Are Your Adrenals Exhausted? The Truth About ‘Adrenal Fatigue’
“Always tense or anxious? You could have adrenal fatigue!”
“Heal your adrenal fatigue naturally!”
The term ‘adrenal fatigue’ is used incessantly by alternative medical practitioners and some (albeit questionable) doctors to describe a nonspecific group of symptoms that a lot of people happen to have. These practitioners insist that these symptoms are caused by tired adrenals and mixed up hormones. The media and several (not ALL) bogus ‘naturopaths’, ‘holistic nutritionists’ and ’doctors’ like the unfortunately omnipresent and ever-idiotic Dr Lam and Dr Axe, to name a few, love to point fingers at obscure glands and hormones as the culprits to all sorts of stuff, because these things sound scary and confusing and mysterious to the layperson. And I think that when you make people frightened about their own bodies, they’re more likely to believe what you’re telling them. (and buy your supplements, natch)
This really pisses me off, because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s certain ‘professionals’ being disingenuous by making the human body look faulty when really, it’s not. I’m more than happy to work peacefully and collaboratively with many of the alternative practitioners out there, but when some of them use mythical non-scientific woowoo crap to scare people, it makes me all sorts of angry.
‘Adrenal fatigue’ supporters say that your adrenal glands, in response to constant stress and too many late nights drinking margaritas, get really tired and messed up. They become exhausted by your lifestyle and poop out, causing them to excrete less of the hormones you need to be healthy.
The result? ADRENAL FATIGUE!
My adrenals, and my brain, are getting really tired of hearing this term. So, I’m going to decode all of the adrenal BS to you right now.
Does adrenal fatigue really exist? Let’s take a look!
What are your adrenals?
Your adrenals are two little triangular endocrine (meaning, they make hormones) glands that sit on top of your kidneys. These guys secrete hormones like cortisol, aldosterone, and adrenaline to name a few.
Let’s take a look at each one of these hormones because they’re the ones that most closely relate to ‘adrenal fatigue’.
Cortisol: Cortisol is a steroid hormone that’s released in response to low blood sugar and stress. It increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system, and helps us metabolize carbohydrates, fat, and protein. When you drink coffee, this can increase your cortisol levels. When you’re not sleeping, or your boss yells at you, or you haven’t eaten all day, these things can increase your cortisol levels too. Ever use hydrocortisone for a poison ivy rash? That’s another form of cortisol. See? Learning about hormones is not all that scary.
Cortisol has a role in our sleep, our mood, and even our memory, among plenty of other things. But that’s an entire blog post in itself.
Aldosterone: Aldosterone is a steroid hormone that, in short, regulates how much you pee and how much sodium and potassium your body retains. It helps keep our blood pressure stable.
Adrenaline, or epinephrine, is a hormone that is released in response to stress. Ever hear of the ‘fight or flight’ response? That’s adrenaline that causes it. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the muscles, increases blood sugar, and makes your heart pump harder. Exercise increases your body’s epinephrine secretion.
The adrenal glands are part of the HPA (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal) Axis, which is a pathway that responds to stress. It then adjusts the secretion of adrenal hormones accordingly. All of this supposedly plays into ‘adrenal fatigue’, because ‘adrenal fatigue’ apparently happens when there’s dysregulation of the HPA Axis. I’m not saying that the HPA Axis can’t be messed up at times by any number of things, but does this tire out your glands? That’s the question.
No one said the adrenals weren’t complicated business, but our main question is that of adrenal exhaustion, so I will spare you the deep dive into physiology. The hormones above have other jobs, and there are other neurotransmitters that play into things as well. It’s not necessary for me to go into details, because there’s sort of a simple answer to our question.
As you can see, nothing about what I wrote is crazy or mysterious. Our bodies have to have a mechanism to control and respond to stress, and our adrenals are equipped to do just that, so it’s all good.
Where did the idea come from?
The term ‘adrenal fatigue’ was invented by a Chiropractor (big shock) in 1998, so it’s relatively new.
If you look at ‘adrenal fatigue’ sites, they claim that the overuse of your adrenal glands causes the following symptoms:
Difficulty getting out of bed
Higher energy levels in the evenings from a disturbed circadian rhythm
An inability to handle stress
Lines in your fingertips (what? Like fingerprints?)
Dark circle under your eyes
And many, many more.
