If you see a conventional medical doctor and ask about adrenal fatigue, you will get an answer that such a condition does not exist. If your blood tests come back “normal”, you will most likely get a prescription for an antidepressant and be sent home.
According to James Wilson, Ph.D., a naturopath and expert in alternative medicine who first described the syndrome, adrenal fatigue is “a group of related signs and symptoms that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level.” This can be caused by intense stress and often comes after chronic infections.
Interestingly, The Endocrine Society, the world’s largest endocrinologist organization, does not acknowledge adrenal fatigue as a real condition either. This could be because there are no definitive tests (according to them) to diagnose it. But they do acknowledge adrenal insufficiency, which can be diagnosed with a blood test that measures cortisol levels, and, if too low, hormone replacement is the “solution”.
Adrenal fatigue vs. adrenal insufficiency
When you compare the two illnesses, they can appear very similar. Adrenal fatigue seems to come before adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) sets in. Using “normal” lab ranges, it is hard to diagnose initial changes in cortisol levels – the reason the conventional medical system does not recognize it as a disease.
When you feel off, but your blood test results come back as normal, they say it’s all in your head. It can be frustrating. Years go by and, if no lifestyle changes are made, the unaddressed symptoms only get worse. You go in for another blood test, and now your results are outside the lab ranges – congratulations, you can now be diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency and start hormone replacement therapy.
The problem with this approach is that by the time you are outside the “normal” lab ranges (which are too broad and might be based on a reference population that isn’t sufficiently healthy), the disease has progressed too far. This applies to every condition, including diabetes, hypothyroidism, anemia, and many others.
Sadly, we are told to trust the blood tests more than what our own bodies tell us by the expression of symptoms. This is where we get in trouble. Disease does not develop overnight, so paying attention to symptoms before irregularities show up on a blood test is very important in order to avoid serious health issues.
Your adrenal glands
Let’s begin with the adrenal glands and how they function in our bodies.
Those two little glands are an important part of your endocrine system. They sit on top of your kidneys and, together with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, form the HPA-axis responsible for your response to stress and your circadian rhythms.
Everything starts with adrenal glands since they are responsible for balancing all the other hormones in the body, which together affect our energy levels, our mind, emotions, and, in general, every physiological system.
The adrenals’ main hormones are noradrenaline and adrenaline, the fast-acting hormones, and cortisol, which is released slower in response to any stress. Its primary function is to increase blood sugar and help metabolize fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
Adrenals also produce some sex hormones, and DHEA, which is the most abundant hormone in the bloodstream and is considered to be an anti-aging hormone. In fact, women who have unresolved chronic adrenal fatigue will have more difficult menopause since it is the adrenal glands that take over the female hormone production from the ovaries at the time of menopause. If adrenal glands are exhausted, they will not kick in with healthy hormone production.
Factors affecting adrenals
Emotional – stress, death, unemployment, moving, finances, negative attitudes, bad news, divorce, depression. Our adrenal glands cannot distinguish between the stress that we experience in the life or death situation and the chronic stress of every day demanding modern lifestyle. They respond by producing cortisol just the same.
Physical – injuries, prescription drugs, allergies, infections. All these factors deplete minerals and vitamins, affect the balance of good and harmful bacteria in our gut and create inflammation.
Diet – caffeine, sugar, alcohol, SAD diet, skipping meals, food allergies, and intolerances. These factors create dysbiosis in our digestive tract and nutrient deficiencies, which produces inflammation and affects every organ in the body.
Lifestyle – smoking, recreational drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, over-exercising.
Environmental – toxins in water, food, and air, light pollution (interferes with our internal circadian rhythm), electromagnetic radiation (electronic devices, microwaves).
Adrenals under stress
When we experience chronic stress, our adrenal glands suffer by working overtime and experience adrenal fatigue.
In the presence of stress, any stress, adrenal glands jump in to do their job – raise adrenaline and cortisol levels to make us more alert and ready for the fight-or-flight response. In this stress response process, many activities in our bodies that are not crucial to survival get immediately restricted: blood flow to non-essential areas gets reduced, digestion slows down.
Activities that are crucial for survival speed up, such as heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, liver releases stored glycogen to increase energy, and immune system activates to get into fighting position. The problem with this is that modern-day stress is constant and chronic, causing adrenals to react all the time, which leads to a production of excess adrenaline and cortisol.
Chronic levels of those hormones in the body can cause many problems, including impaired digestion, compromised immune system, unstable energy levels, disturbed emotions, altered metabolism, reduced sex hormone and DHEA production.
Most common adrenal fatigue symptoms
- feeling fatigued, especially in the morning even after a long night’s sleep, but more energy in the evening – a sign of disrupted cortisol cycle
- beginning or worsening allergies – sign of a weakened immune system
- difficulty staying asleep at night
- brain fog
- salt, sweets, caffeine cravings
- inability to handle any stress
- hypotension – low blood pressure
- hypoglycemia – low blood sugar
- decreased sex drive
- increased PMS or menopausal symptoms
- loss of body hair
- stress related headaches
- difficulty recovering from exercise – most likely over-exercising
How to test for adrenal fatigue
The most accurate test for adrenal fatigue is the DUTCH test – Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones. You can do this test conveniently with an at-home test kit, which measures sex and adrenal hormone levels and their metabolites. The test is done by collecting urine samples on a paper four times/day, which estimates hormones’ daily production.
DUTCH test for adrenal fatigue gives a valuable view of the big picture of your hormone function throughout the day. This is a useful tool in designing a plan to resolve adrenal fatigue.
