What are adrenal glands?
The adrenal glands sit over the kidneys, where they play a significant role in the body, secreting more than 50 hormones necessary for life, including epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), progesterone and testosterone. Since they produce so many essential hormones, the adrenal glands are responsible for many of the functions we need to stay alive and healthy, including:
- Energy production — carbohydrate, protein and fat conversion to blood glucose for energy
- Fluid and electrolyte balance
- Fat storage
One hormone in particular, cortisol, is extremely important for keeping our body systems in balance, as well as protecting our cells. For example:
- It controls the strength of the immune system: Too much cortisol weakens the immune system, setting the motions for increased susceptibility to infections and cancer, while too little leads to an overactive immune system and autoimmune disease.
- It normalizes blood sugar.
- It regulates blood pressure.
These small but mighty glands also work with other hormones and systems in what Dr. Wilson calls a “symphony.” As he points out, when one part of this symphony drops out, such as what happens after menopause for women and andropause for men, the adrenal glands have to pick up the slack by producing larger amounts of sex hormones. Because of this, Wilson claims, good adrenal gland function is linked to longevity.
Unfortunately, the adrenal glands’ health is paradoxical. As the manufacturer of adrenaline, they are the “glands of stress,” but are also the first glands to fail during prolonged or intense periods of stress. The problem with stressors is that they are “cumulative,” in the sense that their impact tends to add up in the body over time until your adrenal glands (and probably your mental state) just can’t take anymore. A “nervous breakdown” is actually adrenal fatigue, or when the adrenal glands can’t deal with the amount of stress they’re given. Adrenal fatigue used to be rare, but is now all too common because of our lack of relaxation and other lifestyle factors, such as smoking, sleep deprivation, poor eating habits and excessive caffeine intake, as well as allergies.
Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a syndrome, that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, 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 paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep but it is not a readily identifiable entity like measles or a growth on the end of your finger. You may look and act relatively normal with adrenal fatigue and may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, yet you live with a general sense of unwellness, tiredness or “gray” feelings. People experiencing adrenal fatigue often have to use coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day.
This syndrome has been known by many other names throughout the past century, such as non-Addison’s hypoadrenia, sub-clinical hypoadrenia, neurasthenia, adrenal neurasthenia, adrenal apathy and adrenal fatigue. Although it affects millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, conventional medicine does not yet recognize it as a distinct syndrome.
Adrenal fatigue can wreak havoc with your life. In the more serious cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that you may have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours per day. With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in your body is more profoundly affected. Changes occur in your carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart and cardiovascular system, and even sex drive. Many other alterations take place at the biochemical and cellular levels in response to and to compensate for the decrease in adrenal hormones that occurs with adrenal fatigue. Your body does its best to make up for under-functioning adrenal glands, but it does so at a price.
What causes adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is produced when your adrenal glands cannot adequately meet the demands of stress. The adrenal glands mobilize your body’s responses to every kind of stress (whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological) through hormones that regulate energy production and storage, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to cope with the stress. Whether you have an emotional crisis such as the death of a loved one, a physical crisis such as major surgery, or any type of severe repeated or constant stress in your life, your adrenals have to respond to the stress and maintain homeostasis. If their response is inadequate, you are likely to experience some degree of adrenal fatigue.
During adrenal fatigue your adrenal glands function, but not well enough to maintain optimal homeostasis because their output of regulatory hormones has been diminished – usually by over-stimulation. Over-stimulation of your adrenals can be caused either by a very intense single stress, or by chronic or repeated stresses that have a cumulative effect.
Who is susceptible to adrenal fatigue?
Anyone can experience adrenal fatigue at some time in his or her life. An illness, a life crisis, or a continuing difficult situation can drain the adrenal resources of even the healthiest person. However, there are factors that can make you more susceptible to adrenal fatigue. These include certain lifestyles (poor diet, substance abuse, too little sleep and rest, or too many pressures), chronic illness or repeated infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia, prolonged situations that you feel trapped or helpless in (bad relationships, stressful jobs, poverty, imprisonment), or maternal adrenal fatigue during gestation.
How common is adrenal fatigue?
Although there are no recent statistics available, Dr. John Tinterra, a medical doctor who specialized in low adrenal function, said in 1969 that he estimated that approximately 16% of the public could be classified as severe, but that if all indications of low cortisol were included, the percentage would be more like 66%. This was before the extreme stress of 21st century living, 9/11, and the severe economic recession we are experiencing.
How can I tell if my adrenals are fatigued?
You may be experiencing adrenal fatigue if you regularly notice one or more of the following:
- You feel tired for no reason.
- You have trouble getting up in the morning, even when you go to bed at a reasonable hour.
- You are feeling rundown or overwhelmed.
- You have difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness.
- You crave salty and sweet snacks.
- You feel more awake, alert and energetic after 6PM than you do all day.
Are there health conditions related to adrenal fatigue?
The processes that take place in any chronic disease, from arthritis to cancer, place demands on your adrenal glands. Therefore, it is likely that if you are suffering from a chronic disease and morning fatigue is one of your symptoms, your adrenals may be fatigued to some degree. Also, any time a medical treatment includes the use of corticosteroids, diminished adrenal function is probably present. All corticosteroids are designed to imitate the actions of the adrenal hormone, cortisol, and so the need for them arises primarily when the adrenals are not providing the required amounts of cortisol.
Can people experiencing adrenal fatigue feel their best again?
Yes, with proper care most people experiencing adrenal fatigue can expect to feel good again. If you take your treatment plan seriously, you can expect your adrenal fatigue to heal in as little as six months with symptoms diminishing or disappearing as soon as two weeks. Keep in mind that every person is different and every functional medicine treatment plan is personalized; treatment regimens, plan lengths and supplements will vary accordingly.
Take the test here! It is important to note that this is not a diagnostic test and should not be used to diagnose any conditions. It is simply a tool to help assess your likely level of adrenal burnout. If your test result is 50 or higher, you should call our office at (304) 263-4927 and request a functional medicine consultation. If possible, please bring a printed and completed copy of your questionnaire with you to your appointment as reference.