What is Adrenal Fatigue? Is it a Legitimate Condition?

In today’s world of juggling life, finances, work, relationships, and health, its not uncommon to live a life of chronic stress.  Mentally, we may feel ‘out of control’ but we still continue to take on new commitments because it’s expected. What happens to our bodies when stress becomes overwhelming? It is well documented that stress has a negative impact on our health. One consequence of consistent stress could lead to a controversial condition called adrenal fatigue.

The adrenal gland is a small, triangular organ that sits above the kidneys. It produces hormones, such as cortisol that is essential for life. Cortisol manages other hormones, balances metabolism and regulates immune function. According to an article by Discovery Fit & Health, “doctors are now seeing that the adrenal gland is neither on nor completely off, but that there is a spectrum of how well it functions.” There is debate about the credibility of adrenal fatigue. The Mayo Clinic says adrenal fatigue, “isn't an accepted medical diagnosis.” Others agree with Discovery and believe that it is possible for the adrenal glands to become fatigued due to prolonged exposure to emotional or physical stress. The theory is that chronic stress will overwork the adrenal gland to the point of exhaustion and eventually it becomes too fatigued to meet the needs of the body. According to Discovery, the adrenal gland “is not a gland that deals well with the modern-day lifestyle. A few thousand years ago, our stress responses were not asked to last days and months. If we encountered a lion, we would need to fight the lion, flee from it or be eaten. This type of stress would be decided in a matter of seconds or minutes. [....] While our mind knows that a bad boss at work does not threaten our lives, from the neck down the adrenal glands and the other organs respond by hearing the same instinctive alarms.”

Many have said that treatment for adrenal fatigue has helped them, though the credibility of these claims is disputed. In an interview with Chicago Times, Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress said, "adrenal fatigue is a worthless diagnosis, and lavish testimonials and anecdotal claims of marked improvement following some intervention are most likely fraudulent or transient placebo effects." A universally recognized adrenal disorder is Addison’s disease. It is similar to adrenal fatigue in that your adrenal glands do not make enough hormones but the it is caused by an aggressive immune system and not stress (www.endocrinology.org). James Wilson is a naturopath and chiropractor who coined the term adrenal fatigue in 1998. He said,  "the adrenals aren't failing, as in Addison's...They simply can't keep up with the demands placed on them. We know all organs do that," Wilson continued. "But for some reason, medicine has resisted the same concept with adrenals." (Chicago Tribune)

Health and wellness author Mary Shamon, gave the following list  of adrenal fatigue symptoms:
  • excessive fatigue and exhaustion
  • non-refreshing sleep
  • overwhelmed by or unable to cope with stressors
  • feeling run down or overwhelmed
  • craving salty and sweet foods
  • you feel most energetic in the evening
  • a feeling of not being restored after a full night's sleep or having sleep disturbances
  • low stamina, slow to recover from exercise
  • slow to recover from injury, illness or stress
  • difficulty concentrating, brain fog
  • poor digestion
  • low immune function
  • food or environmental allergies
  • premenstrual syndrome or difficulties that develop during menopause
  • consistent low blood pressure
  • extreme sensitivity to cold
Until further research can solve the debate, the decision is in your hands. A saliva cortisol test conducted by a holistic or complementary practitioner can be done to evaluate your adrenal function. If you decide to investigate a possible diagnosis of adrenal fatigue keep the following tips from the Chicago Tribune in mind:
  • “Get multiple blood or saliva tests.
  • Don't take extracts of bovine adrenal cortex. "These are absolutely ineffective because the hormones are present in extremely low concentration and, as they occur in nature, cannot be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract," said Dr. Seymour Reichlin of Tufts University School of Medicine.
  • Consider supplements from a class called adaptogens. "Adaptogens (ashwagandha, rhodiola, licorice root, ginseng, schizandra and maca) help support adrenal function, but use them under the guidance of a trained integrative provider," said Dr. Melinda Ring of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.”
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