The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are debilitating and discouraging:
With either name, the symptoms are the same.
The term “adrenal fatigue” became more common after James Wilson, ND, DC, PhD, highlighted the issue in his 2001 book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.
Most conventional doctors in the US have never embraced the term, but worse, they haven’t addressed the symptoms experienced by their patients.
Practitioners of Functional Medicine and others who have always acknowledged this issue now prefer the terms “subclinical adrenal dysfunction” or “adrenal stress.”
- overwhelming tiredness and lack of energy
- ongoing sleep disturbances
- inability to cope with stress physically or emotionally
- super-strong cravings for salty and/or sweet foods
- weakened immune system and/or recurrent infections
- fuzzy thinking
- low libido
- extreme irritability
- digestive difficulties
- and many other symptoms
For women suffering from this type of subclinical adrenal dysfunction, these difficult symptoms can be so severe that quality of life is significantly compromised.
Even so, many health practitioners have long denied that adrenal fatigue and stress exist — and worse, do not offer any options for feeling better. Understanding more about adrenal stress and fatigue will help you find your path to restoring adrenal balance and relieving and eventually eliminating your adrenal fatigue symptoms.
Why your adrenal glands are stressed
Many physicians say other health concerns like depression, fibromyalgia and hypothyroidism cause similar symptoms to those of adrenal stress. But treating those symptoms on their own with medications generally doesn’t solve the problem. We’ve found that these other issues are often related to underlying adrenal problems, and that’s why actively supporting adrenal function can do wonders.
Adrenal fatigue is a symptom-based syndrome tightly linked to chronic stress — both physical and emotional. Being under stress day after day, week after week, forces the adrenal glands to work overtime pumping out the hormone cortisol at emergency levels.
Cortisol is important for survival but it’s meant to be released just during short periods and only when really needed. That’s why it’s such a problem when cortisol levels stay high because of chronic stress: elevated cortisol puts you at higher risk for a wide range of symptoms, including some you not suspect.
Then over time, in a classic domino effect, the adrenal glands can’t keep up with the production demand for cortisol, and levels drop, along with those of other hormones that depend in part on the adrenals, such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. That can put sex hormones in flux, causing even more symptoms especially if you’re in perimenopause or menopause.
The limits of conventional adrenal testing
Current conventional testing protocol only measures the extremes of adrenal imbalance that require immediate medical intervention: Addison’s disease, when cortisol production is severely deficient, and Cushing’s syndrome, when the body produces excessively high levels of cortisol.
If your test results fall between the cut-off points on the test — even if you’re very close — you’ll be told that your adrenal function is normal, no matter how many symptoms you have. Saliva tests for adrenal function can pick up more subtle imbalances, especially in adrenal rhythms, but many conventional practitioners are unaware of them or don’t trust them.
But tests don’t measure how you are feeling. The best indicator of your adrenal health is feeling well — or not.
Adrenal stress is a problem with a natural solution
Most women with symptoms of adrenal imbalance who go to functional medicine practitioners undergo tests to evaluate markers of stress, including cortisol and DHEA levels. And the results — from many thousands of cases — are remarkably consistent: 75–80% of women have impaired adrenal function, ranging from mild to more serious.
If you’re experiencing adrenal stress symptoms, restoring balance to your adrenal function can help you feel calmer and more energized. Since adrenal dysfunction occurs on a continuum, it’s a good idea to take action now before you feel even worse. Based on the results of the thousands of women we’ve helped, here are the three most important questions to ask:
1. Where is your stress coming from and how are you dealing with it?
You may be unaware of how much stress you’re under until you look at the usual suspects: job and work environment, home life and family dynamics, love relationships, finances, illnesses, etc. Though you can’t change some of these, you may be able to respond to them differently. Take the rest one at a time and create a mini-plan to dial back the stress each one causes. Even minor shifts in daily habits — a walk at lunch, regular deep breaths, noise-blocking headphones, a different route to work — can significantly reduce your stress burden.
2. Are you eating adrenal-friendly foods and supplementing with the right herbs?
For adrenal health, few things are as important as diet. Eat SOMETHING for breakfast (ideally protein-based), and enjoy good quality snacks regularly during the day. Add at least one vegetable serving to every meal and swap sugary foods for fruit. Be rigid about getting enough protein every day and support your adrenal glands with natural supplements formulated with adrenal-specific herbal extracts. Some products help with energy and others promote relaxation.
3. Are you paying attention to your exercise and sleep patterns?
When you have adrenal fatigue and stress symptoms, exercise may seem out of the question. And while you should listen to your body, gentle movement or light exercise can help defuse tension and supply energy. Since your body repairs itself when you’re resting, go to bed an hour earlier than normal every night for a few weeks. Your body will start to recognize this as a signal to begin the wind-down process. You may be able to get to sleep more quickly and stay that way through the night.
Symptoms of adrenal stress and fatigue can be overwhelming, though you may have more control than you ever imagined. Take our Adrenal Health Quiz to find out more about your adrenal status. Then you’ll understand how to put yourself on the road to having healthy adrenal function and you can get started today.
- Adrenal Fatigue, the 21st Century Stress Syndrome, by James Wilson. An excellent and up-to-date introduction.
- The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, by Martha Davis.
- The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health, by Shawn Talbott & William Kraemer.
- The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson, MD. An updated version of the classic text.
- The Schwarzbein Principle II, Dr. Schwarzbein’s second book, explores more deeply the relationship between adrenal stress and insulin resistance.
- Spent, by Frank Lipman, MD. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
- Dalvi, S. 2003. Adrenal Fatigue: A Desk Reference. Sandy Beds, UK: Authors Online.