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A question of strength Is adrenal exhaustion a real thing?

Eine Frage der Kraft  Ist eine adrenale Erschöpfung etwas Reales?

Probably not, but there are real issues that can cause problems that people associate with adrenal fatigue.

Like many coaches, I used to believe in adrenal fatigue. The theory goes like this:

When you are constantly under stress, your adrenal glands work overtime and are forced to produce more stress hormones than they should. Over time, they become fatigued and are no longer able to produce stress hormones. The theory is that this leads to the body no longer being able to cope with stressful situations, resulting in a state of chronic fatigue.

The problem? The whole thing is pseudoscientific, has never been proven and is unlikely to actually happen.

This does not mean that people are lying about their symptoms. They are real and can be caused by excessive stress, stimulant abuse and other lifestyle issues that increase the production of stress hormones. However, they have nothing to do with exhaustion of the adrenal glands.

What symptoms are we talking about here? Here is what people generally experience when they suspect they are suffering from adrenal fatigue:

  • A decrease in motivation
  • Low energy
  • A decrease in willpower/discipline
  • Anhedonia (a lack of pleasure)
  • Mood swings
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Not feeling refreshed after a full night's sleep
  • A decrease in physical and mental performance

What can cause these problems?

The most likely causes are as follows:

  1. A depletion of dopamine reserves
  2. Desensitization of the dopaminergic receptors
  3. Desensitization of the adrenergic receptors
  4. Depletion of norepinephrine reserves

Each of these situations will lead to the symptoms that we associate with adrenal fatigue. And all of these situations can occur when you are chronically under stress or overstressing your nervous system.

Depending on your individual brain chemistry, some of these will be more likely than others. For example, a person who is very sensitive to dopamine is more likely to suffer from depletion of dopamine reserves or desensitization of dopaminergic receptors. Why? Because this person is naturally very sensitive to dopamine, which is why this person does not produce large amounts of dopamine in the first place.

A person who is more sensitive to adrenaline has a higher risk of adrenergic resistance or depletion of noradrenaline stores. This is more widespread. About 14 to 20% of the population is dopamine dominant.

Still confused? Here's what you need to understand: Adrenaline and dopamine are neurotransmitters - chemicals that control your brain. They work by docking onto receptors and activating them. These receptors can be more sensitive or less sensitive. The more sensitive they are, the more strongly they react to neurotransmitters.

Dopamine and adrenaline are activating neurotransmitters. They activate the nervous system and increase motivation, willpower, drive, competitiveness and physical and mental performance. They also have their own effects depending on the part of the brain in which they act. Dopamine, for example, is the feel-good neurotransmitter.

The two are closely linked, as adrenaline is ultimately produced from dopamine. Dopamine can be converted into noradrenaline, which is then converted into adrenaline.

The more adrenaline you need to produce, the more dopamine you will need to consume. If you don't produce a lot of dopamine and use a lot of it to produce adrenaline, then you run the risk of depleting your dopamine stores. Let's take a closer look at this.

Depletion of the dopamine reserves

People with low dopamine production risk depleting their dopamine stores if they cause their body to release too much adrenaline by putting themselves in stressful situations. Different training variables will increase adrenaline release:

  • Pace: A faster workout will result in the highest adrenaline production
  • Volume: More volume means more adrenaline
  • Mental stress: A maximum attempt can also increase the release of adrenaline

A person who naturally has low dopamine levels and trains at a high pace and high volume, always pushing themselves to the limit, risks depleting their dopamine stores.

Desensitization of the dopaminergic receptors

Another possibility is to make the dopaminergic receptors less sensitive. In this case, the effects are similar to those of depleting the dopamine stores: you have plenty of dopamine, but the receptors simply do not respond to it. This is far less common. It is unlikely to happen to the average person who leads a normal life and exercises. It is more likely to happen to people who abuse drugs or medications that directly target the dopamine receptors.

What types of drugs can make your dopamine receptors less sensitive? These are the most common:

  • Cocaine
  • amphetamines
  • Ritalin
  • methamphetamine
  • nicotine

The use of these drugs can generate an enormous stimulus for the dopaminergic receptors. The receptors will adapt to this by becoming less sensitive to prevent continuous overstimulation. People who regularly abuse such substances can easily become resistant to dopamine.

Also, some anabolic steroids can stimulate the dopaminergic receptors, which can be the cause of steroid-related depression.

The other possibility, which is more common, is either desensitization of adrenergic receptors or depletion of norepinephrine stores.

Desensitization of the adrenergic receptors

It is very easy to desensitize the adrenergic receptors. Ask a bodybuilder who has used clenbuterol in the past. During the first day or two, clenbuterol gives a huge boost, causes tremors, provides monstrous energy, etc.

After 2 or 3 days the effects become more subtle and after a week you don't feel much of it. This is because the receptors are "down-regulated" or desensitized.

The problem with desensitizing the adrenergic receptors is that you no longer react to your own adrenaline. And this is what is responsible for low energy, lack of motivation, lack of discipline, poor self-esteem, poor performance, etc.

However, you don't have to use clenbuterol to desensitize your adrenergic receptors. These receptors are like the nitrous oxide injection of a race car: they are meant to provide a short-term boost in a critical situation. They are not meant to be active all the time.

If you are constantly under stress and releasing adrenaline, you can easily make your receptors resistant. This is most often the case when we mistakenly talk about "adrenal fatigue".

