You may have heard lately, whether from your fellow neighbor, crossfitter, or an overworked friend that they have self-proclaimed “adrenal fatigue”. Now when somebody confides in you about their recent ‘health issues’ or ‘health state’, I assume unless you’re a practitioner, the first thing out of your mouth isn’t going to be “Oh really Jennifer? You're full of sh*t." Yeah, guessing you’re not going to say that. So we’re here today to blow the whistle on ‘adrenal fatigue’ and to get down to the bottom of what it really is, or isn’t.
In this article:
- Defining adrenal fatigue
- The adrenal fatigue theory
- Adrenal hormone depletion and adrenal fatigue symptoms
- Resolving adrenal fatigue and taking action
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal Fatigue is not a real medically recognized term but that doesn't mean that negative health symptoms that people experience aren't real or worthy of recognition. According to Harvard Medical School, the term Adrenal Fatigue is nothing more than “an attractive theory that links stress exposure to adrenal exhaustion as a possible cause of lack of energy”. Thus, we believe that coining your symptoms as Adrenal Fatigue is nothing more than a buzzword thrown around by level 1 certified health coaches and internet health nuts.
“There is no scientific proof that exists to support adrenal fatigue as a true medical condition” – Endocrinology Society
Adrenal Fatigue Theory
If Adrenal Fatigue is nothing more than a theory, then what even is it? Is adrenal fatigue a myth? People who believe that adrenal fatigue is a thing, or that they have adrenal fatigue, are often individuals who are experiencing issues in life such as stress, hormone imbalances, and other underlying medical conditions. Whether it be environmental stress, family stress, work stress, stress from overworking your body physically, there are many reasons why people may exhibit symptoms lumped into the 'adrenal fatigue' category.
The term ‘adrenal’ comes into play when people have an introductory understanding of how the body physiologically addresses stress – in our adrenal glands. These little glands reside right above the kidneys within the body and they’re the powerhouse that handles hormone production in response to stress and prolonged stress, such as cortisol. This is where the connection between adrenal fatigue and burnt out adrenals come into play. When the adrenals and specifically cortisol are exhausted, symptoms are exhibited.
When an individual doesn’t deal with the root issues of stressors in their life, the body’s ability to keep up with the hormone production needed to respond to stress gradually declines to result in a poor ability to produce said ‘stress hormones’. Makes sense where the term, ‘Adrenal Fatigue’, comes from, right? While it may make sense from a preliminary understanding, often times claiming to have adrenal fatigue can prevent an individual from dealing with the real issue - a lack of adrenal hormone(s) production, like cortisol.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
While adrenal fatigue may not be a medically recognized term, it doesn't mean that the symptoms being exhibited aren't real. In fact, they're very real, and they're very sucky.
“Our role is to be good active listeners to determine if there is a true medical disorder lurking among the complaints. It is very important to take the person seriously, not to brush them off and say there is no [such thing as] adrenal fatigue. These people are suffering from something, so we need to take the suffering seriously.” – Lynnette Nieman, MD, president, Endocrine Society; senior investigator, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Bethesda, Md.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue May Include:
- Poor Energy Production & Output
When an individual experiences stress in their life, long-term stress on the mind and body can inhibit the body’s natural response mechanism against stress. Stress can deplete the body’s supplies, as said earlier, from the adrenal glands in the way of adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), of which are related to “anemia, sleep apnea, autoimmune diseases, infections, other hormonal impairments, mental illnesses, heart and lung problems, and kidney and liver diseases are just some among many medical conditions that could cause similar symptoms”, according to Harvard Medical.
Where Does the Term Adrenal Fatigue Come From?
Blame it on the internet. James L. Wilson, DC, DN, Ph.D., proclaimed on his website in 1998 that the term adrenal fatigue aims "to identify below optimal adrenal functioning resulting from stress and distinguish it from Addison's disease". Just because a naturopath on the internet coined the term that many others use nowadays, that doesn't mean it stands in conventional medical practice. Why isn't adrenal fatigue medically recognized? There is "no substantiation that 'adrenal fatigue' is an actual medical condition. Therefore, adrenal fatigue is still a myth." according to a study published in the BMC Endocrine Disorders literature review. Furthermore, adrenal insufficiency is a relatable and real medical term that may be correlated with the symptoms patients exhibit from 'adrenal fatigue'.
Is Adrenal Insufficiency Real?
We've established that adrenal fatigue is a myth, but what about adrenal insufficiency? Adrenal Insufficiency is considered to be a real medical condition that occurs when adrenal glands don't produce enough hormones. While there is some overlap between the two, adrenal fatigue symptoms are generally exhibited without any specific pain point, such as, not being able to get out of bed in the morning and feeling rundown. Similarly, adrenal insufficiency is more formally referred to as Addison's Disease, the very thing that chiropractor James Wilson was trying to correlate his made-up term for.
