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2023-07-18 21:53:03

Adrenal Fatigue: Is it Real?

Adrenal fatigue is a tricky conversation. Many healthcare providers have a different way of discussing it. Some don't believe that adrenal fatigue even really exists. However, approximately one in every 100,000 people in the United States are dealing with it. So, what gives?!

In this article, we'll explore your adrenal glands, what healthy adrenal function might look like, signs of hormonal imbalances, and what to do if you think you're having health problems.

What are Your Adrenals?

Before we talk about adrenal fatigue, let's briefly discuss what the adrenals even are. Adrenal glands are small and shaped like triangles. They're technically small organs! One sits on the top of each of your kidneys, which is why they are also called suprarenal glands. These glands have the important job of creating hormones, such as cortisol, aldosterone, and adrenaline. Technically, it's the outer part of the adrenal — called the adrenal cortex — that creates these hormones.

Adrenal hormones help to control the body's metabolism, blood pressure, stress response, and other important functions. They also help to control the body's blood sugar.

The adrenal glands are part of the greater endocrine system, which also includes the pituitary gland, thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, and testes. The glands are also part of something called the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. In a nutshell, this mechanism plays a role in how your body is able to manage stress.

Here's a basic illustration of the glands and organs of the endocrine system.

endocrine system Source: OpenStax and Tomáš Kebert and, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Here's why the concept of adrenal fatigue is so ambiguous: It's not technically a "real disease" or medical condition. In other words, it's not a formal diagnosis.

When someone refers to adrenal fatigue, they usually use it to talk about a wide set of symptoms. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue might include tiredness, hair loss, body aches, a weakened immune system, low blood pressure, trouble falling asleep (or staying asleep), nervousness, unexplained weight loss, and digestive issues. It can also be connected to digestive and kidney diseases.

More accurately, the accepted medical diagnosis is adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison's Disease. This means that the adrenal glands aren't producing the right amount of those hormones we mentioned earlier. The medical community believes that an adrenal fatigue diagnosis can come after periods of chronic stress — including both emotional stress and physical stress.

When this happens, the body is in a constant state of fight-or-flight, and essentially, the adrenal glands just can't keep up. So, adrenal function suffers.

woman with adrenal fatigue rubbing her face

How is Adrenal Fatigue Different from Just Being Tired All the Time?

Adrenal insufficiency is much more extreme than simply not getting enough sleep one night and experiencing fatigue the next day. We're talking about severe exhaustion, plus additional physical and mental health issues, that happen as a result of chronic stress and won't easily go away without serious intervention. This is a type of fatigue that can make your body and mind feel like they literally don't have the energy to function.

Adrenal insufficiency can also escalate into much more dangerous health issues if not addressed — unlike one (or a few) restless nights.

Getting Checked for Adrenal Insufficiency

So, what can you do if you think your adrenal glands are out of whack and your stress hormones aren't at the appropriate levels? The first step is to undergo blood tests. Blood tests can help confirm which hormones are out of range.

For example, eNational's Women's Health Panel looks into your adrenal health along with your thyroid functioning, bone and heart health, stress levels, ovarian health, and more. This includes checking your cortisol levels plus other hormones, to help diagnose any related health issues that you might be experiencing.

There are various potential outcomes to these blood tests, one of which is an adrenal crisis diagnosis. This is a life-threatening condition that happens as a result of your glands not producing enough of the hormone cortisol. Symptoms can include fatigue, muscle weakness, abdominal pain, and more emergent ones such as low blood pressure leading to shock and loss of consciousness!

person clutching their stomach

Excess of Cortisol: Cushing's Syndrome

A few times, we've talked about the adrenals not producing enough hormones. But they might also be producing too much. If your adrenals are creating extra cortisol, you might be experiencing symptoms like weight gain, easy bruising, and muscle weakness. This is called Cushing's Syndrome.

If Cushing's Syndrome and its symptoms go unaddressed, it can escalate to type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, other mood changes, bone loss, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Yes, your body needs this hormone. However, there'"sweet spot." Both low cortisol and high cortisol can be extremely problematic.

Excess of Aldosterone: Hyperaldosteronism

Similarly, you might be experiencing hyperaldosteronism, which happens when your adrenal glands produce too much aldosterone. Symptoms can include headache, numbness, muscle weakness, exhaustion, high blood pressure, and not enough potassium in the blood.

What Does Adrenal Fatigue Treatment Look Like?

If your adrenal glands aren't creating enough hormones, your healthcare provider will help you support them. This might mean taking replacement corticosteroids, such as fludrocortisone, which can be taken orally. You might also need immediate IV injections.

But there's more to it than this.

A Shift in Lifestyle Habits and Stress Management

Addressing your adrenal glands with conventional medicine will likely be necessary. However, we'd be remiss if we didn't discuss one vital point. You know now that adrenal insufficiency happens as a result of long term stress.

So, if you really want to heal your hormones, nurture your adrenal glands, take care of your body, and try to eliminate all of the other symptoms associated with poor adrenal function or Addison's Disease, then you have to take action to better manage your stress. This might mean:

man meditating

Remember that what works for one person might not work for another. Be open to trying new things to help your body and mind return to a calmer state.

With the right lifestyle habits and the guidance of a qualified healthcare practitioner, you can get your adrenal insufficiency under control. Patience and consistency are key.

Healing Adrenal Fatigue is Possible but it Takes Time

If you're experiencing adrenal fatigue, understand that it's happening after probably years and years of nonstop stress and staying in fight-or-flight mode. This means that unfortunately, you won't be able to fix it overnight. It's going to take a serious shift in lifestyle habits and stress management to get your adrenal insufficiency under control.

This might feel challenging considering that modern life has us working insane hours and always connected to our smart devices. Kids, work, school, bills — there's always too much on your plate.

Thus, you might be wondering, "How could I ever find a way to reduce my stress?"

woman stressed out with kids

Don't let this discourage you! Just like you (unintentionally) made a habit of being chronically stressed, you can make limiting stress a habit instead. If you take baby steps and stay consistent, you can put your adrenal insufficiency behind you and eventually kick the symptoms of adrenal fatigue to the curb.

The first step toward addressing adrenal insufficiency is bloodwork. eNational Testing can help! We have more than 2,000 locations nationwide, and you can order your test online in just a few clicks. You don't even need to visit your doctor first. Our Women's Health Panel requires only a simple blood draw, and you'll get the results in three to six business days.

Find the location nearest you and ask us how we can help you start to tackle your adrenal insufficiency.