Adrenal fatigue is the common name for a set of symptoms that result from the adrenal glands being worked to exhaustion. For the majority of cases, adrenal fatigue is secondary to some other underlying health issue such as chronic, hidden inflammation. Stress can come in a variety of forms, but your body’s response is the same. It can take years for your adrenal glands to fail to meet the demands of your daily life, ultimately resulting in adrenal fatigue.
If you answered yes to any of these questions then consider adrenal fatigue.
The adrenals are two small glands, each about the size of an almond, that are located above the kidneys. The adrenals have one of the highest rates of blood flow per gram of tissue, and the highest content of vitamin C per gram of any tissue in the body. Each adrenal gland is composed of two separate functional entities. The outer zone, or cortex, accounts for 80% to 90% of the gland and secretes adrenal steroids (cortisol, DHEA-S, aldosterone and small amounts of sex hormones). The inner zone, or medulla, comprises 10% to 20% of the gland and secretes the catecholamines (adrenaline and nor-adrenaline). Cortisol, DHEA, and adrenaline are the three main adrenal stress hormones. These hormones help you to buffer stress and adapt to everyday life demands. We’d love to talk to you about natural adrenal supplements.
Under stress, healthy adrenals increase their output of cortisol and DHEA to enable you to preserve health. They also secrete adrenaline, giving you a boost of energy when needed (e.g., a mother lifting a car off of a baby). If this becomes chronic, the adrenals can no longer keep up with the demand, and DHEA levels begin to fall, signifying adrenal fatigue. In addition, the over-secretion of adrenaline can cause you to feel anxious and nervous. Complaints of insomnia, fatigue, depression, irritability, and digestive difficulties are also common. As adrenaline surges during stress, digestive enzymes are simultaneously lowered, and blood sugar levels rise. As this becomes a more chronic occurrence, the results of high cortisol and adrenaline levels from prolonged stress wreak havoc on the body. Essentially under stress, all systems that are required for rest, repair, and digestion shut down.
“Adrenal fatigue is the end-stage of a poorly adapted stress response that can take years to break down.”
Below are areas of the body that are negatively impacted by adrenal exhaustion and the chronic stress response that causes it.
Abnormal adrenal function can alter the ability of cells to produce energy for the activities of daily life. People who have a hard time rising in the morning, or who suffer from low energy throughout the day, often have abnormal adrenal rhythms, adrenal fatigue, and poor blood sugar regulation. The maintenance of a stable blood sugar level depends on food choice, lifestyle, adrenal function, and insulin activity.
Abnormal adrenal rhythms are known to compromise tissue healing. Reduced tissue repair and increased tissue breakdown can lead to muscle and joint wasting with chronic pain.
The adrenal rhythm determines how well we build bone. If the night and morning cortisol levels are elevated, our bones do not rebuild well, and we are more prone to osteoporosis. Stress is the enemy of the bones. In postmenopausal women, the effect of stress worsens due to female hormone imbalances.
Various immune cells (white blood cells) cycle in and out of the spleen and bone marrow. The immune system trafficking follows the cortisol cycle. If the cycle is disrupted, especially at night, then the immune system is adversely affected. Short- and long-term stress is known to suppress the immune response in the lungs, throat, urinary tract and intestines. With reduction in the surface antibody (called secretory IgA), the resistance to infection is reduced and allergic reactions increase.
In sleep deprived individuals, the mean cortisol levels are elevated, and the quiescent period is shorter. Evening cortisol level is increased in patients with insomnia, affecting the first part of the nocturnal sleep period, increasing risk for depression. Chronic lack of REM sleep can reduce a person’s mental vitality, vigor and induce depression.
Couples with high level of stress markers are less likely to succeed in conceiving. Stress alters the brain signals that trigger the ovaries to release eggs each month, so women under non-stop stress ovulate fewer eggs than less stressed women. Stress can also affect testosterone level and sperm production in men. Helping couples to de-stress while trying to conceive can impact their success rate.
Human skin regenerates mostly at night. With higher night cortisol values, less skin regeneration takes place. Thus normal cortisol rhythm is essential for optimal skin health.
The level of cortisol at the cellular level controls thyroid hormone production. Often, hypothyroid symptoms such as fatigue and low body temperature are due to a stress or adrenal fatigue. Chronic stress will convert thyroid hormone to its inactive form (reverse T3) and shuts down the production of TSH.
Approximately 12-18% of the U.S. population suffers from a genetic intolerance to grains, such as wheat, rye or barley contained in cereals, breads and pasta. A high incidence occurs in people with Celtic, Nordic, non-Caucasian and Mediterranean ethnicity. The gut becomes inflamed within 30 minutes after consuming grains, and this can lead to an adrenal stress response, increased cortisol and reduced DHEA.
Sustained stress adversely affects brain function and memory processing. Too much cortisol interferes with the functioning chemicals the brain uses for its cellular intercommunication, as well as decreases the function of the hippocampus, the part of your brain that forms memories. Chronic stress, with increased cortisol levels at night, makes it difficult to think, organize, and store new memories or retrieve long-term ones.
A common adrenal fatigue issue in CFS is impaired corticotrophin release. As a result, low cortisol and eventual adrenal atrophy may be observed. Simultaneous use of several therapies can help improve the debilitating effects of CFS.
Chronic low blood sugar can impair normal adrenal function by repetitive over-stimulation of cortisol production. Recurring exposure to high cortisol will impair insulin activity, and invariably lead to insulin resistance and beta-cell exhaustion (diabetes).
Several years ago, Dr. Brian Anderson discovered that patients with environmentally triggered allergies and autoimmune diseases dramatically benefited when given cortisol for other purposes. More recently, German researchers reported that disruption of the adrenal axis and cytokine relationships lead to predisposition and aggravation of autoimmune diseases.
Several recent publications report a hyperactive HPA axis in depressed patients. Elevated midnight salivary cortisol is now considered one of the best tests in diagnosing endogenous depression. Other anomalies in cortisol rhythm usually accompany the midnight elevation. On the other hand, cortisol elevations and rhythm disruptions throughout the day are typical of attention deficit disorders (ADD).
As you can see, a chronic stress response that eventually develops into adrenal fatigue has a negative impact of virtually every aspect of health. Stress is reaching an epidemic proportion due to our fast-paced lifestyle, and is at the heart of virtually all chronic disease. As mentioned earlier, adrenal fatigue is secondary to a chronic stress stimulus. These stressors can be in the form of:
As Functional Medicine Providers, it is our job to dig through the dirt to find the underlying cause of your stress response gone awry. Not only do we tell you WHY you don’t feel well, but teach you what YOU can do about it. Let us help you develop a strategy to conquer adrenal fatigue and restore your vitality and quality of life.
Call us to schedule a personal health consultation and let us help navigate you towards better health.