You’ve probably either heard a lot — or very little — about the adrenal glands which are vital to good health. You might even have adrenal gland dysfunction and not even know it. Some experts believe that “adrenal fatigue” occurs at one time or another in the majority of adults.
Problems with your adrenal glands could lead to nonspecific symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, or trouble concentrating. In some cases, adrenal gland disease can even be life-threatening. Let’s take at how the powerful adrenal glands affect your health.
What Are the Adrenal Glands?
In normal human anatomy, there are two adrenal glands — one on top of each kidney. The glands are triangle shaped and are 1.5-inch tall and 3-inch long. Adrenal gland function is largely controlled by special areas of the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary gland). Each adrenal gland is divided into two parts:
- Adrenal cortex (the outer part): Makes the hormones cortisol (regulates metabolism and stress response) and aldosterone (helps regulate blood pressure); also secretes a small amount of estrogen and testosterone
- Adrenal medulla (inner part): Produces other hormones, such as adrenaline (helps you react to stress)
Cortisol has many important functions like determining how your body converts fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy. Cortisol also helps regulate blood pressure, cardiovascular function, immunity and inflammation. This hormone is essential to life, so you could not survive without your adrenal cortex.
Since the adrenal glands produce some of the body’s most important hormones, any imbalance could dramatically affect your health. Adrenal gland dysfunction can range from vague symptoms to life-threatening disorders. In the next few sections of this article, we’ll focus first on mild-moderate adrenal gland dysfunction. Later, we’ll learn about more serious adrenal gland diseases.
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
James Wilson, Ph.D. was the first to coin the term “adrenal fatigue.” The theory behind this disorder has to do with all kinds of stress. When you are exposed to chronic stress, Dr. Wilson states that your adrenal glands may get worn out. This means the amount of cortisol produced is not enough to support normal health.
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue may include:
- Autoimmune conditions
- Chronic fatigue (always feeling tired)
- Trouble concentrating
- Hair loss
- Hormonal imbalances
- Weakened stress response
- Insulin resistance
- Decreased sex drive/libido
- Unstable mood
- Muscle or bone loss
- Skin problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Weight gain
- Sweet and salty food cravings
There is some debate as to whether adrenal fatigue is a true medical diagnosis. One of the reasons is that it’s very hard to measure cortisol levels since they fluctuate all the time. However, since cortisol has such a wide impact on the body, even undetectable problems with the adrenal glands could affect you. So, when you feel a bit “down” or “worn out,” could it be your adrenals?
Typical Adrenal Fatigue Day
Dr. Wilson describes how a person with adrenal fatigue might feel at different times of the day. For example:
- Early morning: You feel foggy and tired. You might need a stimulant (coffee) to get going.
- Mid-morning: You get an energy boost.
- Early to mid-afternoon: Energy crash, sleepiness
- 6 p.m. energy peak — 9 p.m. crash — 11 p.m. peak
This may occur because your adrenal glands are fatigued. This means they take time to ramp up to give you enough energy throughout the day.
Causes of Adrenal Fatigue
Anything that causes severe or prolonged stress might lead to adrenal fatigue. Here are some examples:
- Stressful life experiences like the death of a loved one, divorce and moving
- Environmental toxins and pollution
- Chronic stress like financial strain, toxic work environment, poor family relationships and abuse
- Poor sleep habits
- Unhealthy diet and lack of exercise
- Chronic pain
- Food sensitivities
- Reliance on stimulants like caffeine or energy drinks
- Rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic illness
One study looked at the effects of examination stress on a group of 42 graduate students. The results revealed that chronic stress reduced the body’s ability to produce enough cortisol in the morning. Normally, morning cortisol levels are higher as the body prepares to face the challenges of the day. Those with the most stress had the lowest levels or morning cortisol. This study supports the theory of adrenal fatigue.
