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Adrenal Fatigue - What is It?

Adrenal fatigue is a collection of physical signs and symptoms that are the result of inadequate levels of adrenal hormones. Typically this condition results from excessive stress on the adrenal glands, and can also be caused by intense or prolonged mental, emotional, or physical stress or serious illness. It occurs when the adrenal glands can no longer produce adequate levels of the hormones it typically manufactures in response to stressors.

People with adrenal fatigue experience a level of physical fatigue that isn't relieved by an adequate night’s sleep, among other symptoms. They often cannot even begin to function without nearly continual doses of caffeine, sugar and other stimulants that are needed to get them going in the morning and to keep them afloat the rest of the day.

Many people are affected by this condition; however it is grossly under recognized, especially in conventional medicine. It can be difficult to diagnose adrenal fatigue syndrome using conventional lab tests; however a trained practitioner looking for the right signs and symptoms can help establish a diagnosis.

People with adrenal fatigue syndrome have great difficulty getting out of bed. They may have problems throughout the many organ systems of the body leading to a variety of symptoms. All of which occur as the body tries to compensate for inadequate levels of the adrenal hormones - most specifically cortisol.

What the Adrenal Glands Do

The adrenals are responsible for the secretion of several hormones, namely those related to stress. These include cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine; all of which orchestrate the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.

Other hormones secreted by the adrenal glands  include the androgens (testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S), as well as others that regulate water and electrolyte balance to help maintain blood pressure.

The adrenal glands are directly wired to the nervous system, and respond nearly instantaneously to any kind of stress.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Weight gain, especially around the waist and stomach
  • Non-restorative sleep
  • Inability to fall asleep
  • Frequent wakening at night; poor sleep
  • Inability to recover from exercise
  • Excessive soreness and joint pain from exercise
  • Frequent illness, especially respiratory infections
  • Inability to cope with stress; completely ‘wiped out’ after a stressful situation
  • Foggy memory
  • Dizziness when standing up
  • “Tired, but wired” in the late evenings (sleepy but can’t fall asleep)
  • Must have coffee and/or sugar to get moving in the morning
  • Great difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
  • Increased PMS in women, heavy menses, menses that starts and stops irregularly
  • Feel much better when stressors are gone (when on vacation)

  • Making the Diagnosis

    Establishing a diagnosis involves a careful interview process at our Fort Collins clinic about the different signs and symptoms a person may be having, and testing the levels of cortisol and DHEA. In some instances, other conditions may need to be ruled out and testing for additional hormones/factors may be necessary.

    Conventional medical practitioners sometimes try to diagnose adrenal fatigue by using a blood test and come up with nothing. This is because blood isn't an ideal way to test cortisol levels (for a variety of reasons - watch video).  Additionally, conventional doctors are trained to look at adrenal function through an all or none lens; meaning they are only looking for absolute failure (Addison's disease) or over production (Cushing's disease). Adrenal fatigue can't be properly diagnosed using blood tests. 

    Adrenal Fatigue Treatment

    Treatment is ultimately very individualized, as the person's specific lifestyle factors will need to be addressed. An individual treatment program will be designed based on test results. It will include a variety of adrenal fatigue natural medicines and botanical medicines, depending on the patient.

    Some of our treatment recommendations include, but aren't limited to:

  • Saliva testing:  We test saliva to determine the 'functional' amount of adrenal hormones being made in the body. Both morning and night time cortisol levels should be measured, at a minimum. Also, the hormone DHEA should be measured too, as it assists in diagnosing and determining the severity of the condition.

  • Lifestyle/Stress modification. Changing the way one navigates their daily life can have a large impact on recovery.  These recommendations are based on our intake appointment findings. 

  • B complex + adrenal adaptogens: Certain B vitamins are important for assisting with recovery of adrenal stress, while adaptogenic botanical medicines serve to support adrenal function.

  • Vitamin C: The adrenals contain the highest concentration of vitamin C in the body; vitamin C supports adrenal hormone production.

  • Rhodiola: An adaptogenic herb, rhodiola is excellent for assisting recovery.

  • DHEA: Produced by the adrenal glands, output becomes drastically reduced from adrenal stress. Replacement of DHEA allows the adrenals to rest and not be forced to make this hormone during recovery.

    Treatment and recovery from adrenal fatigue is not a quick fix. It takes time and adherence to a well-designed treatment plan. If you are interested, here's a detailed paper on the subject. 

    Treatment is available at our Fort Collins clinic.