Adrenal fatigue is believed to affect millions of people worldwide. While conventional medicine doesn’t recognise it as a medical illness, many alternative health practitioners believe it refers to a group of signs and symptoms (medically referred to as a “syndrome”) that occur when the adrenal glands function sub-optimally as a result of intense, prolonged stress.
“Advocates of this syndrome believe that the adrenal glands can get tired when put to work for too many days, day in and day out,” Dr Katherine Chubinskaya, an American doctor who specialises in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, says.
If you’ve been under constant pressure for a long time, and you’re feeling exhausted, it’s worth taking note of the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of adrenal fatigue.
What, exactly, is adrenal fatigue?
Alternative medicine expert Dr. James L Wilson coined the term “adrenal fatigue” in 1998 to identify below-optimal adrenal function resulting from stress, clearly distinguishing it from another condition called adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease).
In his bestselling book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, Dr Wilson explains that healthy functioning of the adrenal glands is essential to virtually all aspects of health, as well as to the body’s ability to handle stress.
As part of the “fight-or-flight” response, the adrenal glands (which sit at the top of each of the kidneys) release the so-called “stress” hormones, e.g. cortisol, aldosterone, adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Apart from helping us to quickly respond to stressful situations, these hormones also have other important functions such as maintaining cardiovascular function, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and metabolism.
There’s also a flipside: problems such as frequent infections, chemical sensitivities, allergies, autoimmune diseases (e.g. fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis), PMS, thyroid function imbalances, chronic fatigue syndrome, low libido, chronic anxiety and mild depression may be aggravated by the effects of stress on the adrenal glands.
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When lengthy stressful periods necessitate the adrenal glands to work overtime, they may eventually lose their ability to function properly. They then start producing less of the hormones needed for vital body functions.
While adrenal fatigue is most often linked to intense or long-lasting stress, it’s believed that it can also occur during or after acute or chronic infections such as influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Other possible causes include long exposure to toxic chemicals or pollutants, as well as situations that place an enormous burden on the body, e.g. major surgery, drug addiction or long-term malnutrition.
Adrenal fatigue symptoms
Exhaustion that’s not relieved by sleep is the main symptom of adrenal fatigue, according to alternative-medicine literature. This seems to occur in people who experience ongoing and long-term mental, physical or emotional stress (e.g. shift workers, single parents, working students and those with stressful jobs).
Other symptoms may include:
• Feeling sleepy during the day, finding it difficult to get out of bed for more than a few hours per day, or feeling worn out
• General body aches
• Increased craving for sweet and salty food
• Needing stimulants or high levels of caffeine (e.g. colas or coffee) to get through the day
• Low blood pressure
• Loss of body hair
• Sudden weight loss
• Problems in recovering from illnesses
• Inability to fall asleep at night
Diagnosing and treating adrenal fatigue
If you believe you may have adrenal fatigue, an alternative health practitioner will enquire about your medical history and symptoms before conducting blood and/or saliva tests.
These tests are aimed at measuring the levels of circulating stress hormones, and may help to detect some biochemical imbalances associated with conditions such as depression, insomnia, obesity and diabetes.
Treatment is likely to focus on lifestyle modifications and adrenal support in the form of dietary supplements. Getting into a more regular sleep-wake cycle, quitting smoking, cutting down on alcohol, ensuring you get at least 7-8 hours’ sleep every night, eating healthily, and avoiding stressful situations (as far as possible) are part of the treatment process.
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Since most conventional medical doctors don’t recognise adrenal fatigue as a true medical condition, there’s some concern that, if a person is told that he or she has the condition, the real cause of the symptoms and other more serious underlying conditions may not be identified and treated correctly.
Nutritional supplements for adrenal-gland disorders can also be potentially dangerous if they haven’t been clinically tested for safety. Taking these supplements when you don't actually need them may also impair the function of the adrenal glands.
Other forms of adrenal dysfunction
It’s important to know that there are several other adrenal disorders that result from the adrenal glands producing too little or too much of their important hormones. Some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are similar to those associated with the following conditions:
Adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) is a rare autoimmune disease, characterised by chronic and insufficient production of the two vital glucocorticoid hormones called cortisol and aldosterone. Symptoms usually begin gradually and may include unusual fatigue, muscle weakness, dizziness when standing, stomach ache, decreased appetite and weight loss. It’s often difficult to diagnose this condition, even when using blood and urine tests. As adrenal insufficiency results in a lack of essential hormones, treatment focuses on replacing or substituting those hormones.
Cushing's syndrome is caused by an overproduction of cortisol. If left untreated, this condition can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes and osteoporosis.
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated disorder characterised by extreme fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest and which can't be explained by any underlying medical condition. Other symptoms include loss of memory or concentration, sore throat, enlarged lymph nodes in the armpits or neck, unexplained muscle pain, and pain that travels from one joint to another without swelling or redness. The cause is unknown.
Read: New clues to chronic fatigue syndrome
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a genetic condition that also causes the adrenal glands to produce too little cortisol and/or aldosterone as well as too much of the androgen hormone.
If you think you’re suffering from symptoms of adrenal fatigue, see your doctor so he can rule out any other underlying medical conditions like adrenal insufficiency.
Adrenal insufficiency can lead to an adrenal crisis if not treated, resulting in life-threatening low blood pressure, low blood glucose, low blood sodium, and high blood levels of potassium.
Consider approaching an experienced alternative medical practitioner for a second opinion if you’re not satisfied with your doctor’s explanation of your symptoms.
In the meantime, it’s important to review your lifestyle. Are you experiencing a lot of stress? Are you sleep deprived? Is your diet optimal? Are you getting enough exercise?
Make these simple lifestyle changes – they may just resolve the problem.
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Image: Tired businessman from Shutterstock
Sources: Hormone Health Network; Mayo Clinic; Endocrinology.org; EuroMedicom; Adrenalfatigue.org; UCSFhealth.org; Endocrinesociety.org; National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service; Endotext.org