“Adrenal fatigue” is a term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances and digestive problems.
But, is it a real thing, and if so, what exactly is it?
The term “adrenal fatigue” was coined in 1998 by James Wilson, PhD, a naturopath and expert in alternative medicine. He describes it as a “syndrome” that results “when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level.”
According to Wilson, the main contributing factor to adrenal fatigue is stress. Long term stress, he says, “burns out” the critical hormone producing ability of the adrenals.
The adrenal glands are two little hat-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys. They’re small, but they play an integral role in the functioning of the entire body; their main role is to produce important hormones such as cortisol, aldosterone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, explains naturopathic doctor Heather Tynan. For example, these glands respond to stress by churning out cortisol (the “stress” hormone) or releasing norepinephrine (the “fight or flight” hormone).
Because they produce critical hormones such as cortisol, “the adrenals are indirectly involved in functions like regulating blood sugar levels, controlling metabolism, managing inflammation, respiration, muscle tension, and more,” explains holistic health expert Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition, and author of the Keto Diet and Collagen Diet.
When the adrenal glands are functioning improperly, and hormone production is significantly lower than normal, you are suffering from a condition known as “adrenal insufficiency,” also known as “Addison’s Disease.”
But, “Sometimes, people have an ‘in-between condition’,” says functional and anti-aging medicine doctor Mikheil Berman M.D. “Meaning, that their adrenal hormone levels aren’t so low that they have Addison’s disease, but that their adrenal glands aren’t functioning well enough for them to feel or be healthy.” This is called adrenal fatigue. Or, at least, this is what anti-aging doctors, functional medicine doctors, and naturopaths recognize as adrenal fatigue.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
The root cause of adrenal fatigue is stress. “Adrenal fatigue is a condition caused by overstimulation of the adrenal glands due to long-term stress,” says Berman.
When you’re stressed –whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or a combination of all three — the adrenal glands are being told to release cortisol into your bloodstream. When you’re overstressed, they’re constantly churning out cortisol, which overworks them and wears them down, says Berman. “And in the long term, this chronic stress interferes with their ability to do their job and produce cortisol when they need to.” This is when adrenal fatigue sets in.
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Generalized fatigue
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia
- Brain fog and lack of focus and motivation
- Thinning hair and nail discoloration
- Menstrual irregularity
- Low exercise tolerance and recovery
- Low motivation
- Low sex drive
- Cravings, poor appetite, and digestive issues
So how do you treat adrenal fatigue and allow your adrenal glands to heal? It’s pretty simple, eliminate the root cause. “You have to manage your stress levels,” says Len Lopez, D.C., C.S.C.S, chiropractor and certified clinical nutritionist. “That means you have to quit doing the things that make you feel more stressed. And start doing things that help you feel less stressed.”
That means less use of electronics at night, fewer long days at the office when possible, and practicing some stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing or tai chi.
It also means to stop “stressing” your metabolism, by cutting down on inflammatory foods such as:
- Caffeinated drinks
- Sugar, sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners
- Refined carbohydrates and sugary foods like cereals, white bread, pastries, and candy.
- Processed meats, like cold cuts, salami
- Lower quality red meat
- Hydrogenated oils and vegetable oils like soybean, canola, and corn oil
While the term “adrenal fatigue” is controversial because it’s not generally recognized in most conventional medical circles, its symptoms are indeed associated with adrenal glands that have stopped working after a period of high stress.
So, if you are highly stressed – and who isn’t these days – try the lifestyle changes mentioned above. Your adrenals, and your whole body will thank you!