Growing demands on modern man leave many feeling exhausted and possibly suffering from a relatively unknown syndrome, writes Vaimoana Tapaleao

Juggling day-to-day work deadlines, family commitments and other stresses have led to an increasing number of people feeling constantly fatigued.

Although many people will feel it is a normal part of life, some health experts believe it goes deeper and put it down to a condition: adrenal fatigue. The condition is this week's hot topic in a Herald series highlighting men's health.

Last week's feature looked at type 2 diabetes and how it affected Kiwi men and next week's topic will examine prostate health.

Adrenal fatigue is caused when the adrenal glands - which produce hormones in the body - start making too much cortisol, or steroid hormones, triggered by emotional, mental and physical stress.

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It's a condition that was coined by American Dr James Wilson about 17 years ago and is controversial and not acknowledged by many medical practitioners.

However, many naturopaths and those who specialise in herbal medicine - as well as some conventional doctors - back it fully and are doing all they can to help those who believe they suffer from it.

Dr Kathleen Wills, who is a natural medicine practitioner in Auckland, said many men were starting to recognise this condition in themselves and seeking her advice.

"Our bodies are constantly under stress. We live a very high-pressure lifestyle - men and women. A lot of the time men have the obligation to be the bread winners, often now the child-minders and are also physically active.

"A lot of people try to keep their energy levels up throughout the day by drinking a lot of caffeine ... and eating sugary foods. But what's really happening, by living this toxic high-pressure lifestyle, is that our natural stress-coping hormone cortisol becomes exhausted."

A normal cortisol response would see the hormone at its highest in the morning, with peaks throughout the day, before gradually easing off at night when we sleep.

"But what happens with someone who pushes really hard is that they produce excess amount of cortisol hormone. They're pushing and pushing themselves and so the cortisol level goes very high - and [they start] living a very high-stressed lifestyle."

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The results are a number of symptoms, including being wide awake at night but fatigued during the day, unexplained weight gain or loss, feeling very irritable or snapping easily, constipation, a low sex drive, being frequently sick and, for men, belly fat.

There are no official records for the number of people with adrenal fatigue in New Zealand, but results from the NZ Health Survey 2013/14 show rates of diagnosed mental health conditions are rising. Eighteen per cent of adults have been diagnosed with a mood disorder, such as depression, or an anxiety disorder at some point - up from 16 per cent in 2012/13 figures.

Life coach and well-being writer Louise Thompson has written a book about how to deal with adrenal fatigue after coming down with it herself several years ago.

"There are some doctors who are open to it. But it doesn't show up on an x-ray and that's why they say it doesn't exist. Although it's not a complete adrenal collapse, it is relevant."

Ms Thompson now helps people with the condition and the majority of her clients are men aged between 30 and their 50s.

"They've got young children ... they're at the peak of their careers and then they're getting up at 7.30 in the morning and flying to Sydney every other week and taking the kids to sports. It's hard."

Ms Thompson encouraged people to always see their family doctor before concluding they may have adrenal fatigue.

Auckland University's Ian Reid, a professor of medicine and endocrinology, said adrenal fatigue was a "grey zone" and it was therefore vital for men to do their homework before taking any medication.

"If people are selling various remedies and supplements ... then they should be challenged to produce data from controlled, independent studies that show a benefit from those supplements. If they're unable to do that ... then one has to conclude that those supplements have no established benefit."

Adrenal fatigue

• When the the adrenal glands, which produce hormones, make too much cortisol or steroid hormones as a result of stress.

• A term coined by American Dr James Wilson in 1998 and not widely acknowledged among conventional medical practitioners.

Symptoms: Being wide awake at night but fatigued during the day, irritable, sudden weight gain or loss, constipation, low sex drive, frequently sick, stressed and, for men, belly fat.

From burnt out to better

Kathleen Wills says many men are starting to recognise the condition and seek her advice. Photo / Babiche Martens
Kathleen Wills says many men are starting to recognise the condition and seek her advice. Photo / Babiche Martens

Doing more than 50 hours a week at work, financial woes and hardcore training had left one Auckland man completely burnt out.

"The main thing was the number of hours I'd worked. I was doing well over 50 hours most weeks and an accumulation of working over the weekends just to keep up with the load.

"Then there was finance struggles. It just left me burnt out."

The man, who did not want his name published, is in his mid-30s and also takes part in intense training for his chosen sport.

A chance encounter connected him with natural practitioner Dr Kathleen Wills, who diagnosed him with adrenal fatigue.

He has been on health supplements - made from a mix of vitamins, minerals and herbs - for just over a month and has started to eat clean.

"I've cut out gluten from my diet and don't eat takeaways when I'm out. I'm making healthier food choices."

Asked how he felt physically and mentally, he said: "I think my moods are better and a lot more constant and levelled. I'm more relaxed."

Fitness guru Lee-Anne Wann's tips

1. Green tea

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It's readily available and an easy thing to add for lowering stress. High in antioxidants, it helps burn fat, reduce inflammation and the impact of stress. Any amount is helpful but ideally we need 6-7 cups per day to really combat stress, so use chilled green tea as a base for a smoothie or shake, or add to your drinking water.

2. Strength training

Strength or weight training is in the list for improving the body's ability to manage stress. It helps produce a powerful antioxidant called glutathione, which protects from effects of stress and the damage it can cause. Aim for at least 3 20-40 minute sessions of resistance per week.

3. Eat often

Stressed people tend to skip meals and go for long periods without food, which can send stress levels even higher. Eating good foods resets your hormonal cascade and helps reduce cortisol.

Choose nutrient-dense foods such as chicken, eggs, green vegetables, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, avocado and berries over highly processed packaged foods.

4. Add healthy natural fats to your nutrition

It's great to add omega 3 fats (found in fish oils). These help decrease inflammation and can help fight symptoms of chronic stress. Eating salmon a few times a week is great. You could use a high-quality fish oil supplement, or try putting some chia seeds, which also contain omega 3, in your water or foods.

5. Laugh more

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Small things really make for great changes and laughing is definitely one of those. Laughter can increase our natural killer cells, make us more resistant to stress and boost our immune system. Rent a comedy movie or spend some time with friends for an effective stress management tool.