Is Adrenal Fatigue Even Real?
As adrenal fatigue syndrome becomes increasingly more common, many people are showing interest in finding out more information about the adrenals and the part they play in overall health. As well as asking if adrenal fatigue syndrome is a real thing, other questions people are asking include :
- What Is Adrenal Health?
- What Does The Adrenal Gland Do For You?
- What Is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome?
- What Are The Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue?
- How Is Adrenal Fatigue Diagnosed?
- If I Have Adrenal Fatigue Can I Recover From It?
I had never heard of the adrenal glands until I received the diagnosis from my naturopath that I had adrenal fatigue syndrome. My long journey of discovery, not only into many aspects of adrenal health but also into how adrenal health can relate to chronic fatigue syndrome began with this diagnosis.
Keep reading as I attempt to answer some of the questions you may have about adrenal health, adrenal fatigue and how it can relate to chronic fatigue syndrome.
What Is Adrenal Health As Your Doctor/GP Most Likely Views It?
The adrenals are two walnut sized glands that sit on top of each kidney. Although small in size, the adrenal glands produce hormones vital to maintaining good health including cortisol, adrenaline and sex hormones.
- The Outer Part – of the adrenal gland produces the essential hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol plays an important part in helping your body respond to stress and regulate your blood sugar, while aldosterone helps control your blood pressure.
- The Inner Part – of the adrenal gland makes other non essential hormones like adrenaline which also helps your body react to stress.
If you have an adrenal gland disease your adrenals can either make too much or too little of these important hormones.
For example, if you were to receive a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease, this means your glands are producing too much cortisol. At the other end of the scale, if your adrenals are not able to produce enough cortisol you will be diagnosed with Addison’s disease.
In simple terms, these are two diseases among others your Doctor/GP would look for if a problem with your adrenal glands is suspected.
However, it’s unlikely your Doctor/GP will look for adrenal fatigue syndrome. In the medical world, adrenal fatigue is not recognized. This is due to adrenal fatigue being a ‘syndrome’ rather than a ‘disease’. A syndrome being a collection of symptoms, while a disease has a very specific and identifiable cause.
As a side note to all this “technical stuff”, one very famous personality reported to have had Addison’s disease is President John F. Kennedy. There was much misinformation about this during his lifetime. His family and associates denying he had this serious disease for political reasons. However, pathologists at the president’s autopsy confirmed that there was virtually no trace of any adrenal glands in his body.
If this is the case he must have been receiving hormone therapy from the time he was diagnosed. With a much less serious adrenal condition, adrenal fatigue syndrome, I struggled to function normally every day, far less manage to function as the leader of the modern free world with virtually no adrenal glands at all LOL!
What Is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome?
Unlike President Kennedy, if you don’t have a ‘disease’ of your adrenals, you are probably wondering, what the heck is this adrenal fatigue ‘syndrome’ then?
In a healthy person, cortisol levels fluctuate during the day and cortisol is normally higher in the morning to help you wake up. The level slowly decreases throughout the day so that you can wind down and sleep well in the evening. Cortisol helps regulate your blood sugar and blood pressure and it needs to be balanced, not too high and not too low.
Adrenal fatigue is not just an adrenal issue but a problem with your brain. Your adrenals are part of the HPA axis, the adrenal/brain axis. When you experience symptoms of adrenal fatigue it indicates the HPA axis is not working well.
The HPA axis works to regulate the body’s energy and hormones. An imbalance within any part of the axis can affect your entire entire body system.
This dysfunction of the HPA axis can cause disruption in the supply of cortisol, and you can experience low cortisol at times when it should be high and high cortisol at times when it should be low.
Disrupted cortisol is responsible for the typical adrenal fatigue symptom of waking up fully from sleep regularly at around 3 or 4am every morning unable to get back to sleep. This then leads to your body experiencing a sleep deficit which contributes to your ongoing low energy symptoms.
HPA axis dysfunction can cause the adrenal glands to stop working well which then leads to adrenal fatigue syndrome.
