Adrenal fatigue affects anyone experiencing prolonged periods of stress or anyone with acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as bronchitis, influenza or pneumonia.
What are Adrenal Glands?
The adrenal glands are tiny hats, one each, that sit atop your kidneys and secrete hormones to help you deal with and manage stress. The outer part of the glands, called the cortex, releases cortisol, for our stress response and metabolism control, as well as aldosterone to regulate blood pressure. The inner part of the glands are the medulla where adrenaline is released, another part of the stress response.
When your central nervous system perceives stress, it stimulates the adrenal glands to release their hormones as a part of the “fight or flight” response. This can happen several times throughout the day and can vary depending on your lifestyle. For example, an alarm clock startling you out of sleep will trigger this response, as will less sudden stressors like feeling overwhelmed by your overflowing email at work or worrying about finances or family members. In the early stages of stress, this response is actually beneficial. It can improve mental clarity, focus and energy. But over time, the benefits start to fade, and the consequences of chronic stress take over.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal Fatigue is a modern-day epidemic and results from the overstimulation of the adrenal glands due to chronic stress and over time, low cortisol levels. The most common report is feeling “burnt out”.
Adrenal fatigue is one of the most common health disorders, but it’s not recognized or screened for in conventional medicine – unless you have the extreme case of Addison’s or Cushing’s Disease – and these are uncommon. However, Adrenal Fatigue will impact up to 80% of us at some point our lives. Adrenal fatigue may occur after a major life-changing event such as divorce, surgery, childbirth, or even following a car accident.
The main purpose of your adrenals is to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship problems. Adrenal function is of paramount importance because these small glands play a pivotal role in determining the way your body responds to every change in your internal and external environment. For example, the protective activity of anti-inflammatory adrenal hormones such as cortisol help to minimize reactions like swelling and inflammation in situations ranging from allergies to autoimmune disorders. These hormones closely involved in many metabolic processes:
- Blood sugar regulation
- Metabolism of carbohydrates and fats
- Conversion of fats and proteins into energy
- Distribution of stored fat – focused around your waist (the spare tire); & sides of your face
- Cardiovascular function
- Gastrointestinal function
After mid-life (menopause in women, andropause in men), the adrenal glands gradually become the major source of the sex hormones circulating throughout the body in both men and women. These hormones themselves have a whole host of physical, emotional and psychological effects, from the level of your sex drive to the tendency to gain weight.
Adrenal fatigue causes a feeling of generalized “unwellness” which creates havoc on your life. In more serious cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that you may have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours per day. With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in your body is more profoundly affected. Metabolic changes occur in your carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart and cardiovascular system, and sex drive. Many other alterations take place at the biochemical and cellular levels in response to, and to compensate for, the decrease in adrenal hormones that occurs with adrenal fatigue.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
As the name suggests, fatigue is the most common symptom. Adrenal Fatigue leads to lower (or higher) production of hormones that may affect every part of your body. So, each case of adrenal fatigue is unique to the person and presents itself differently. The most common symptoms include:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning, even after a long sleep
- Intense & continued fatigue
- Inability to deal with stress
- Craving salty foods
- Weakened immunity (frequent infections or inability to mount an immune response)
- Feeling unusually wired or agitated, yet tired
- Asthma, allergies or respiratory complaints
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Depression, mild to moderate
- Dizziness (Low blood pressure and/or Low blood sugar)
- Dry skin or eczema
- Extremely tired an hour after exercise
- Frequent urination
- Joint pain
- Loss of muscle tone
- Low libido or no sex drive
- Lower back pain
- Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
- Weight gain, especially around the mid-section.
Blood Sugar Issues and Glucose Regulation
Adrenal fatigue can affect sugar regulation. Stress normally causes the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol, which helps raise blood sugar levels so the cells can uptake more glucose to generate energy for the stress response. This elevated blood sugar, in turn, requires higher levels of insulin to get the glucose from the blood into the cells. When this cycle is repeated frequently, the cells may become insulin resistant to protect themselves from too much glucose, especially when no energy-consuming physical action is taken in response to the stress. The greater the insulin resistance, the more insulin it takes to get glucose into the cells. In this way, chronic or repeated stress can contribute to persistent insulin resistance, resulting in high levels of glucose (or hyperglycemia) and high levels of circulating insulin creating a recipe towards metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
How do you know if you have adrenal fatigue?
Testing for Adrenal Fatigue is done via urine or saliva. In either case, samples are collected at home, four different times over the course of one day. Often, other adrenal hormones such as progesterone and DHEA may be included. Both urine and salivary tests are equally sensitive when testing cortisol levels.
Treatments for Adrenal Fatigue
Treatments for adrenal fatigue vary. We use adrenal-specific nutrients and botanical medicine – to help support adrenal health and rebuild integrity for the glands. Sometimes, we may need to incorporate mitochondrial restoration to help ALL cells in the body produce more energy.
We also use Intravenous Vitamin Therapy. Usually this combination very quickly delivers results that both address the symptoms and nourish your adrenals back to optimal function. Additionally, patients find Acupuncture to be incredibly helpful and restorative along with lifestyle modifications. Often, individuals may also need some blood sugar support and dietary changes to support stabilizing and decreasing insulin resistance while healing the adrenal glands.
Bioidentical Hormone Therapy can be a significant player with other adrenal fatigue treatment interventions to also support and balance normal sex hormone levels. Hormones are intimately intertwined, and we must address a few of them simultaneously to achieve lasting results for optimal function, however it does require expertise. Additionally, a good provider can guide you to what medications are not safe in conjunction with botanical approaches, so it is important to see a licensed naturopathic doctor when using herbs as medicine.
Fatigue, exhaustion and anxiety, interrupted sleep, weight gain around the middle – we call this the “cortisol tummy.” Because with adrenal stress, you are more likely to pack on a type of fat around the midsection that is visceral adipose, unlike the subcutaneous kind. This is your body’s way of trying to protect itself from extended periods of stress. You might also experience salty cravings, low sex drive, low blood pressure and low blood sugar causing dizzy spells.
If you have been dealing with excessive stress, you may want to consider speaking with a naturopathic physician. Testing for Adrenal Fatigue via a saliva or urine test is very helpful towards guiding which lifestyle, nutrition and supplement recommendations are best for you.