Natural support for adrenal glands:
It is a potent antioxidant vitamin that is directly involved in cortisol production as well as in all the other hormones produced by the adrenal glands. In fact, most of the vitamin C in the body is stored in the adrenal glands.
In stressful situations, adequate vitamin C in the body helps lower cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. This powerful antioxidant also protects the body from DNA mutations, and it boosts the immune system.
When the body is less prone to illness, there is less stress on the adrenal glands as well. Vitamin C also helps to detox the liver, which is responsible for cleaning all the toxins and chemicals from the body, which helps support every organ’s health, including the adrenal glands. It also helps with the absorption of trace minerals, which play an important role in adrenal health.
Great food sources include most fruits and vegetables, especially red bell peppers, citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, and real fermented sauerkraut.
B complex vitamins
The most important member of this family for adrenal support is pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). It plays a crucial role in the production of adrenal hormones and helps regulate the response of the adrenal gland’s receptors by making them less responsive.
Vitamin B5 is commonly known as the anti-stress vitamin and is essential in energy metabolism since it plays a significant role in carbohydrate processing. Pantothenic acid combats fatigue and strengthens endurance. It also supports the nervous system. Deficiency symptoms are irritability, depression, weakness, problems with sleep, headaches.
Foods rich in B5 vitamin include legumes (soaked or sprouted), salmon, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes.
Because all B vitamins play a crucial role in cell energy production which is necessary for adrenal hormone synthesis, it is important to get the whole complex. It’s best if we get it from foods, such as beef, beef liver, salmon, tuna, oats, turkey, eggs, milk.
This trace mineral is essential to the health of every cell in the body. Magnesium gets used up quite quickly in the body in the presence of mental and physical stress.
Adrenaline released by the adrenal glands affects blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, and muscle contractions, which are all dependent on steady magnesium supplies.
If a person is magnesium deficient, the effects of chronic stress will be magnified, which will further lead to more anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue, which are all the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Lack of magnesium will put additional stress on the adrenal glands.
Foods rich in magnesium are dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans (soaked or sprouted), avocados, yogurt, buckwheat, kelp.
This antioxidant and a trace mineral essential for good health are found in most meats, seafood, and poultry. Most people are deficient in zinc since it is one of the most difficult minerals for our bodies to absorb.
It is also one of the most important ones to balance copper in the body and enable adrenals to produce adrenaline. It is lost rapidly when the body experiences stress and is essential in healing processes and a healthy immune system.
If one is deficient in zinc, the wound healing will be slowed and more prone to illness and infections, which will put stress on the adrenal glands even more.
Foods rich in zinc are beef, lamb, sesame and pumpkin seeds, oysters.
Essential fatty acids
Very important for brain health since they constitute 70% of our brains. EFA’s are anti-inflammatory, essential for the body, and can only be obtained through diet. They are critical in hormone manufacturing in adrenal glands and thyroid, stabilize mood, increase energy, and help maintain normal body fat.
Because EFA’s reduce inflammation in the body, adrenals need to produce less cortisol to manage inflammation. Most people get more than enough of the omega-6 fatty acids through their diet (mostly from vegetable oils), but not nearly enough omega-3 fatty acids. It is important to keep omega-6 and omega-3 in a balanced ratio of 3:1 or, even better, 2:1.
Good sources of omega-3 essential fats are sardines, wild salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds, dark green vegetables, pastured eggs, and grass-fed meat.
This fat-soluble vitamin plays an essential part in hormone production in the adrenal glands. It is also a very important vitamin for preventing seasonal affective disorder and depression and elevating mood, which directly affects adrenal health and its demand for cortisol production.
This vitamin is also one of the most important for supporting a strong and healthy immune system, which protects us from illness and infections. The needs for this vitamin change with seasons, needing more during the dark winter months spent mostly indoors.
Natural sources of vitamin D3 are sun exposure (which is the best source) and eating foods rich in this vitamin, such as egg yolks, grass-fed butter, lard, liver, and oily fish.
Adrenal glands help us survive stress. We need them to function well so that we can function well in this world. Physical, emotional, and nutritional support is essential in restoring adrenal health naturally. Don’t wait to be diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency and start hormone replacement therapy, which could be for life.
When we are healthy, we are not concerned with our body parts and organs. We do not think about them because they are functioning the way they are supposed to work. When symptoms arise, we start noticing what’s hurting or feeling off. Don’t ignore it, even if your doctor says your blood test results are “normal” and “it’s all in your head”. No, it’s not.
You are in charge of your health. You and only you can feel your body talk to you. Listen to it and address the root cause by practicing stress management, nourishing with whole foods organic diet, prioritizing sleep, and simply loving yourself more.
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Bauman, E. (2015). Therapeutic Nutrition Textbook, Part 1. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.
Mercola.com. (December, 2012). Zinc—One of the Best Supplements to Help Fight Cold and Flu: https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/12/13/zinc-for-colds-and-flu.aspx
Natural Health Advisory Institute. (July, 2015). 10 Vitamin D deficiency symptoms you can identify yourself: https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/depression/10-vitamin-d-deficiency-symptoms-that-you-can-identify-yourself/
The Weston A. Price Foundation. (April, 2009). Metals and the mind: http:// www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/metals-and-the-mind/
DUTCH test: https://dutchtest.com
Foresman, Pearson. Line of art drawing of adrenal gland. August, 2007. Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, Donated to the Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 4 November 2015.