Addison's Disease Overview
According to the Pituitary Network Association, Addison's disease "is a rare endocrine or hormonal disorder that affects about 1 in 100,000 people". It is a result of poor hormonal response (cortisol & aldosterone) production in the adrenal glands. The disease is also commonly referred to as adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism.
Adrenal insufficiency symptoms include:
- fatigue and muscle weakness
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- nausea & vomiting
- low blood pressure
- dizziness and fainting
- darkening of the skin
- irritability and depression
The most specific tests for diagnosing an individual with Addison's is done by blood and/or urine to measure cortisol levels before and after a synthetic form of ACTH is given by injection. Other tests include an insulin-induced hypoglycemia test, and an x-ray or CT scan of the pituitary gland.
What to do if you think you have Adrenal Fatigue
Symptoms of ‘adrenal fatigue’ have bigger reasons behind them. If you still can’t diagnose your poor mental and physical responses to your stressors in life, then seek out the trust and care of a physician. But don’t go barreling in the office hard headed and dead set on being diagnosed with ‘Adrenal Fatigue’ because I can guarantee this: you won’t be.
Instead, talk to them about your symptoms and the things going on in life. Holistic and alternative therapy physicians will give you more of their time during an appointment (they’re generally longer and involve more questions about your lifestyle, not just your presenting ailments).
Supplements & Medication for Adrenal Fatigue
We’re not going to sell you on any fancy product or try to remarket a product to fix your Adrenal Fatigue symptoms. There is no quick fix or magic pill to this theory about adrenal fatigue. We recommend the following: see a physician and/or eat more nutrient-dense foods.
In the event that you visit with a physician and believe there aren’t any holistic approaches that you can take to address and resolve the causes of stress in your life, your physician may instead prescribe an anti-depressant. Anti-depressants, such as Prozac, generally work to keep serotonin circulating within the brain in order to relieve depression or some of the other symptoms of said Adrenal Fatigue. Another drug that may be recommended is cortisol analogs (not ideal in light cases – cortisol replacement can be pretty dangerous).
With that being said, drugs probably aren’t the way to go. Instead, our best recommendation for supplementing adrenal fatigue and relieving adrenal fatigue is through your diet and nutritional intake from food. Balancing hormones can take time, but it's not impossible and can greatly improve your overall quality of life and physiological functioning.
** Please note: we are not physicians and are not qualified to recommend nor prescribe prescription drugs, nor do we intend to, please always consult a physician, not a just blog on the internet.**
Food for Adrenal Fatigue
In contrast to being prescribed something to address the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, we recommend turning to your fridge.
Foods that contain tyrosine and tryptophan, for example, encourage the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which produces a similar effect on the body that maybe Prozac or a cortisol medication would. Mood can also be boosted by consuming foods rich in Vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, and complex carbohydrates. If you’re unable to get the nutrients you need from your diet every day, including the ones that boost your mood from a micronutrient stand-point, we suggest taking a once-daily multivitamin (read more here).
Some of our favorite food groups to help combat the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue include dairy products, turkey, oats, wheat germ, and eggs (read more about foods here).
Best Diet for Adrenal Fatigue
The best diet we can recommend for Adrenal Fatigue is one rich in micronutrients such as tryptophan and tyrosine. Both nutrients are amino acids that contribute to the production of serotonin in the body. More information on our 5 Favorite Foods to Fight Adrenal Fatigue can be found by reading more here.
The big picture here isn’t coining your poor functioning as just ‘adrenal fatigue’ but rather, taking it as an opportunity to look deeper into your lifestyle and your habits that may be causing your body to respond. If you think your symptoms are debilitating enough, consult a trusted physician. It also might be a little disappointing to your friend Jen to respond to her comment about adrenal fatigue by saying, “Sally, look, adrenal fatigue isn’t real, no doctor is going to tell you that you have adrenal fatigue, just get over it”. We don’t actually encourage doing so, but instead, thoughtfully asking “Jen, I’m sorry to hear you aren’t feeling well, are you under a lot of stress lately?”.
Hear us out – taking a little more introspective approach to your girlfriend might take a little more time and a little more thought on your end. Heck, you might even end up with someone’s life story on your lap. But the more we’re able to decode ‘internet buzz words’ with real actions and questions, the better off we’re all going to be. The quick over – adrenal fatigue isn’t real, but stress is. And stress can take a big toll on your body, longevity, and lifestyle. The better you’re able to diagnose and fix your stressors, the better of you (and your friends) are going to be.