Certain idiotic scare tactic claims like the following abound on the internet, usually by anyone who has a book or supplements to sell:
Eventually, the adrenals will become totally exhausted. Patients at this stage will have a high chance of cardiovascular collapse and death. (totally malarkey bullshit scare tactic..but if you buy his supplements you’ll be magically CURED!!)
If you find yourself suddenly craving salty snacks, you could be suffering from Adrenal Fatigue. (or maybe you just really want some chips)
Patients with Adrenal Fatigue often report a lack of enthusiasm, feelings of apathy or disinterest, irritability and anxiety. (these things can also result from many other things in your life, and some of them seriously require treatment…from an actual doctor. So don’t just blame them on ‘adrenal fatigue’ and take supplements..go see someone legit)
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. (If your body is malfunctioning so badly that you can’t get out of bed every day, you likely have a much bigger issue that ‘adrenal fatigue’, and you need to see a real doctor. As in, not one who believes in ‘adrenal fatigue’).
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.
(Yawn. Oh my god! Better buy his book to find out how to heal your glands!! **eye roll**)
There’s a simple response to ‘does adrenal fatigue exist?’
The truth is, your adrenal glands don’t get tired. They don’t suffer from an inability to keep pace with your busy lifestyle and crazy stress levels. What if someone told you, ‘Your heart never stops beating, at some point it’s gonna need a rest! You have cardiac fatigue!’
You’d think they were nuts.
There are definitely some real adrenal problems that exist, such as adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s Disease. Addison’s Disease is very serious. Funny enough, the symptoms of Addison’s Disease, and many many other recognized conditions, overlap with many of the symptoms of ‘adrenal fatigue’! Wow! Imagine that.
The tests for ‘adrenal fatigue’ include salivary cortisol, blood hormone levels, and numerous questionnaires that you can find on the internet. Credible!
The problem with ‘adrenal fatigue’ testing is that it’s not accurate. Blood hormone levels fluctuate and because ‘adrenal fatigue’ is subclinical (according to supporters), you can’t really detect small shifts in the necessary hormones to diagnose it. Salivary cortisol can be affected by other numerous things and can’t be trusted. And questionnaires? Well, you know what I think about those!
It should be mentioned right about now that when you’re stressed, your cortisol doesn’t drop. It actually rises. So the concept of having lower cortisol as an indicator of ‘adrenal fatigue’ doesn’t make any sense.
If the symptoms of ‘adrenal fatigue’ are so random and non-specific, and the tests that are done to diagnose it aren’t accurate, how do you know if you have it? And, how do you know if, after a few rounds of supplements you bought off the internet, you’re ‘cured’? You don’t, because there’s no tests for that! Interesting.
The research to prove that adrenal fatigue is real is non existent. (and here and here). If actual endocrinologists say that this disease doesn’t exist, it doesn’t, people. People who push this diagnosis are essentially inventing a sub-clinical form of adrenal insufficiency, and presumably using it to further their agenda: whether it’s selling a book, supplements, or their own credibility. It’s unfortunate that so many people are duped into buying – literally and figuratively – what these people are selling. The supplements for ‘adrenal fatigue’ may actually be harmful. Don’t do that.
It’s alway interesting to me how many people choose alternative therapies because they have a conspiracy theory about ‘big pharma’ only wanting to make money. But think about it: do you think that many of the people promoting ‘adrenal fatigue’ aren’t looking to cash in on your fear? Come on, people.
So what if you’re experiencing all or some of the symptoms?
Organs and glands don’t get tired. They’re made to work until you drop. Literally. But, if your life is stressful, it’s time to make some changes.
It is safe to say that chronic high levels of stress can leave that ‘fight or flight’ impulse turned on in your body, and this may cause all sorts of issues like anxiety, lack of sleep, weight gain, digestion issues, and mood disorders among other things. And the remedy to your chronic stress may be simple: more sleep, a healthier diet, and better management of, well, whatever is stressing you out.
Most of us get too little sleep, we eat crap in our cars while running from one place to the other, and we rarely get the chance to fully disconnect and chill the hell out. If this sounds like you, it’s probably not your adrenal glands as much as it’s your lifestyle. No supplements, books, or crazy woo woo practitioners testing your saliva for cortisol are going to have a magical effect on this. And if you’re really not feeling well, get yourself checked out. Blaming symptoms on ‘adrenal fatigue’ when they could actually be something worse can be dangerous.
Do you really need a multivitamin? Read my post here.