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A Primer on Adrenal Fatigue

beth December 28, 2012

* Note: This is a basic introduction to a highly complicated issue and is not a complete explanation of the biochemical processes.  In addition, this post does not refer to the very serious condition of Addison’s disease, which requires immediate medical attention.

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There is much confusion surrounding adrenal fatigue (also termed adrenal dysfunction and adrenal dysregulation). The standard medical community does not accept it as a medically-recognized diagnosis, while alternative practitioners and websites speak of a near-endemic presence in Western populations.

Being a contributor to an alternative health website, I predictably believe adrenal fatigue is a legitimate concern. My own experience attests to it, as does my experience working with lab results. So let’s delve in.

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is when your adrenal glands can no longer keep pace with the demands placed on them by chronic stress and a perpetual fight-or-flight state of arousal. Adrenal fatigue is often measured by cortisol lab results (in conjunction with DHEA levels). Lab results may appear “normal” or “in reference range” and require a closer examination of the results.  Non-specific symptoms can include but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Difficulty waking and getting started in the morning
  • Need for stimulants to raise energy (caffeine, cigarettes, sugar)
  • Becoming light-headed or shaky if meals are skipped or postponed
  • Dizziness upon standing
  • Inability to recover from exercise within 30 minutes
  • Unstable behavior
  • A general feeling of no longer being able to be as productive as before

What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?

Chronic stress is generally the main factor in adrenal fatigue. Stress is not simply feeling overwhelmed. There are several physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual indicators of stress. Read What is Stress? for several examples of stress that can affect the adrenal glands.

How Does It Work? The H-P-A Axis

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Example. You are being chased by a lion. Your body responds in the following way:

  • Signal of stress sent to the hypothalamus (in your brain). Hypothalamus sends out CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) to the pituitary gland.
  • Pituitary gland receives the message and sends out ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) to the adrenal glands,
  • Adrenal glands receive message and secrete cortisol from the adrenal cortex.
  • Cortisol does a number of things to respond to the stress and prepare our bodies for fight or flight, such as increasing casino online blood pressure and suppressing the immune system. (For more information on what cortisol is, read Cortisol Basics. To understand some of the properties of cortisol, read Why We Like Cortisol).

How Does This Result in Adrenal Fatigue?

The above process is one of our body”s survival mechanisms. It happens each time we experience stress. Cortisol has a half-life of about 60-90 minutes, so if we have a one-time stressor (like being chased by a lion), our bodies will resume normal function after a couple of hours.

Today, we experience a massive degree of chronic stress that our ancestors were not exposed to, from hidden stressors (like parasites) to sleep deprivation to food sensitivities. The constant strain placed on the adrenal glands from chronic stress can be too much to bear over long periods of time, resulting in primary adrenal dysfunction.

What Can I Do If I Suspect Adrenal Fatigue?

You can access a handy adrenal fatigue questionnaire to self-assess. In general, reducing stress that you can control is a top priority. Suggestions may include:

  • Get 8-9 hours of sleep each night in a completely blacked out room
  • Eat nutrient-dense food that your body can tolerate
  • Reduce or eliminate use of stimulants, such as caffeine, sugar, and nicotine
  • Meditate
  • Say no to additional obligations
  • Simplify commitments
  • Spend time with uplifting friends
  • Pray

When Stress Reduction Doesn”t Work

Sometimes we reduce our stress in 100 different ways. We go to bed earlier, have the cleanest diet, remove food sensitivities, quit our high-stress jobs, and cut out the complicated relationships in our lives. But we still feel like walking death. What now?

That’s generally because the body has gotten so accustomed to doing things the “wrong way.” It”s tired and needs a little bit of therapy. In these instances, I would suggest contacting a practitioner that works with adrenal dysregulation. In my own practice, clients start by filling out an Adrenal Stress Indicator form, taking a 4-part saliva test, and a urine test. From there, we find healing opportunities and stick to all-natural, drugless protocols to build and maintain health. If you feel you would like additional assistance in managing your adrenal fatigue, contact me at vibrantsexystrong (at) gmail (dot) com.

What has been your experience with adrenal fatigue?

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9 Comments

  1. Please help me I fit all symtoms and no one will listen and I also have pcos. I need help please if you can please email me at alumbaugh83@gmail.com or call 1-816-661-0574

    Reply

  2. An excellent introductory article to adrenal fatigue. One thing seems to be omitted. The human body, along with most mammals, does not break down cortisol efficiently without movement of the body. The most effective way to relieve adrenal stress is by physical exertion in sunlight, without sunglasses for at least 20 minutes. This does not constitute a gym workout. It means moving the body out of doors. It need not be aerobic nor anaerobic, walking will do. Just a thought.

    Reply

    • Hi Maddrey,

      I agree with you about movement, though I hesitated to include much about it simply because many people with adrenal fatigue over-exercise (even when they think they are going easy), exacerbating the problem. Perhaps that should be an upcoming post.

      Reply

  3. All of the above fits me to a tee! I was diagnosed with fybromyalgia after a few years of trail and error I was able to function relatively normal . The past 5 years have been an emotional drain and everything is out of control again. It seems no matter what I try I can’t get a handle on feeling well again.

    Reply

    • Oh Carol, I’m sending hugs out to you. It sounds like the past 5 years have grown you in such challenging ways. Have you considered seeking out a practitioner who specializes in building health?

      Reply

  4. […] (If you are interested in more information on adrenal fatigue and the underlying causes, read A Primer on Adrenal Fatigue) […]

    Reply

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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