Adrenal Fatigue: Is It Real?

Do you feel tired and worn out all the time, even though you're getting plenty of sleep? Do you crave salty foods? Maybe you've been to several doctors and none of them can say what's wrong with you.

If you see a naturopathic (a system of alternative medicine based on the theory that diseases can be successfully treated or prevented without the use of drugs, by techniques such as control of diet, exercise, and massage) or a complementary (non-mainstream) medicine doctor, they might say that you have adrenal fatigue. Yet most traditional doctors say this condition isn’t real.

What Is It?

The term "adrenal fatigue" was coined in 1998 by James Wilson, PhD, a naturopath and expert in alternative medicine. He describes it as a "group of related signs and symptoms (a syndrome) that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level." He says it’s usually associated with intense stress and often follows chronic infections like bronchitis, flu, or pneumonia.

Wilson says people with it may not have any physical signs of illness but still may feel tired, "gray," and have fatigue that doesn’t get better with sleep. They also crave salty snacks.

The Theory Behind It

Your body's immune system responds by revving up when you’re under stress. Your adrenal glands, which are small organs above your kidneys, respond to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are part of your "fight or flight" response. They increase your blood pressure and your heart rate.  

According to the theory, if you have long-term stress (like the death of a family member or a serious illness), your adrenal glands burn out from prolonged production of cortisol. So adrenal fatigue sets in.

There’s no approved test for adrenal fatigue. Blood tests can't detect a small drop in adrenal production.

The suggested treatments for healthy adrenal function are a diet low in sugar, caffeine, and junk food, and “targeted nutritional supplementation” that includes vitamins and minerals:

 

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Is It a Myth?

There’s no science to back it up. The Endocrine Society, the world's largest organization of endocrinologists (people who research and treat patients with diseases related to glands and hormones), flatly says that adrenal fatigue is not a real disease. And it says the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are so general, they can apply to many diseases or conditions (depression, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, or many other conditions) or stem from everyday life.

And the society says some of the treatments can be dangerous. Improving your diet will probably make you feel better, no matter what ailment you have, but taking unidentified supplements to help your body produce extra cortisol if you don't need them may cause your adrenal glands to stop working, it warns.

What Else Could It Be?

Symptoms such as being tired, lacking energy, and sleeping all day long could be signs of depression, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, or any number of diseases.

What Is Adrenal Insufficiency?

Unlike adrenal fatigue, this is a recognized disease that can be diagnosed. There are two forms of this condition, and both are caused by damage or problems with your adrenal glands that result in them not making enough of the hormone cortisol.

Symptoms of both forms include chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle weakness, weight loss, and stomach pain. You might also have nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, diarrhea, depression, or darkening of the skin.

Adrenal insufficiency is diagnosed with a blood test that checks to see if your cortisol levels are too low. If you have it, you’ll need to take a hormone replacement.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 08, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

AdrenalFatigue.org: "FAQ on Adrenal Fatigue."       

Hormone Health Network (Endocrine Society): "Myth Vs. Fact: Adrenal Fatigue."

MayoClinic.org: "Adrenal Fatigue: What Causes it?"

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison's Disease."

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians:  “What is a Naturopathic Doctor?”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?”

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