What Are The Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome?
As well as being wide awake at times when you should normally be fast asleep, other symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Afternoon Energy Slump – Experiencing extreme fatigue or what I think of as an energy slump, in the afternoon around 3pm is a common sign of adrenal fatigue. This is the time of day when a trip to the vending machine for a sweet or salty treat is hard to resist as you try to bolster your flagging energy.
- Interrupted Sleep – You may regularly have a fitful sleep, difficulty falling asleep, or as previously mentioned you wake up regularly during the early hours of the morning unable to fall back to sleep again.
- Anxiety – You may have feelings of anxiety and moodiness, and a feeling of being ‘out of control’.
- Weight Increase – Particularly around your midsection, you might develop a ‘muffin top’ that you didn’t previously have.
- Lightheaded On Rising – Feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness on getting up from a lying position.
- Blood Sugar Imbalance – You may experience fluctuation in blood sugar levels.
- Wide Awake During Late Evening – If you stay up later than 11pm, you get a ‘second wind’ effect, then have difficulty winding down enough to fall asleep. This is why most practitioners will advise you to be asleep by 10 pm each night. You will be more in synch with the natural body rhythms and avoid the second wind effect.
- Falling Hair And Weak Nails – You may notice more hair in your shower drain and hairbrush. Your once strong nails may start splitting and breaking.
- Slow To Wake – It can be difficult to awake and get going in the mornings as your morning cortisol level is low. It will take longer than usual to become fully awake.
How Is Adrenal Fatigue Diagnosed?
Here’s the thing, if your GP/doctor doesn’t believe that adrenal fatigue exists, it can be difficult to get a diagnosis unless you choose a naturopath or functional medicine practitioner as your healthcare provider.
If your GP/doctor suspects an adrenal, thyroid or pituitary disease or other hormone imbalance they will commonly order several tests including the following:
- Blood And/Or Urine Cortisol Test
- Thyroid Function Test
- ACTH Test
- DHEA Hormone Test
If you visit a naturopath or functional medicine practitioner they may also request blood tests for thyroid function, ACTH and DHEA hormone tests. However, they will likely request a saliva test if they suspect adrenal fatigue as it is considered a more accurate method of assessing adrenal function when diagnosing adrenal fatigue syndrome.
A 24 hour saliva test is considered a more accurate test for adrenal function as it measures the levels of cortisol being produced at different times of the day.
It’s a little yukky as you need to produce a lot of spit to fill several vials during a one day period before sending them to the lab for testing. However, the test can show if and at what times of the day too much or too little cortisol is being produced by your adrenals.
Your naturopath may also request some other tests too if they suspect you have other things going on leading to your fatigue e.g., other hormone testing, comprehensive stool testing, food sensitivity testing etc.
If I Have Adrenal Fatigue Can I recover From It?
Absolutely you can recover from adrenal fatigue. But, I’m not going to lie to you, it will take some effort on your part to do so. Along the way you will most likely learn some important lessons about yourself too, as I did.
You will probably need to make changes to your diet, but more importantly, make changes to your lifestyle. The main cause of adrenal fatigue is stress, and most often, the stress comes from your lifestyle.
In some cases a single identifiable stressful event may lead to adrenal fatigue syndrome e.g., an auto accident, or burn injury of some kind. It can also develop after an extended severe illness like bronchitis, tuberculosis etc. However, many cases of adrenal fatigue syndrome stem from ongoing lower level stress that is experienced every day.
Without making changes to what is contributing to your stress, you’ll find it difficult to recover from adrenal fatigue syndrome. Or you’ll recover but relapse (as I did several times) because you haven’t dealt with the main things in your life that are causing you to be continually stressed out.
Nowadays, our modern lifestyles, throw us many ongoing chronic stressors which keep our systems in a continually stressed out state. Your body is hard-wired to deal with acute stress e.g., running as fast as you can to get away from a tiger.
But, unrelenting chronic stress keeps your fight or flight response turned on without a break. If this chronic stress sticks around, continuing in a never ending daily pattern, your cortisol is constantly being triggered.
