What is Adrenal Fatigue?
June 13, 2016
Adrenal fatigue is a group of related signs and symptoms (a syndrome) that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, it can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. As the name suggests, its chief symptom is fatigue unrelieved by sleep. However, adrenal fatigue is not a readily identifiable entity like a sprained ankle. You may look and act relatively normal with adrenal fatigue and not have any obvious signs of physical illness, yet you live with a general sense of unwellness, tiredness or "gray" feelings. People experiencing adrenal fatigue often have to use coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day.
Adrenal fatigue can wreak havoc with your life. In the more serious cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that you may have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours per day. With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in your body is more profoundly affected. Changes occur in your carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart and cardiovascular system, and even sex drive. Many other alterations take place at the biochemical and cellular levels in response to, and to compensate for, the decrease in adrenal hormones that occurs with adrenal fatigue. Your body does its best to make up for under-functioning adrenal glands, but it does so at a price.
This syndrome has been known by many other names throughout the past century, such as non-Addison's hypoadrenia, sub-clinical hypoadrenia, neurasthenia, adrenal neurasthenia, adrenal apathy and adrenal fatigue. Although it affects millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, it is generally dismissed by conventional medicine.
What causes adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is produced when your adrenal glands cannot adequately meet the demands of stress.* The adrenal glands mobilize your body's responses to every kind of physical, emotional, or psychological stress through hormones that regulate energy production and storage, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to cope with the stress. Whether you have an emotional crisis such as the death of a loved one, a physical crisis such as major surgery, or some other type of severe, repeated or constant stress in your life, your adrenals have to respond to the stress and maintain homeostasis. If their response is inadequate, you are likely to experience some degree of adrenal fatigue.* During adrenal fatigue your adrenal glands function, but not well enough to maintain optimal homeostasis because their output of regulatory hormones has been diminished – usually by over-stimulation.* Over-stimulation of your adrenals can be caused either by a very intense single stress, or by chronic or repeated stresses that have a cumulative effect.* The causes of adrenal fatigue usually stem from one of four common sources that overwhelm the adrenal glands:
- disease states such as severe or recurrent infection or illness
- physical stress such as surgery, poor nutrition, addiction, injury or exhaustion
- emotional/psychological stress from relationships, work or other unavoidable situations
- continual and/or severe environmental stress from toxic chemicals and pollutants
Who gets adrenal fatigue?
Anyone from birth to old age and from any race or culture can experience adrenal fatigue.* People vary greatly in their ability to respond to and withstand stress. An illness, a life crisis, or a continuing difficult situation can drain the adrenal resources of even the healthiest person. However, there are factors that can increase susceptibility to adrenal fatigue.* These include poor diet; substance abuse; too little sleep and rest; too many social, emotional or physical pressures; serious or repeated injury; chronic illness; repeated infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia; allergies; exposure to a toxic environment; prolonged situations that make you feel trapped or helpless; and a mother with adrenal fatigue during pregnancy and birth. Unfortunately, many of these factors are common in modern life.
How can I tell if my adrenals are fatigued?
You may be experiencing adrenal fatigue if you regularly notice the following:*
- You feel tired for no reason, especially in the early morning and mid-afternoon.
- You have trouble getting up in the morning, even after a full night’s sleep.
- You feel rundown or overwhelmed.
- You have difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness.
- You crave salty and/or sweet snacks.
- You feel more awake, alert and energetic after 6PM than you do all day.
Is adrenal fatigue Common?
Although there are no recent statistics available, Dr. John Tinterra, a medical doctor who specialized in low adrenal function, said in 1969 that he estimated that approximately 16% of the public could be classified as severe, but that if all indications of low cortisol were included, the percentage would be more like 66%. This was before the extreme stress of 21st century living, 9/11, and the severe economic recession we are experiencing.
Is adrenal fatigue related to any health conditions?
The processes that take place in any chronic disease, from arthritis to cancer, place demands on your adrenal glands. Therefore, it is likely that if you are suffering from a chronic disease and morning fatigue is one of your symptoms, your adrenals may be fatigued to some degree.*Also, any time a medical treatment includes the use of corticosteroids, diminished adrenal function is probably present.* All corticosteroids are designed to imitate the actions of the adrenal hormone, cortisol, and so the need for them arises primarily when the adrenals are not providing the required amounts of cortisol.
Can people experiencing adrenal fatigue feel their best again?
Yes, with proper care most people experiencing adrenal fatigue can expect to feel good again.
Where are the adrenal glands?
The adrenal glands are two small glands, about the size of large grapes, which sit over your kidneys. They are located towards the back of your body, near the bottom of your ribs on each side of your spine.
