Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as 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 paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep but it is not a readily identifiable entity like measles or a growth on the end of your finger. You may look and act relatively normal with adrenal fatigue and may 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.
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, conventional medicine does not yet recognize it as a distinct syndrome.
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.
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
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
How to tell if your adrenals may be 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.
There is Hope!
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, acupuncture, chiropractic care, and massage therapy can effectively promote and support healthy adrenal function.