Adrenal Fatigue: What You Should Know
Adrenal fatigue definitely sounds like a real diagnosis, and to some it is. While the medical community considers adrenal fatigue to be a made-up disease, alternative medicine practitioners see it as a very real problem that can be treated with a natural approach. While there’s no peer-reviewed research to support a medical diagnosis, many naturopathic patients firmly believe that their symptoms indicate a hormone imbalance that is affecting their quality of life and feel frustrated with modern medicine at their refusal to acknowledge the condition.
Whether you’re a disciple of traditional medicine or a believer in all things holistic, whichever theory you subscribe to is up to you. But we’ll tell you what you need to know about adrenal fatigue, it’s supposed symptoms, causes, treatments, and the controversy surrounding it so that you can make up your own mind about this contentious health issue.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue has been defined by alternative medicine as a syndrome caused by over stimulated adrenal glands, two hormone secreting glands located above your kidneys that control your blood sugar, metabolism, blood pressure, illness and stress response, and a number of other functions.
Among the hormones it secretes are cortisol (controlling energy production, blood pressure, and parts of the reproductive system), aldosterone (regulating blood pressure and the absorption of sodium and water into the bloodstream), adrenaline (linked to the body’s fight-or-flight response in which it prepares for stress, activity, or pain), and androgens (a group of sex hormones that includes testosterone and androstenedione, and are also a precursor to estrogen).
Believers in the syndrome believe that prolonged stress can cause the adrenal glands to become underactive and produce fewer of these hormones, which would in turn have negative effects on the bodily functions they are meant to help regulate.
The alleged symptoms of adrenal fatigue are wide ranging, seemingly unrelated, and according to medical experts, common symptoms experienced by many people that can’t necessarily be attributed to an underactive gland.
Those who claim to have adrenal fatigue report symptoms that include everything from mental ones like brain fog, depression, and anxiety to metabolic symptoms like weight gain, insulin resistance, and a craving for sweet or salty snacks. Adrenal fatigue sufferers also say they have low libidos, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, experience skin problems like eczema, and even hair loss. People who believe they have an underactive adrenal gland report feeling tired or generally burnt out and often have to rely on caffeine to get them through their day.
The theory behind the causes of adrenal fatigue mostly involve stress, whether it be a single traumatic event like a death in the family, a bad breakup, or a stressful lifestyle that could include a difficult job, shift work, parenting a young child, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol. It’s even said to possibly be caused by illness such as an infection, a respiratory disease like bronchitis or pneumonia, or an autoimmune disorder like rheumatoid arthritis. Other alternative medicine practitioners believe it can even be brought on by factors like environmental toxins, a lack of sleep, poor diet and exercise, food allergies, or ongoing patterns of negative thinking.
The theory of adrenal fatigue has been around since the 18th century and the syndrome has also been referred to as non-Addison’s hypoadrenia, sub-clinical hypoadrenia, neurasthenia, adrenal neurasthenia, or adrenal apathy. It wasn’t until 1998 that chiropractor, naturopath, and author of the book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome Dr. James Wilson coined the term “adrenal fatigue” which is what the supposed syndrome is widely called today.
Skeptics of adrenal fatigue would want you know that many of the proponents of adrenal fatigue like Dr. Wilson didn’t just lead the charge on promoting this syndrome, they also became one of the leading suppliers of herbal supplements and best selling diet plans that promises to cure the problem, which non-believers view as being a little too convenient. Truth be told, there is no medical research to support the existence of adrenal fatigue as 2016 review published in the BMC Endocrine Disorders journal that compared 58 individual studies on the subject concluded that “there is no substantiation that ‘adrenal fatigue’ is an actual medical condition. Therefore, adrenal fatigue is still a myth.”
