If you’ve been experiencing fatigue – especially after periods of stress, adrenal fatigue may be the culprit. What is adrenal fatigue? Read more to find out the symptoms, causes, and what you can do about it to feel better.
Adrenal Fatigue is the theory that our adrenal glands get overworked, and that diminishes their function. The adrenal gland is responsible for producing cortisol and other hormones that affect your thyroid. When the adrenals are not working properly, people may experience chronic fatigue, depression, muscle weakness, brain fog, and appetite loss.
People will commonly go to the doctor when they experience unexplained fatigue and “brain fog”. Unfortunately, because those symptoms are common to many different ailments, finding the right diagnosis can be extremely difficult.
Your doctor will likely turn into a detective, asking you about your medical history, completing a physical exam and probably even doing blood tests. When all of those things turn up no clear explanation, both doctor and patient can feel frustrated.
When this happens, one possibility to consider is adrenal fatigue.
Table of Contents
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
In order to investigate what adrenal fatigue is, let’s first cover what your adrenal glands do. The adrenal glands are two small glands which sit on top of your kidneys and produce a variety of essential hormones (about 50 of them!) that regulate your blood pressure, metabolism, response to stress, immune system, and other essential life functions.
I think it’s important to note that adrenal fatigue isn’t actually an accepted medical diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Instead, “adrenal insufficiency” is a medical term that means there’s inadequate production or one or multiple hormones – usually caused by surgery or some underlying disease (such as Addison’s Disease).
However, a newer theory links adrenal exhaustion to stress exposure as a possible reason for unexplained fatigue. Appropriately, this theory is known as adrenal fatigue. This term was coined by James L. Wilson, PhD in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Syndrome.
In the past, doctors have been reluctant to diagnose adrenal fatigue to the point where it’s been considered to be a controversial diagnosis. Fortunately for those who suffer from it, this diagnosis is becoming increasingly common to indicate adrenal gland depletion.
As Dr. Wilson believed, the function of the adrenals has a profound effect on the entire body. They are the body’s first response to stress, and because of that, they’re also the first casualty of the effects of stress on the body.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue
Now that we’ve covered what is adrenal fatigue, it’s time to talk just a bit about the causes of it.
The adrenals produce cortisol which is normally released to help regulate blood pressure. They will release cortisol in greater amounts when we experience stress.
The theory is that adrenal fatigue happens when excess cortisol release taxes the adrenals to the point that they can no longer produce enough cortisol to keep up with the constant heightened fight or flight state of arousal.
When I talk about stress being the cause, I don’t just mean stress from work or relationships. There are several different things that can cause this extra production and release of cortisol:
- Environmental influences
- Emotional stresses
- Dietary influences
- Autoimmune conditions
- Overuse of antibiotics could possibly be detrimental to cortisol production
Those who believe in adrenal fatigue claim that it’s a mild form for adrenal insufficiency due to the effects of the body being under chronic stress.
An adrenal fatigue blood test and other tests can show inadequate levels of adrenal hormones and can be used to help diagnose adrenal insufficiency. Unfortunately, those same tests are not sensitive enough at this point to help diagnose adrenal fatigue as the reduction in cortisol is not as significant – but your body is sensitive enough to notice the change.
Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms
If you’ve been experiencing fatigue along with other vague, non-specific symptoms, check out this list of adrenal fatigue symptoms to see if any of them match what you have been feeling.
Common symptoms include:
- Fatigue – especially after waking up in the morning
- “Brain fog” or other cognitive issues
- Poor stress responses
- Depressive mood
- Poor mood regulation
- Cravings for salty and sweet foods
- Body aches
- Overuse of caffeine
- Compromised immune system
- Loss of body hair
- Skin discoloration (hyperpigmentation)
Less common symptoms could include:
- Poor circulation
- Frequent urination
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Decreased libido
- Loss of muscle tone
Is Adrenal Fatigue Real?
So, based on these symptoms and a plausible theory, it sounds like adrenal gland fatigue is a real thing. What do the experts say?
A review of 58 studies concluded that there is no scientific evidence to prove that fatigue can be caused by adrenal impairment.
However, the authors admit that there were some limitations with the studies. For example, saliva cortisol tests were used to measure cortisol levels, but in about 62% of the studies, the levels were no different between healthy and fatigued patients. Thus, the review raised questions about appropriate testing:
- What should be tested (urine, blood, or saliva)
- The best times to test
- How often to test
- What are normal ranges
- How reliable the tests are
This combined with the fact that the symptoms are so generalized and vague (and can apply to many other ailments) have caused many traditional western doctors to be slow to recognize adrenal gland fatigue as a viable medical condition.
However, doctors or functional medicine, homeopaths, and naturopaths are increasingly recognizing adrenal fatigue, and some traditional doctors are doing so as well.
What if I’m experiencing Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms?
If you are tired, have sleep problems or brain fog, first get checked out by your doctor. A thorough evaluation can help to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Hormonal impairments
- Mental illness
- Kidney and liver diseases
- Autoimmune diseases
- And more
If you get a full workup from your doctor and it’s all clear, consider asking yourself about the types of stress you may be experiencing and if there are other reasons your adrenal glands could be drained.
Try drinking my adrenal cocktail recipe to see if it helps to relieve your symptoms.
Diagnosing Adrenal Gland Fatigue
In the past, adrenal function was assessed through blood tests for Addison’s Disease or Cushing’s Syndrome, but those tests don’t really take into account the complexity of cortisol level cycles.
Most commonly, doctors test for adrenal fatigue with saliva or urine tests in order to measure cortisol levels. However, adrenal fatigue is difficult to diagnose solely through test results. Instead, doctors need to administer comprehensive tests to better understand their patient’s daily energy patterns.
This will help doctors take into account the bigger picture rather than a very small snapshot of hormone levels.
Not Addison’s Disease
It’s worth noting that Addison’s Disease, while closely related, isn’t the same and shouldn’t be confused with adrenal fatigue. Unfortunately, many traditional doctors continue to only diagnose adrenal insufficiency as a result of Addison’s Disease.
Symptoms of both are similar, but the primary difference is that adrenal fatigue is thought to be the effects of stress on otherwise healthy adrenal glands.
Treating Adrenal Fatigue
The theory of adrenal fatigue may fit your (very real) symptoms like a glove, but before you start searching the internet for things to buy to cure this issue, take a close look at your lifestyle.
Feeling better may simply be a matter of making a few small changes in your life to reduce stress levels and restore optimum function to your adrenals. Examples of helpful changes include:
- Adopt a healthy sleep routine and schedule
- Implement a low-sugar/low-caffeine diet
- Avoid junk food
- Try taking adrenal fatigue supplements
- Stay hydrated
- Practice meditation
- Drink the Adrenal Cocktail
Adrenal Fatigue Supplements:
Note: make sure to check with a doctor before taking any supplements to ensure that they don’t adversely affect any medicines you’re currently taking.
If you want to try adding supplements to your daily routine to help ease adrenal gland fatigue, these may help.
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins
- Coenzyme Q10
- Licorice Root
If you find yourself experiencing vague symptoms that you can’t really explain, including fatigue, adrenal fatigue may be the culprit. Be sure to get a thorough medical workup to rule out other common ailments with similar symptoms. If you don’t find any answers there, ask your doctor (or other practitioners) what is adrenal fatigue and if you might be experiencing it.