To understand the importance of adrenal health as an athlete, you first need to understand the adrenal glands and their role in the body.
Your adrenal glands are found above the kidneys and produce hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, aldosterone, and sex hormones.
“Epinephrine increases blood pressure, respiration rate, heart rate, increases glucose, and dilates the pupils, all for the purpose of enabling you to quickly and safely get out of a potentially life-threatening situation. This was a purely autonomic reaction that came straight from your brain.”
Cortisol’s primary role is to increase blood glucose levels to provide fuel to your muscles and brain during a stressful situation.
Aldosterone, a mineralocorticoid, helps regulate sodium and potassium levels in the body.
Abnormal cortisol levels will wreck your efforts in the gym. Chronically elevated cortisol causes a number of issues including suppression of pituitary function, leading to low Testosterone levels. Oh, now I have your attention, huh?” (Walsh, B.)
So you can see the importance of good adrenal health in general, not just as an athlete. The reason it’s even more important to consider in athletes is because of the amount of stress that athletes put on their body and mind every single day.
The physical training that an athlete has to do every day is an intense stressor, along with the mental side of being a competitive athlete. The pressure they feel internally from themselves, their coach, their fans, their competition, etc. is also a stressor. All of these stressors add up, along with other lifestyle factors i.e. job, kids and a spouse, etc. If an athlete with this type of lifestyle does not get adequate rest in some form, they could potentially put their adrenal glands into overdrive. Running from a bear, 1RM deadlift, or just angry at someone driving slowly? Yep, your body stresses just the same! It’s super resilient, though and highly adaptive. Your body will try to adapt to anything you throw on it. Training 3-5 hours a day, full-time job, spouse, and kids, running on 6 hours of sleep a night? Perfect candidate for some wacky adrenal issues.
Some negative impacts of elevated cortisol:
- Suppression of TSH, decreased conversion of T4 to T3, increased production reverse T3 (rT3) and decreased cellular thyroid receptor binding. (In other words, you get fat, among other things.)
- Increased blood glucose levels.
- Suppressed pituitary function, leading to low luteinizing hormone and low Testosterone.
- Decreased liver detoxification.
- Suppressed secretory IgA, increasing potential of gut inflammation, infection, and permeability.
- Decreased immune system function, leading to increased risk of infection.
- Neurodegenerative disorders, including degradation of the blood-brain barrier and destruction of the hippocampus.
As a competitive athlete or just an athlete that likes to train a lot, you do not want to have to deal with any of the things mentioned above. However, you are extremely prone to it because of your lifestyle. Rest days are extremely important – and no, hardcore 30-minute EMOMs do not sound like an “active rest day” to me. *facepalm* Your body needs a break from the stress, EVEN the mental stress of training.
If you are dealing with highly elevated cortisol for a long period of time, you will also be more prone to injury in the gym because of the amount of physical stress you’re putting on your body through high intensity/volume training. Recovery is the top priority when you are a high-level athlete, and too much stress can offset that.
Things you can do for prevention:
- get more sleep (9-10hrs for competitive athletes)
get more rest during the week
- make sure you are at a sufficient caloric intake
- eat nutrient dense foods most of the time to avoid gut inflammation
- don’t over consume caffeine
- drink plenty of water
- Check out Max Adrenal to help offset adrenal issues
Walsh, B. (n.d.). The Truth About Adrenal Fatigue. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from https://www.t-nation.com/supplements/truth-about-adrenal-fatigue
About the author:
Ashleigh is the owner of A-Hub Nutrition, a nutrition company dedicated to helping people reach their nutrition and fuel their bodies. When she isn?t working, coaching CrossFit or working towards her bachelor’s degree you can find her spending time with her family, friends and being active in and outside of the gym!