, breathe deeply and focus on calming yourself. As you do, watch your heart rate. The natural response when you transition from work to rest should be a brief elevation in heart rate before it falls (this indicates the strength of the sympathetic response). You should then see a rapid drop in heart rate — optimally 20 beats within 60 seconds. Continue to rest until you feel psychologically ready to exert yourself at full intensity once more.
- Repeat the above and watch your heart-rate recovery each time. When your heart rate no longer drops 20 beats during the 60-second rest phase, end your workout.
“It doesn’t matter if it takes five minutes or 30 minutes — end your workout at that point,” says Teta. No workout should last over 40 minutes, Teta adds, and intense sessions like this should be balanced with days of rest and recovery. Leisure walks, tai chi, restorative yoga and sauna time are great ways to train the parasympathetic system by itself.