In the world of endocrinology, there is a strong debate about whether adrenal fatigue is real or not. Some even go so far as to say it is false and invented only to sell supplements. There is no single diagnostic test to confirm the disorder. So, what should you do?
You could seek out a specialist in endocrine disorders or adrenal fatigue. Still, there are some methods you can try before seeking a specialist. Even if adrenal fatigue isn’t the entire explanation, these changes may help you to feel better and regain energy anyway.
How to Treat Adrenal Fatigue
Because the disorder is difficult to define, there is debate about the treatment as well. Let’s look at some areas where the experts appear to agree.
First, is adequate rest. Not getting enough sleep is stressful and could put a strain on your adrenal glands. The ideal amount of sleep is eight to 10 hours per night. Do your best to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This allows your body to have a natural rhythm, which also reduces stress. Finally, avoid using digital devices in bed. The blue light might interfere with healthy sleep patterns. So, lights out by 10.
Second, is avoidance of sugar. This includes anything with ingredients like nectar, malt, sucrose, dextrin, dextrose, maltose, maltodextrin, fruit juice, glucose, sweetener and molasses. Anything that comes in a package might have added sugar, even bread and ketchup, so read the label. High sugar diets may lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which strain the adrenal glands. You should also avoid heavy carbs, processed foods and caffeine.
Third, is to add adrenal gland healthy foods. These are foods that reduce inflammation and stabilize blood sugar. Some of your best bets include:
- Cauliflower and broccoli
- Free-range chicken
- Walnut and almonds
- Kelp and seaweed
- Pumpkin seeds
The fourth step is to consider taking vitamin supplements that contain:
- Vitamins B5, B6 and B12
- Vitamin C
Finally, get exercise. This not only helps modulate your cortisol and blood sugar levels, but it also helps reduce stress. Besides removing excess sugar from your diet, exercise is probably the best way to maintain overall adrenal gland health.
In conventional medicine, there are adrenal gland diseases that are identified more formally. These are:
- Addison’s disease: Very rare and can occur at any age. In this disease, the adrenal cortex doesn’t make enough cortisol and aldosterone; it could be a problem with the adrenal glands or with the hormones made by the brain that control adrenal gland function
- Adrenal cancer: Adrenal cancers are very rare and aggressive; typically, these cancers spread to other parts of the body and cause problems due to overproduction of hormones
- Cushing’s syndrome: This disorder occurs when the adrenals make too much cortisol; Cushing’s syndrome occurs due to a tumor in the adrenal gland or pituitary gland
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia: A genetic disorder that leads to low levels of cortisol; it may lead to low levels of aldosterone as well
These disorders typically cause severe, even life-threatening, symptoms. They require treatment by an endocrine specialist. You can’t treat these diseases with diet modifications and supplements alone.
Don’t Get Confused
Another difficulty in diagnosing adrenal fatigue is that it looks like other disorders. Some specialists believe that depression, fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome may be due to adrenal fatigue to some extent. In any case, it pays to consider other causes of your symptoms. Still, if you consider the treatments described above, they benefit the alternative diagnoses as well.
Cut Out the Stress
No matter what health issue you are dealing with, stress never helps. Chronic stress has the potential to cause or worsen nearly any disease, especially adrenal gland problems. Many of us are way too busy these days. Take some time to jot down your daily activities. Are they all essential? Look hard and make the sacrifice to trim down wherever possible.
For example, does your child have to participate in so many activities? If running around only stresses you out, then any benefit might disappear in the long run. Plus, are you educating your child to be a stressed out overactive person too? Think about it.
To learn how to cook for improved adrenal health, check out Cooking for Adrenal Health, here!
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Adrenal fatigue: What causes it? (2017, April 12). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/addisons-disease/expert-answers/adrenal-fatigue/faq-20057906
An Overview of the Adrenal Glands. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-adrenal-glands
What is Adrenal Fatigue? | Dr. James L. Wilson’s AdrenalFatigue.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://adrenalfatigue.org/what-is-adrenal-fatigue/