Adrenal fatigue is a catch-all term to describe a collection of symptoms that are considered to be linked to your adrenal glands. These glands sit on top of each kidney and produce hormones including adrenaline and noradrenaline — both are hormones that are needed to prepare the body for fight or flight.
The fatigue occurs when prolonged exposure to chronic stress drains your adrenals and leaves your body in a low cortisol state, says Harvard Health Publishing.
But, this is merely a theory as there is conjecture in the health world about whether adrenal fatigue is a real ailment, with much of the medical community insisting it isn’t while many wellness warriors claiming it is, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s doctor Alejandro Junger.
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue can also be related to a number of other illnesses but when physicians are unable to find a diagnosis, labelling it as adrenal fatigue can be a convenient diagnosis.
“It can be frustrating for clinicians and patients when a clear-cut diagnosis remains elusive,” wrote Marcelo Campos, MD, for Harvard Health Publishing. “An attractive theory, called adrenal fatigue, links stress exposure to adrenal exhaustion as a possible cause of this lack of energy.”
What are the symptoms of adrenal fatigue?
According to Healthline, the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are as follows:
- Difficulty getting to sleep or waking up
- Sugar cravings
- Salt cravings
- Unexplained weight loss
- Lack of motivation
- Brain fog
While adrenal fatigue isn’t a medically recognised condition doesn’t mean that these symptoms you’re experiencing aren’t real.
According to Dr. Campos, these symptoms are also associated with anemia, sleep apnea, autoimmune diseases, infections, other hormonal impairments, mental illnesses, heart and lung problems, and kidney and liver diseases.
How do you treat these symptoms?
If you experiencing any of these symptoms, Dr. Campos recommends having a thorough evaluation with your GP to get to the bottom of this.
“If the workup from your medical professional turns out normal and you believe you might have adrenal fatigue, I would recommend you consider a fundamental question: Why would your adrenals be drained?” he wrote for Harvard Health Publishing.
“Take a better look at what types of stress might be affecting you. For many, the hectic pace of modern life is to blame.”
If your doctor is unable to find a cause for these symptoms, it could prove helpful to visit an alternative health practitioner who may be able to prescribe some lifestyle changes that could make a difference to this burnt out feeling.
“Alternative and complementary clinicians often have better results, because the appointments tend to last longer and they view patients through a more holistic lens,” Dr. Campos wrote.
Why isn’t it recognised by the medical community?
While studies on adrenal fatigue have been carried out, the results are inconclusive and no medial body currently recognises it as a legitimate illness. A recent review of 58 studies found “no scientific basis to associate adrenal impairment as a cause of fatigue,” Dr. Campos wrote.
While there were some limitations to these studies, including the use of many different biological markers and questionnaires to detect adrenal fatigue, researchers weren’t able to pinpoint an exact way to define the illness and properly diagnose it.
One of the most common ways to diagnose adrenal fatigue is through salivary cortisol tests. But, when this level was checked four times over 24 hours, there was no difference found between healthy and fatigued patients in over 60% of the studies.
“The review raises questions around what should get tested (blood, urine, and/or saliva), the best time, how often, what ranges are considered normal, and how reliable the tests are, to name a few,” wrote Dr. Campos.
“In summary, there is no formal criteria to define and diagnose adrenal fatigue.”
What is adrenal insufficiency?
An adrenal-based ailment that is recognised by the medical community is adrenal insufficiency, otherwise known as Addison’s disease. This occurs when your adrenal cortex is damaged, says Healthline, and results in your adrenal glands not producing enough cortisol and aldosterone — both of which are steroid hormones.
These hormones are extremely important as they give instructions to every organ and tissue in the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Cortisol’s job is to regulate your body’s reaction to stress while aldosterone regulates your sodium and potassium levels. The symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of body hair
- Nausea and vomiting
There are two major classifications under Addison’s disease, these are called primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenal insufficiency, says Healthline.
The first occurs when the adrenal glands are so severely damaged that they no longer produce hormones and your immune system begins to attack your glands. This is an autoimmune disease.
The latter occurs when the pituitary gland in your brain can’t produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which usually tells the adrenal glands to release hormones.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms — be it adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency — be sure to speak to your GP about it, especially in the case of Addison’s disease, which can have life-threatening consequences it progresses to acute adrenal failure (known as Addisonian crisis), says the Mayo Clinic.