Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is so under-diagnosed that most doctors know nothing about it. The adrenal glands are the most overlooked glands in conventional medicine. They are involved in most functional disorders and play a key role in the most common functional endocrine problems you’ll find. Conventional practitioners rarely test the function of the adrenal glands and when they do, the testing is rarely properly done. As I have alluded to earlier, the adrenal glands have many functions. Most importantly, they are the glands that respond to stress in the body and help control our blood sugar levels through the production of cortisol. Let’s face it. We are exposed to much more stress today then we were 30 years ago. Work , meetings, social engagements, the kid’s sport schedules, cell phones and e-mail all play a role in the creation of adrenal stress—not to mention that our diet is full of processed, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, chemicals in foods, and toxins. Exposure to these things on a daily basis will inevitably change our normal physiology and place stress on our systems.

What are the symptoms of adrenal problems?

The first thing you want to understand about adrenal fatigue and adrenal function in general is that it never happens in a vacuum. The adrenal gland is tightly connected to many endocrine and non-endocrine systems. The following list shows what symptoms you might have if your cortisol levels were out of balance:

  • Fatigue (extremely common)
  • Reactive hypoglycemia (feel shaky between meals)
  • Difficulty getting going in the morning
  • Headache, especially in the afternoon
  • Poor immune function
  • Allergies
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Blurry vision or unstable behavior
  • Sleep disturbances (with high or low cortisol levels)
  • Irritability before meals
  • Fatigue relieved by eating
  • Cravings for sugars, caffeine or cigarettes
  • Feeling bloated or full

How the Adrenal Glands React to Stress

Unfortunately, many people are in a state of constant, prolonged or repeatedly intermittent stress. Their adrenal gland works overtime to deal with these real or perceived stressors. Eventually, the adrenal gland can’t keep up; it tires out and you develop a state of “adrenal fatigue”. Dr. Hans Selye MD is credited with developing the three phases of adrenal stress, known as the “alarm phase” the “resistance phase” and the “exhaustion phase”.

Alarm Phase — This is the healthy adrenal gland’s response to a physical or emotional stressor. The adrenal glands put out a great deal of cortisol and DHEA in response to stress signals. Overall this is a healthy response but, if prolonged, it begins to deplete the stress hormones, including DHEA and cortisol.

Resistance Phase — This is when the adrenal gland undergoes what we previously referred to as the “pregnenolone steal”. The cortisol level can be normal or elevated during this phase. In response to the needs of the body for extra cortisol to handle the stress, the adrenal gland diverts pregnenolone away from making DHEA. For this reason, the DHEA is usually low.

Exhaustion Phase — This is the final stage the adrenal goes through in response to stress. The precursors to both cortisol and DHEA are exhausted and both the DHEA and cortisol levels are diminished. In fact, the cofactors required to make cortisol are diminished first and the pregnenolone remaining often shunts back toward making DHEA again, which may normalize or become elevated.

Salivary tests of the cortisol and DHEA burdens can help your healthcare practitioner decide where in the phases of adrenal fatigue you might be in. By doing proper testing through an Adrenal Stress Index or “ASI test”, the healthcare practitioner will receive a diagram similar to the one below to help make the determination of where you are in the adrenal stress phases.

What are the risks for Adrenal Fatigue?

  • Poor sleep — staying up late and/or getting up too early
  • Poor dietary habits — eating processed refined carbohydrates and trans-fats.
  • Using a lot of caffeine — especially when you find you need it to keep up with your life
  • Feeling constantly powerless — can’t get things done or start things you can’t finish
  • Being a perfectionist — stressing your body with the need to have things perfect
  • Being in a hopeless situation — in a bad marriage or relationship or if you hate your job
  • Being constantly angry — when you can’t find happiness in anything
  • Chronic physical pain or illness — especially having pains that migrate throughout your body

What are the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?

You might suspect that you are in a state of adrenal fatigue if you find yourself having the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue upon awakening.
  • Craving salt.
  • Lack of energy.
  • Mild depression.
  • Premenstrual syndrome.
  • Muscle fatigue.
  • Unable to handle stress.
  • No sex drive.
  • Fuzzy thoughts/poor memory.
  • Insomnia.
  • Light-headed when standing up.

The most important thing in adrenal fatigue is to recognize when it occurs and reduce the level of physical, emotional or mental stress that take a toll on the function of the adrenal gland. The only way to find out if you have an adrenal problem is to have it properly tested with an Adrenal Stress Index saliva test.