How do doctors diagnose adrenal fatigue?
Most medical doctors are not aware of adrenal fatigue. They only recognize Addison’s disease, which is the most extreme end of low adrenal function. Astute doctors who are familiar with the varying degrees of decreased adrenal function usually test the adrenal hormone levels in the saliva. This is a simple and relatively inexpensive test that has recently become available from a few labs and is an accurate and useful indicator of adrenal fatigue. A kit can be obtained from the lab and the test completed at home by simply spitting into the test tubes four times throughout a 24-hour day. The samples are mailed in and the results are sent back to either the patient or the attending physician. There are some other lab tests but they need special interpretation by physicians trained to recognize and treat adrenal fatigue. There are other common lab tests that can be used more indirectly to detect adrenal fatigue, but the majority of medical doctors do not know how to interpret these tests for indications of adrenal fatigue.
Can children experience adrenal fatigue?
Yes, children are susceptible to the same causative factors for adrenal fatigue as adults. Children whose mothers had adrenal fatigue during their gestation and/or birth are especially vulnerable to lowered adrenal function. These children are often more sickly, have less ability to handle stressful situations, and take longer to recover from illnesses. However, they too can greatly benefit from proper adrenal support and healthy lifestyle choices.
Is age a factor in adrenal fatigue?
People can experience adrenal fatigue at any age but both the very young and the very old are more vulnerable to stress and, therefore, to adrenal fatigue.
Can adrenal fatigue become chronic?
Yes, in some people the adrenal glands do not return to normal levels of function without help, either because the stress was too great or too prolonged, or because their general health is poor. However, when adrenal fatigue becomes chronic, it is almost always because of factors that can be changed through modifications in lifestyle and proper adrenal support.
Is adrenal fatigue common in someone with cancer who is going through chemotherapy?
The extreme fatigue that accompanies cancer and any other chronic illnesses is often the result of decreased adrenal function. Chronic illness and toxic treatments like chemotherapy are major stressors that the adrenals must respond to. In addition, because of the side effects of chemotherapy, and sometimes the cancer itself, nutrient consumption and absorption is often decreased, further impairing adrenal function. It is very important to provide adrenal support during this time.
Does adrenal fatigue affect the thyroid gland?
Many people experiencing adrenal fatigue also experience some degree of decreased thyroid function. People shown to be low thyroid but unresponsive to thyroid therapy are most likely experiencing adrenal fatigue as well. For these people to maintain healthy thyroid function, the adrenals must be supported in addition to the thyroid.
Does adrenal fatigue affect a woman’s menstrual cycles?
Adrenal fatigue can negatively affect many aspects of a woman’s hormone cycles, including menstrual flow, PMS, perimenopause and menopause.
Does pregnancy set off adrenal fatigue?
No, usually pregnancy decreases adrenal fatigue because the fetus produces a greater amount of adrenal hormones than the amount in the non-pregnant female. However, if the pregnancy is very stressful, it can lead to or increase adrenal fatigue.
If a doctor says there is no such illness as adrenal fatigue, what options do patients have?
Unfortunately, this is the view of many conventional doctors, but they are not as well informed as they believe. Stress-related low adrenal function was recognized over one-hundred years ago and has been successfully treated for decades. However, for various reasons the medical community has ignored the existence of this problem over the past forty years. The best thing you can do is learn as much as possible about how to alleviate your adrenal fatigue and support your adrenals through lifestyle and nutritional modifications. It may also help to switch to a doctor who is familiar with adrenal fatigue or give the uninformed doctor a copy of the book. Hopefully, within ten years many more physicians will know how to recognize and treat adrenal fatigue. You can use our healthcare provider database to search for a one near you who works with adrenal fatigue.
Does smoking increase susceptibility to adrenal fatigue?
Yes, smoking is a chronic stress on the body that makes it more difficult for the adrenals to function. Smoking, by itself, does not lead directly to adrenal fatigue unless the adrenals are already weak; however, smoking is one of the body burdens that accelerate adrenal fatigue and prevent complete recovery from occurring.
Does diet have anything to do with adrenal fatigue?
Yes, diet plays a critical role in adrenal fatigue. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” aptly describes the relationship between poor diet and adrenal fatigue. A nutritionally inadequate diet that is high in sugar, caffeine and junk food places daily stress on your body that your adrenal glands have to respond to and, at the same time, deprives your adrenals of the nutrients they need to function. This alone can lead to adrenal fatigue or make your body more vulnerable to adrenal fatigue when any additional stress is added. Similarly, good nutrition helps protect and sustain adrenal function during stress. When adrenal fatigue is already present, a healthy diet combined with targeted nutritional supplementation can effectively promote and support healthy adrenal function.
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