The Facts of Adrenal Fatigue

Do you always feel tired, moody and depressed? Do you still feel tired after waking up from a full night’s rest? Are you a zombie without your morning coffee and find it near impossible to say no to sugary and salty foods?

These are all symptoms of adrenal insufficiency, or in lay terms, “adrenal fatigue”. You aren’t alone; Up to 80 percent of adults suffer from adrenal fatigue, a health problem that continues to be misdiagnosed or overlooked. “With proper care, and addressing underlying causes in a whole systems approach, most people experiencing adrenal fatigue can get back to feeling their best again,” says Functional Medicine Specialist Dr. Margaret Christensen.

What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal insufficiency is a combination of symptoms that appear when the adrenal glands function below the needed level. Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged mental, emotional, or physical stress, as well as chronic toxic exposures, it can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. As the name suggests, its principal symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep. However, it is not a readily recognizable entity like chicken pox or a growth on your body. Those with adrenal fatigue may not have any visible signs of a physical illness; however, they live with an overall sense of feeling ill. Most will use coffee, cola, or other stimulants to make it through the day.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:

  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Chronic fatigue and weakness, especially in the morning and afternoon
  • Low sex drive
  • Cravings for foods high in salt, sugar, or fat
  • Multiple food allergies
  • Alternating diarrhea or constipation
  • Dry and thin skin
  • Poor memory
  • Unexplained hair loss

What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?

When your adrenal glands are not able to meet the demands of stress (mental, emotional, or physical) on the body, “adrenal fatigue” can begin. The stress on the adrenal system originates in the hypothalamus- the brain’s command center where alarm inputs from multiple internal and external factors are processed. When the hypothalamus registers significant stressors, it signals the adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney, to release cortisol and adrenaline and other hormones to regulate immune function, energy production, heart rate, muscle tone, and other activities that help your body cope with stress. One of their most important tasks is to get your body ready for the “fight or flight” stress response, which means increasing adrenaline and other hormones.

This response increases your heart rate and blood pressure slows your digestion and gets your body ready to face a potential threat of challenge. While this response is good in the short term, many of us are perpetually faced with stressors (work, environmental toxins, not enough sleep, worry, anxiety, etc.) and are in the “fight or flight” mode for far too long- much longer than was ever intended from an evolutionary standpoint. Surgery, the loss of a loved one, or a constant emotional stress can all cause the adrenals to respond. There are various phases of adrenal hormone production from an acute alarm phase, to chronic over-responding with cortisol and adrenaline, to the exhaustion stage– the point when the adrenals are no longer able to keep up with the signals from the hypothalamus. The best way to screen for this is through salivary diurnal cortisol testing throughout the day to look at the response pattern along with adrenal reserve or DHEA levels. It is also important to look at other hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone and thyroid hormone function when evaluating the fatigue and creating a recovery plan.

On The Mend

Most people experiencing adrenal insufficiency can expect to feel good again when they seek proper care with a practitioner who can address the issues from a whole systems perspective. Maintaining a healthy diet, going to bed before 11 pm, B vitamin supplementation, hydration, daily mindfulness meditation, regular movement, detoxification support, and supplementing with adaptogenic herbs can all help you recover. For those that don’t recover quickly with the appropriate support, there needs to be an in-depth evaluation of more severe exposures including pesticides, chemicals, and toxic mold, or chronic infections like Lyme or other tick-borne diseases, as well as buried trauma from previous accidents or abuse.

The most important step to healing is to identify and remove stressors and underlying toxins at all levels. Emotional stressors such as personal or work relationships or financial problems need to be discussed with your provider to help us brainstorm resources for managing these areas. It might require a change in hours or even occupation. Allow yourself to enjoy some daily stress-relieving activities, whether a long walk, prayer, meditation or reading a book. Some find that weekly massages are helpful. Engage in activities that create laughter and a happy environment, and stay away from those that drain you. Life is too short to waste time on those who steal your joy. Make the necessary changes to restore your health!

Dr. Margaret Christensen a Dallas Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner. Dr. Christensen received her medical degree from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and her board certification as a Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Christensen is a co-founder of Carpathia Collaborative and currently serves as faculty for the Institute for Functional Medicine. To schedule a consultation with Dr. Christensen, click on her profile or call her office at 972.248.9083.