The Hidden Causes of Adrenal Fatigue in Athletes

Posted by on Aug 21, 2013 in Acupuncture, Adrenal Fatigue, Blood Sugar, Diet, Performance, Sports Medicine, Stress

In my Acupuncture practice I see a fair number of people suffering from symptoms of Adrenal fatigue, exhaustion and burnout.  Adrenal fatigue is a nasty set of symptoms stemming from a hormone imbalance in the body.   lack of quality sleep, afternoon tiredness, decreased sex drive, thinning hair and nails, weight gain, low grade depression or anxiety, headaches, or dry skin can be a result of the adrenal glands either overproducing or underproducing cortisol.   I prefer to call adrenal fatigue adrenal dysregulation as the real issue is production or underproduction of the hormone at the incorrect time of day or night.  In high performance athletes who are training multiple hours a day, it is generally considered a result of overtraining.  However I have seen endocrine burnout and dysregulation in athletes who may or may not be overtraining but are making serious mistakes in other areas of their lives.

Many hardcore amateur athletes are go getters not just in their chosen sport, but also in other areas of their lives like work or having fun.  Working hard and playing hard may work for a few years (think 20’s and 30’s) but eventually they catch up to you.  LIke so many others under stress serious athletes are pushing themselves hard and as a result can actually be less resilient in certain cases than an average salaryman or salarywoman.  A fundamental misunderstanding of the endocrine system will lead to inflamed adrenals, hormone dysregulation, decreased performance and lot’s of other nasty effects.  I’ve also seen sleep issues in younger and younger athletes.  A few years ago it seemed like sleep issues only plagued athletes in their 40’s.  Today  I am seeing many patients in their early to mid thirties and even twenties with sleep disturbances.   This is seriously scary stuff as lack of sleep has been correlated with higher risk for heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer and mortality from all causes.

The treatment plan for adrenal burnout depends on what stage of adrenal dysregulation we find someone.  The first stage usually goes unnoticed because it is characterized usually by only very slight increases in anxiety.  Sleep disturbance, especially waking up throughout the night, waking early, or inability to fall asleep easily is when the first stage starts to get noticed.  Stage two is when the fatigue really starts to kick in.  This is usually when people start to feel really tired in the afternoon and need a pick me up in the form of caffeine or sugar.   By stage three symptoms become so all over the place it can be difficult to track but almost always involves difficulty waking in the morning, afternoon tiredness, or insomnia of some sort.

After the stage of dysregulation is determined we can treat accordingly.  The most important interventions are as follows:

  • Consistent stress reduction technique such as meditation, biofeedback or other strategies.  I recommend the Heart Math Inner Balance App for less experienced meditators.

  • Eating a fat and protein rich diet from pro-hormonal and neurotransmitter producing foods. Things like pastured eggs, wild fish, butter, and grass fed and organ meats with plenty of omega-3 oils are very important.

  • Proper nutrition including vitamin C, D, and proper Sodium balance.

  • Avoidance of all refined sugars.

  • Being an absolute Nazi about protecting and getting your sleep.

  • Specific acupuncture techniques that benefit the adrenals.

  • Adaptogenic herbs and supplements such as Eleuthero, Rhodiola, and Ashwaganda.

  • Avoidance of computer screens at least 1-2 hours before bed.

  • Unstructured creative time.

When the above interventions are strictly adhered to people can climb out of the adrenal dysregulation hole.  It is very important to remember that it usually takes a few years of poor lifestyle choices and excessive stress to get into this situation in the first place.  If you see yourself starting to suffer from any of the symptoms mentioned above it is imperative you make immediate changes.  It can take months to even more than a year to cure oneself.  Unfortunately it is much harder to correct than it is to prevent in the first place.

If you think you may be suffering from adrenal dysregulation feel free to email me or leave comment below.  I’m happy to recommend some basic lifestyle changes as well as point you in the right direction in terms of herbs and supplements.


  1. Hey!, I’m 18, and work out, run 20 miles a day, then do my work out after, I’ve been getting headaches and feel a little light headed, I think it may be lack of fat and salt in diet?,,,,

    • There’s no way to make a determination as to what is going on without more information. You say you are running 20 miles per day and then doing an additional workout? Are you in ultramarathon training? Please confirm those numbers.

      Secondly, what are you eating? What percentage fat, protein and carbs?

  2. Hi There,

    I have self diaginosed my self with adrenal dysregulation. I have been a endurance athlete for the past 12 years and I own 3 businesses. I have been running at 130% this whole time, and 2 months ago I crashed hard. I find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, I get dizzy throughout the day, I wake up early every morning and can not get back to sleep, making me tired most of the day. I usually get a burst of energy around 8:00pm, and it keeps me up until 11:30pm or so. Please can you give me some tips on how to kick this. Both diet and lifestyle tips would be great.


    • Hi Brad,

      Sounds like you have really been pushing things to the max. While I can’t give you specific medical advice over the web but I can give some general guidelines when it comes to issues like this. 1. Address your hormonal dysregulation with specific herbs and supplements like phosphorylated serine for the nighttime cortisol issues. 2. Make sure you are eating superbly with lot’s of high quality fats and proteins (grass fed only). 3. Get plenty of relaxation time. Meditate (very important). Hang out. Enjoy your life and consider psychotherapy if you have things bothering you. 4. Protect your sleep hours like no other. Sleep for 9-10 hours per night. If you can’t sleep, meditate. This will help massively. 5. Get yourself to a qualified medical practitioner. Msg me privately if you need a referral.

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