Is adrenal fatigue real? I am sitting in a café and I can’t help but overhear a girl complain to her friend that lately she is always tired. Her friend quickly pipes and suggests that maybe the problem is with her adrenals and that she might just be suffering from adrenal fatigue. She then goes on to list out all the people she knows who are suffering from adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal fatigue is a term that we are commonly hearing people declare that they are suffering from. But what actually is adrenal fatigue and does it really exist?
If you ask any conventional doctor they will dismiss the term adrenal fatigue, saying that it is not a real medical condition. They claim it is something fabricated by the alternative medical community. And you know what, they are right. Adrenal fatigue is not a “real” medical condition. Modern medicine has not defined the cluster of symptoms that people that have adrenal fatigue have to be definitive, nor is there any blood tests that can accurately diagnose the condition.
BUT WAIT…. just because modern medicine won’t acknowledge something, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. There are millions of cases world wide where patients have presented with similar symptoms of fatigue, exhaustion, poor digestion, lowered immunity and hormonal imbalances that have had their health restored by following an adrenal fatigue healing protocol. It is this type of clinical evidence can not be ignored.
I understand the concern that doctors have with terms like adrenal fatigue. They are worried that the broad range of symptoms may be due to something more sinister, yet the patient is being diagnosed, and often self-diagnosed with a ‘fake condition’. Any reputable natural health practitioner will insist that a patient presenting with this cluster of symptoms has a thorough examination and pathology testing to ensure that there is no other conditions present. Adrenal fatigue is a little like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), it is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that it is diagnosed, once everything else has been ruled out. Five years ago most doctors laughed at the term IBS, but now they are commonly accepting that this condition is real and are diagnosing patients with it daily, despite that there is no pathology test that can diagnose it. Maybe in another 5 years we will be seeing the same thing with adrenal fatigue.
So what is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue occurs when your body’s ability to adapt to stress is diminished. Stress is a response by the body to a stimulus such as fear or pain that disrupts the normal day-to-day physiological balance of the body. Stress can be physical, mental or emotional, it can also be short term or chronic.
The adrenal glands are two triangular shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They are responsible for the production of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, aldosterone, cortisol and DHEA. The adrenal glands are in constant contact with the brain via the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis). It is this axis that dictates our response to stress, as well as our circadian rhythm.
In essence, adrenal fatigue is really an imbalance in the HPA axis. Perhaps HPA axis dysfunction might actually be a more appropriate name than adrenal fatigue. So it is not really our adrenal glands that have given up, it is the brain that is not signalling the adrenal glands to make these hormones correctly.
When we are exposed to stress our body produces cortisol. Cortisol then directs the distribution of energy to different organs that control the stress response, such as the heart, brain and muscles. It makes an increase in blood sugar levels so that glucose is readily available to the cells so that they body can perform under stress. It also suppresses functions that are not deemed necessary for immediate survival such as the immune system, digestive system and reproductive system. Remember, this hormone is also referred to as our fight or flight hormone, it is what we want pumping through our body when the sabre tooth tiger was chasing us through the jungle. Once the stress that we were exposed to has gone, then cortisol levels drop, blood sugar levels drop and the immune, digestive and reproductive systems kick back up again. This is a normal stress response, and it is what the body was designed to do.
The degree of the stress response to a situation is different for everybody.
Some people seem to manage high levels of stress whilst others can get into a state of panic over the smallest of things. The problem with the stress that we experience today is that it is not usually of a single origin. It is the compound stress of work, family, emotional trauma, physical illness, reliance on stimulants and chemical exposure that we see today that can just make it too hard for some people to cope.
The problems lie when we are in a chronic state of stress and thus cortisol levels are constantly elevated. Cortisol naturally fluctuates over a 24 hour period, with it being highest in the morning so that we have the energy to get out of bed, and then it drops in the evening so we can sleep. When someone is chronically stressed they have high levels of cortisol all the time. We consider this to be the first phase of adrenal fatigue. During this phase, the patient often comments that they feel ‘tired but wired’.
This is where other imbalances within the body start to occur, such as –
- Digestive issues
- Weight gain, especially around the abdomen
- Fatigue, lethargy and exhaustion
- Poor mental concentration
- Frequent infections
- Increase in PMS symptoms
- Heart palpitations
After a while, the adrenals simply start to produce less cortisol. What happens here is the patient is still stressed, they still have a whole host of symptoms, yet they can no longer cope with it as they don’t have the cortisol levels to get them through. This is where they crash and burn. This where they can’t get out of bed in the morning, this is where depression or anxiety might kick in. As you can see, too much or too little cortisol is not a good thing. This state is what naturopaths refer to as adrenal fatigue.
Does this sound like you?
If you are saying yes to most of those symptoms above then you need to acknowledge that you need to give your body the time and attention that it needs to heal. You can start by doing some pathology testing via your GP or naturopath. Ensure that you get a 24-hour salivary cortisol test so that you can see just how much or how little cortisol your body is producing.
From these results, a personalised treatment plan can be created. You will find online many herbal and nutritional suggestions to heal adrenal fatigue, however, everyone is individual and there is no one solution that fits all.
What you do need to ensure is that you make the following lifestyle changes –
- Eat a clean diet of whole foods
- Practise relaxation exercises such as yoga, walking and stretching
- Reduce the amount of intense exercise that you are doing. Intense cardio workouts are very stressful on the body, and anyone who is suffering from adrenal fatigue should avoid this extra stress.
- Start meditating. If this sounds daunting, there are plenty of free apps such as Calm, which offer guided meditation sessions that go from 2 minutes to hours. Even 5 minutes of meditation can make a huge difference.
- Reduce your exposure to chemical and environmental toxins
- Sleep! Get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night
- Speak to your practitioner to get a personalised prescription of herbal medicine that can help to nourish your adrenal glands, stress response and cortisol levels.
If you would like to explore this topic further and assess if naturopathic medicine can help you, please send me an email and we can work together to get your health to its optimal level.