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 form of medicine that focuses on holistic, proactive prevention and comprehensive diagnosis and treatment) 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 slowing down when you’re under stress. Your adrenal glands, which are small organs above your kidneys, respond to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol. They regulate your blood pressure and how your heart works.

According to the theory, if you have long-term stress (like the death of a family member or a serious illness), your adrenal glands can't continuously produce the extra cortisol you need to feel good. 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:

Probiotics and a variety of herbal supplements are also recommended to help your body make more cortisol.

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) 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 supplements to help your body produce extra cortisol if you don't need them may cause your adrenal glands to stop working, it warns.

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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 a condition called adrenal insufficiency.

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 William Blahd, MD on January 23, 2017

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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