Depletion of the noradrenaline stores

A final possibility is depletion of noradrenaline stores. This can be caused by a chronic and excessive increase in cortisol levels. In addition to being an enemy of muscle building, cortisol is also what increases the conversion of norepinephrine to adrenaline. The more cortisol you produce, the more noradrenaline is converted into adrenaline. Symptoms of depletion of noradrenaline stores include

  • Low energy
  • A lack of focus
  • Concentration problems
  • Disorganization
  • Low blood sugar levels

The bottom line? Excessively and chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to what we think of as adrenal fatigue, either depleting norepinephrine levels (which is easier to fix) or desensitizing adrenergic receptors (harder to fix).

How do you know which of the two it is?

Apart from blood tests, you can mainly rely on observation. However, there is a test that can help you narrow down the causes.

Take 7 grams of tyrosine in the morning on an empty stomach, wait 30 minutes and then see how you feel. Compare this to how you normally feel in the morning.

  • If you feel great 30m minutes after taking tyrosine - much better and more energized than usual - then the problem is probably a depletion of dopamine reserves (tyrosine is used to make dopamine).
  • If you feel good - but not like you've found a mash silver bullet - then it's probably a depletion of noradrenaline reserves. In this case, it may take 45 minutes before you start to feel a little better. This is because dopamine is produced from tyrosine, which then increases the levels of noradrenaline.
  • If you still feel low after 30 to 45 minutes and you don't feel any difference, then it's probably adrenergic desensitization.

The first two cases share the same basic solution: an increase in dopamine levels. Here it can be helpful to supplement a form of tyrosine and to ensure an adequate intake of vitamin B6, which is needed to produce dopamine. In addition to this, taking Rhodiola can help, which extends the lifespan of dopamine.

If your problem is a depletion of noradrenaline stores, then it may make sense to reduce your cortisol levels by taking 3 to 5 grams of glycine and a serving of magnesium (500 mg) after training and in the evening. Glycine is a neurological inhibitor that reduces cortisol release due to over-activation and magnesium can separate adrenaline from the adrenergic receptors.

If your problem is based on adrenergic desensitization, then taking magnesium (500 mg) three to four times a day may help to prevent excessive binding of adrenaline to the receptors. The same applies to an increase in meal frequency and carbohydrate intake.

A higher meal frequency and more frequent carbohydrate intake will reduce adrenaline production by directly and indirectly reducing cortisol release, which in turn will reduce the conversion of noradrenaline to adrenaline. If you are a carbohydrate-phobe, you may be afraid of getting fat. You may also gain a pound or two in the process. But that's nothing compared to the long-term damage caused by resistant receptors.

In terms of training, all of these situations require that you reduce your training volume by about 40 to 50%, that you reduce your frequency (do only three to four workouts per week), that you lengthen your rest intervals, and that you stay away from intensity techniques until the problem is resolved.

The training of natural trainers vs. steroid users

How important is it for a trainer to know if a bodybuilder they are training is using steroids or other performance enhancing substances? Does this change the way that athlete should train?

This question is super important because you can't train steroid-free athletes and steroid users the same way unless you're talking about a natural trainer who is a genetic freak in the muscle-building department.

But these athletes are rare and make up less than 1 to 2% of the population. The normal steroid-free exerciser does not have the advantages that steroid users and genetic freaks benefit from and cannot tolerate the same amount of training. Here are the main differences:

Frequency per muscle

Anabolic steroids activate protein synthesis and this remains permanently elevated, meaning that these exercisers do not need to train a muscle as often to achieve maximum growth. A steroid-free exerciser will only increase protein synthesis when training a muscle and the increase in protein synthesis will only last for 24 to 36 hours.

Thus, a steroid-free exerciser should train a muscle two to three times a week for maximum growth, while the chemically-assisted exerciser can achieve good growth even if they only train a muscle hard once a week (although again, I think two workouts a week would be better).


Chemically assisted exercisers can recover better from high volume. For them, muscle damage repair is faster and easier due to increased protein synthesis. This is why the approach of completely destroying a muscle once a week is popular and works well for these exercisers, but doesn't work as well for the average natural exerciser.

In addition, the frequency with which a muscle is trained and the training volume per training session are inversely proportional to each other: the more often you train a muscle, the less volume per training session you can use. A steroid-free exerciser should train a muscle more often for optimal results, which is another reason why they should not do so with a high volume per training session.

Number of exercises

This goes along the same lines as the volume component. A chemically assisted trainee can recover and grow sufficiently even at high volume, which is why they can perform more exercises per muscle group.

If you're like most bodybuilders, then you probably believe that you have to bomb a muscle from every angle. Well, a steroid-free exerciser has to be more careful with exercise selection. Since he can't recover as well and can't tolerate as much volume, he can't use a myriad of exercises per training session. He must choose his exercises very carefully and opt for exercises that offer him the most for his efforts.

He should avoid redundant exercises (e.g. bench press followed by dumbbell bench press followed by bench press on the multi press) and avoid unnecessary volume (exercises that have little to offer in terms of additional benefits).

Whether a steroid-free exerciser can train with heavy weights has more to do with the CNS, meaning that both steroid users and natural exercisers can train heavy if they have the nervous system for it.

How can you find out if you have the nervous system for it?

  • Are you at the end 2 to 3 hours after a heavy training session?
  • Are you cranky and unmotivated the day after a training session with heavy weights?
  • Is your resting heart rate significantly elevated the morning after a heavy training session?
  • Do you have a drop in libido after a few weeks of heavy training?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping even when you train heavy if you train early in the day?

If this applies to you, then you don't have the nervous system to tolerate a lot of heavy training.


By Christian Thibaudeau

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