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Adrenal Fatigue: Is It Real?

By Eric Metcalf, MPH
WebMD Feature

Adrenal fatigue is a term that's used by some to say that fatigue and other symptoms are caused by a poorly working adrenal gland in people who are under mental, emotional, or physical stress. But it's not a proven medical condition.

Your adrenal glands make hormones. One of these is cortisol, which helps your body deal with stress.  According to the adrenal fatigue theory, if your life is too stressful, your adrenal glands may not pump out enough hormones, leading to a wide variety of symptoms. But there's no evidence to support this theory.

What Supporters of Adrenal Fatigue Say About Symptoms

James Wilson, PhD, the author of Adrenal Fatigue, writes that symptoms include:

  • Trouble getting out of bed
  • Chronic tiredness, even after you wake up in the morning
  • Trouble thinking clearly or finishing your tasks

But some doctors say these symptoms can be due to other health problems.

Robert Vigersky, MD, a past president of the Endocrine Society, says the symptoms are very common in people in general.

Though people often blame their hormonal glands, such as the adrenals or thyroid, for their tiredness, Vigersky says in many cases fatigue is due to common problems such as:

  • Poor sleep habits
  • Poor diet
  • Stress at work or home
  • Depression

All of these can affect your energy level without involving your adrenal glands.

Fatigue is also a symptom of many diseases such as anemia, arthritis, diabetes, and heart failure, says Janet McGill, MD. She's a hormone specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Medical Conditions That Affect Adrenal Glands

Your adrenal glands sit atop your kidneys like caps. Certain conditions can keep your adrenal glands from working well.

One of these is Addison's disease. It's sometimes referred to as primary adrenal insufficiency.

If you have Addison's disease, your adrenal glands don't make enough hormones. Unlike adrenal fatigue, this is an illness that doctors can test and recognize. In most cases of this disease, the adrenal glands have been damaged by the immune system.

Other causes of Addison's disease include:

Addison's disease can cause fatigue. But it often triggers other symptoms, such as:

  • Dark skin on the palms of your hands, knees, elbows, and knuckles
  • General weakness
  • Dizziness when you stand up
  • Lack of menstrual periods

Addison's disease is rare, McGill says. If you do have fatigue related to your hormones, it's more likely to be a thyroid problem or diabetes than an adrenal issue, she says.

Find Out What's Causing Your Fatigue

If unusual fatigue is bothering you, these steps can help ensure that you get the proper treatment:

Talk to your doctor. Your primary care doctor can check you for common illnesses that cause fatigue. If you do have a hormone-related problem, McGill says, you may want to see an endocrinologist -- a doctor who focuses on hormones. This doctor can do a variety of tests to check your hormone levels.

Be cautious with unproven treatments. According to the Endocrine Society, some supplements sold for adrenal health may be harmful. Some of these contain extracts of human hormone glands.

Think about your lifestyle. The basic elements of a healthy lifestyle will help you feel more energized, McGill says. Try to:

  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean meat. Avoid junk food.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. 


Reviewed on November 11, 2013

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