Adrenal Exhaustion and Sports Performance

Always tired? Finding it difficult to train? Perhaps your adrenal glands are in need of some TLC. Adrenal exhaustion or burnout is characterised by three core dimensions: emotional exhaustion, feelings of depersonalisation, and reduced professional competence-along with mental weariness. In regard to sport, it is observed as; reduced accomplishment, sport devaluation and physical and emotional exhaustion. It is a real concern because of its potential negative consequences for athlete performance and welfare. The origin of adrenal exhaustion is generally thought to be long-standing stress, the ongoing, repetitive, intensity of sports performance. Most studies conducted to evaluate the origin of adrenal exhaustion have concentrated on the relationship between the HPA axis (a system in the body that contols our reactions to stress) and cortisol levels (the stress hormone that is released via your adrenal glands-which sit on top of your kidneys). The majority of studies show mixed results, in regard to cortisol production. For example, some studies have shown that cortisol levels are considerably high in athletes who classify themselves as adrenal exhausted, while other athletes show low cortisol readings. The reason for this, is that adrenal exhaustion can occur in phases. If an athlete is experiencing first stage adrenal exhaustion, it will be likely that their cortisol levels will be markedly high. This is due to the adrenal glands pumping excess cortisol as a way of coping with the level of stress unfolding. It is often not until an athlete moves into a time of mid-stage exhaustion that cortisol levels may begin to flag. This being so, cortisol levels, and specifically salivary cortisol readings, should be monitored frequently to assess whether adrenal exhaustion is a concern.

Research has also shown that our brain chemistry plays an extensive role in how we regulate our stress. Recent studies have identified specific chemicals that contribute to adrenal exhaustion in athletes, specifically, BDNF, a neurotrophin (protein) that is involved in the survival of the building blocks (neurons) that make up our nervous system. This being so, it is not surprising to find out that our neurobiology is a contributing factor to adrenal exhaustion, the result of chronic stress. In athletes with low levels of BDNF, athletic behaviour involved increased irritability, muscular aches and pains, tension hadaches, inability to relax, appetite changes, disturbed sleep, concentration and memory problems, fatigue, depressed mood with core symptoms of excessive exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of reduced competence.

With adrenal exhaustion on the rise, sports researchers have developed further methods of investigation, in an attempt to detect early possible signs of adrenal exhaustion. There is currently a 16 item inventory to measure potential early signs of burnout, with a focus on money hassles, sleep patterns, responsibilites and training sessions, and social support. If you believe you are suffering from adrenal exhaustion discuss this with your health care practitioner, alternatively you can write to me at


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