Just admit it, you’re tired and rely on caffeine way too much. Your doctor has told you your labs are perfect, and you just need to relax and de-stress.
There’s an epidemic going for which conventional doctors are rarely trained. The epidemic is adrenal fatigue, and its signs and symptoms are common in today’s world. People in the early stages aren’t noticeably “sick” and blood tests rarely reveal their imbalances. Let me break adrenal fatigue down so you can recognize the symptoms and how to fix it.
What Are the Adrenal Glands?
The adrenals are two walnut-sized glands; one sits atop each of your kidneys. These small members of your endocrine system play a big part in your health.
Your adrenals are directly linked to your brain and are connected to every organ system in your body (thyroid, digestive system, bones and muscles). There isn’t a body part that’s not influenced in some way by your adrenals.
Cortisol is the primary hormone produced by the adrenals. Adrenals inject the body with cortisol and other hormones at certain times to regulate the daily cycle of sleeping and rising, and to give it the strength and energy for protection and survival. For example, to run out of a burning house.
The adrenals also produce DHEA, a hormone you may have heard about through anti-aging medicine. DHEA is critically important to the immune system and helps preserve normal levels of estrogen and testosterone.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue sets in under chronic amounts of stress, when the adrenals are overworked and their production of hormones–specifically the main hormone, cortisol–becomes deficient. You need cortisol to maintain brain and heart health, control blood sugar and regulate the immune system. The body has less energy when it lacks cortisol output.
As cortisol levels drop, we often see DHEA levels drop (in turn, testosterone and estrogen levels drop). Adrenal fatigue can be a contributing factor to sex hormone issues and cause a drop in progesterone levels, which can adversely affect a woman’s menstrual cycle. It’s amazing how everything in the body is connected, isn’t it?
What Causes the Adrenals to Become Overworked?
Our bodies were not meant to take the abuse of chronic stress every day. Stresses like sitting in traffic for hours, 80-hour work weeks and financial hardships can make us feel like we’re fighting for survival. Add in a high sugar diet, skipped meals, difficult relationships, limited sleep, a death in the family and in some cases, over-exercise, and you have the ingredients for adrenal fatigue.
Does Diet Have Anything to Do with Adrenal Fatigue?
Yes, diet is a HUGE factor!
The brain does not interpret stress; it just produces chemicals in response to that stress. When the brain perceives stress (eating an unhealthy food, an infection, a trauma) it is going to signal your adrenals to produce cortisol. If the brain is constantly being bombarded by mental, emotional and physical stressors, then the adrenals are constantly taking a hit and over time they tire out.
Did you know that going too long without eating causes more adrenal stress? Most patients with adrenal fatigue have become hypoglycemic. They may have neglected regular meals or drunk too much caffeine as part of their stressful lives and unwittingly brought this condition upon themselves! Learning how to support blood sugar over the day is KEY to overcoming adrenal fatigue.
What are the Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?
Everyone is susceptible to adrenal fatigue; it’s a common problem in our society today. Here are some symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue:
- Not maintaining energy throughout the day (wake up feeling energized, but start to become sluggish in mid-morning or afternoon)
- Increased craving for sugar or carbohydrates (sign of poor blood sugar control, which is linked to the adrenals)
- Constant craving or need for caffeine to keep you going and your brain awake
- Poor sleep
- Lack of energy throughout the day and then a boost of energy at night around 10 pm
- Getting sick frequently
- Joint aches and pain
- Brain fog
How Do I Know If I Have Adrenal Fatigue?
There are lab tests that we recommend to determine whether patients may be experiencing adrenal fatigue. The best assessment of cortisol and DHEA levels is through saliva testing. Salivary testing is much more dynamic and informative about your total output of cortisol and DHEA over a 24-hour period.
Remember, cortisol is not produced at a steady level throughout the day. Our levels are generally highest in the morning and continue to drop throughout the day, so by the time you go to bed, cortisol and DHEA levels are generally low. As cortisol levels drop, we naturally get an increase of progesterone at nighttime, which produces chemicals in the brain that help us sleep. When you have excess cortisol at nighttime, it can turn off your ability to sleep. Therefore, you can see why it would be important for us to know your hormone levels at key times throughout the day. Generally, saliva tests are not available from conventional doctors, but doctors who practice functional and/or integrative medicine can interpret the testing.
Can Adrenal Fatigue Affect the Thyroid Gland?
The adrenals and thyroid are linked. For example, the adrenals can reduce the thyroid’s hormone production to keep the body’s metabolism in check. The body limits excess thyroid production when you have adrenal fatigue because it “knows” that is another stressor.
This is not a well-known concept in medicine but biochemically and physiologically there is a direct link between adrenal function and thyroid function, which is why they should be assessed together.
Patients experiencing thyroid issues complain of dry skin, dry hair, inability to lose weight, poor sleep and poor sex drive. Functional medicine practitioners usually also order thyroid tests since the adrenals and thyroid often need to be treated simultaneously. With this big picture view, they can determine the best treatment for individual patients.
What Do You Do If Diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue?
What happens if your test results show that you have adrenal fatigue? Some people have adrenal insufficiency, which is called Addison’s Disease. This is a complete shutdown of adrenal function. In rare cases, these patients will need cortisol replacement therapy for life.
On the other hand, about 95% of people can recover from adrenal fatigue with lifestyle changes including stress control, a healthy diet, healthy blood sugar control and targeted herbal and nutritional supplement therapy.
Most patients feel better in two to three months and feel steadily better the longer they follow my protocol, but full recovery may take six months or more depending on the severity of the situation.
Targeted Nutrition for Adrenal Fatigue
Treatment for adrenal fatigue usually consists of herbal supplements and lifestyle changes including a healthy diet and stress reduction techniques.
B vitamins, minerals and vitamin C help support overall adrenal function. There are many herbal remedies that are known to help support the adrenals. One of my favorites is licorice root. This traditional herb increases the half-life of cortisol, so it helps to raise your cortisol levels.
Pregnenolone is a natural hormone in the body, and is directly linked to adrenal function, preserving DHEA and cortisol. If DHEA levels are low, DHEA supplementation may be suggested.
Why Hasn’t My Doctor Diagnosed Me with Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is not discussed much in traditional medicine. Traditional doctors do recognize the importance of diet and lifestyle. They accept that diets high in refined sugars, carbohydrates and artificial colorings are a major risk factor for diabetes. Unfortunately, there is not enough time in a ten-minute visit to go into depth with each patient and look for lifestyle, diet and other issues that impact long-term health.
Medical school training leans heavily on blood tests. There are some great benefits to blood tests; however, the blood tests for cortisol and DHEA do not accurately represent an individual’s output of these hormones throughout the day. Traditional doctors have not been taught that other tests are available. Indeed, saliva tests are usually not available through insurance plans and traditional doctors generally don’t know how to interpret them or what to recommend as a result.
Patients need to become their own health advocates who educate themselves about making lifestyle changes. Luckily, there are wellness centers like ours that can help you in your journey. It can get complicated, and you don’t have to do it alone! I have been trained on interpreting the salivary adrenal test, which is also called a Functional Adrenal Stress Profile. I can interpret your results and recommend a personalized program to get you feeling well again!
If you are ready to make an investment in your health and you suspect adrenal fatigue or would just like a holistic overview of your health, go here to apply to become a patient and here to see my testimonials