To date, genetically our bodies have not adapted to the many modern chronic stressors we face each day and we can struggle to keep our bodies in a state of balance.
Some Lifestyle Stressors Keeping Your Body In Chronic Stress Mode Include:
- Working too hard, long hours etc.
- Constantly rushing to keep up with everything you have to do.
- Striving constantly to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’.
- Burning the midnight oil.
- Financial worries.
- Partying regularly and too hard.
- Not taking regular holidays/breaks.
- Staying in a job you hate.
- Exercising too hard.
- Remaining in toxic relationships or friendships.
- Eating a poor diet made up almost entirely from convenience foods.
There are several ways to heal your adrenal glands naturally.
However, the most important aspect of healing your adrenal fatigue is identifying where your stress comes from and finding ways to eliminate or manage it.
As you work on identifying and eliminating the main stressors in your life, there are ways in the meantime, you can help your adrenals tame the continual fight or flight mode. Practicing some simple and natural ways to reduce stress will help. Using some natural herbs and supplements to support your adrenals can also be very helpful.
And making sure you are asleep before 10pm every night will help avoid getting the ‘second wind’ effect. It’s so important to get a good night’s sleep, particularly if you have built up a sleep deficit due to several weeks or months of sleepless nights.
Use some of these aids and tips to make sure you wind down and get ready for a full night of restorative sleep.
How Does Adrenal Fatigue Relate to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
There can be many causes of chronic fatigue syndrome, you can read more about just some of the causes here. However, in my case adrenal fatigue syndrome was where my chronic fatigue syndrome started.
I found that unresolved adrenal fatigue and poor adrenal health led many years down the track to my chronic fatigue syndrome. By the time I developed full blown chronic fatigue syndrome I also had many other symptoms as well, not only those of adrenal fatigue.
In the early days when I started out with adrenal fatigue I must have been a slow learner, either that or I was listening but not hearing what my naturopath was telling me.
Whatever the reason, I was eating correctly and taking supplements to help support my adrenals. This would enable me to bounce back from my adrenal fatigue, but again and again I would relapse.
Sometimes I would be OK for a few months, but because I didn’t change my hard driving attitude to my work and career sooner or later I would again experience the all too familiar feelings of low energy particularly in the afternoons. Once again, despite my otherwise healthy diet, I’d find myself at the vending machine searching for caffeine or sugar to keep me going.
This is the reason I place a lot of emphasis in my adrenal fatigue articles on the importance of making the necessary changes to your lifestyle if you want to recover fully from adrenal fatigue.
You can eat a fantastically healthy diet and swallow any number of helpful supplements and herbs, but if you don’t identify and eliminate the stressors in your life, you will have a very difficult time making a full recovery from adrenal fatigue syndrome.
In many cases of chronic fatigue syndrome that DON’T start with it, adrenal fatigue and its accompanying low production of cortisol (as well as a number of other hormones), may help predispose a person to the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome, or make their symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome worse.
Lower than normal cortisol levels are seen in chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers. In normal circumstances cortisol levels rise when there is pain, inflammation and stress in your body. But in chronic fatigue syndrome, where there is also pain, inflammation and stress, it is found that cortisol levels are more likely to decrease.
In people with chronic fatigue syndrome, due to decreased cortisol levels they may suffer more due to this relative absence of pain relieving, anti-inflammatory hormones.
However, when the correct treatment is given to restore balance in the adrenals and HPA axis many chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers can start feeling improvements in their symptoms and energy levels.
So whether your chronic fatigue syndrome started as mine did with adrenal fatigue syndrome or not. It seems that the health of your adrenals more often than not, has some part to play in chronic fatigue syndrome.
Putting It All Together
Whether adrenal fatigue came first, or developed as part of your chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal health has a part to play in most forms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Carrying out the right type of testing for adrenal fatigue is important in figuring out the health of your adrenals.
As Always, Please Feel Free To Leave A Comment.