Endocrinologists, who specialize in hormones and hormone related diseases, do however acknowledge that adrenal insufficiency is a real medical problem, it’s one that has a clear cause such as damage to the adrenal gland or the pituitary gland and comes with a distinct set of symptoms including dizziness, low blood pressure, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that set it apart from adrenal fatigue. Adrenal insufficiency can also be medically confirmed with a blood test that measures cortisol levels, an insulin-induced hypoglycemia test that measures blood sugar levels or scans that clearly show damage to the adrenal gland or the pituitary gland, while adrenal fatigue cannot.
Addison’s disease is the leading cause of adrenal insufficiency and is an endocrine disorder that is caused by damage to the adrenal glands. If left untreated, Addison’s disease can lead to an adrenal crisis or Addison’s crisis, which is characterized by severe pain in the abdomen, legs, and lower back, severe dehydration and vomiting, a loss of consciousness, and if left untreated, death.
Despite the doubts cast on the illness by the medical community, there is a huge movement of alternative wellness practitioners who say the issue is real and that it can be treated with a holistic approach that involves treating the whole body rather than simply aiming to mask or target specific symptoms.
Many patients who believe they are suffering from adrenal fatigue are confident in their diagnosis and claim that these treatments have been effective in improving their symptoms and their quality of life. Whether it’s a real disease or not, what’s important is that people are making important changes to their diet, lifestyle, and overall health, which should always be viewed as a good thing.
Holistic treatment always aims to get to the root of the problem and naturopaths believe that the best foundation for good health is a clean diet.
The adrenal fatigue diet, which is often prescribed for people thought to be suffering from the syndrome, emphasizes fresh foods that support adrenal function, lower blood pressure, deliver healthy, healing nutrients to the body, and lower stress levels. The adrenal diet consists mostly of fruits and vegetables, particularly cruciferous ones like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, lean proteins like turkey or chicken, and healthy fats from things like coconuts, avocados, nuts, and fish. The adrenal diet also tends to include “gut healing” foods like bone broth, seaweed, or fermented foods that are full of probiotics.
Adding healthy foods is a cornerstone of the adrenal diet, but it’s just as important to avoid damaging foods like caffeine, sugar, carbohydrates, hydrogenated oils, and processed or packaged foods. By focusing on real food that’s a close to it’s natural state as it can be, the adrenal diet claims to help sufferers control their symptoms and heal themselves from the inside out.
It’s not considered “alternative” to acknowledge that minerals and vitamins are essential ingredients for a healthy, well functioning system. In addition to a balanced diet, naturopaths often prescribe mineral and vitamin supplements that give your body all the nutrients it can’t get through food alone.
Vitamins such as B5, B6, and B12 are said to aid in the creation of adrenal hormones, boost your metabolism, and help you feel less exhausted. Vitamin C is an important ingredient in the creation of cortisol that can help your adrenal gland function improve. Magnesium is thought to help eradicate symptoms like sleeplessness, exhaustion, and depression, and probiotic supplements can improve your digestion and possible even lower your stress levels.
Unlike the existence of adrenal fatigue itself, herbal medicine, while less potent than modern medicine, is not completely dismissed by the medical community as it has been used effectively for centuries and is the basis of modern medicine. Yale neurologist Steven Novella acknowledges that “herbal remedies are not really alternative … they have been part of scientific medicine for decades, if not centuries. Herbs are drugs, and they can be studied as drugs.”
Some herbal supplements that are commonly prescribed to people suffering from adrenal fatigue include licorice root which is believed to boost hormone production, Siberian ginseng to boost energy levels, and maca root to control blood sugar levels.
Now that you’ve heard all the evidence, what you do with it is up to you. If you recognize the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue you may want to consider talking to your doctor to find out if they could be linked to a medical condition such as Addison’s, sleep apnea, depression, or another chronic condition. Or perhaps you may want to visit a naturopath and explore the possibility of adrenal fatigue if you’re leaning in a more natural direction. Whatever you do, it’s never too late to get to the root cause of your health issues and make positive changes to your diet and lifestyle that any types of healers should be able to get behind.