Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Controversy Surrounding Adrenal Fatigue

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

We all have had times of fatigue and low energy.  Sometimes it is following an illness or significant stress, but, in general, these episodes of fatigue are predictable and relatively short-lived.  When fatigue becomes prolonged and life-impacting, however, looking at underlying causes and treating those causes then becomes necessary.

Chronic fatigue has been discussed in other previous articles and may be due to any number or combination of factors including exposure to toxins, viruses, gut disruptions, sleep disorders, etc.  Adrenal fatigue is similar but is usually a condition that develops over time; its onset may be quite insidious.  Adrenal insufficiency is the term used to describe this process and in today’s article, we hope to describe what is actually going on in the body, some complications that adrenal insufficiency may cause, and some steps to help correct it.

What Exactly Is Adrenal Fatigue?

First, we want to be clear, adrenal insufficiency and adrenal fatigue are not diseases that are necessarily recognized by the traditional medical community. Addison’s disease and Cushing’s disease, which refer (in simplistic terms) to the lack or overabundance of adrenal hormones being produced may be hereditary or even tumor-related and are the diseases of the adrenal glands that we rarely see. Adrenal imbalance or the RELATIVE lack of adrenal hormones being produced is a much more common occurrence and is the subject of today’s newsletter.

As a review, the adrenal glands control many functions of the body.  They are small glands that sit atop the kidneys.  Though small in size, they have immense duties in the regulation of sex hormones, thyroid, the regulation of salts and blood pressure, and in buffering the body against stressors of any kind, be they environmental, emotional, or illness related.  For the purposes of this article, we will focus mostly on the secretion of cortisol and its impact on multiple body functions.

If you have ever had poison ivy, asthma, allergic reactions, or autoimmune inflammatory processes, you may have been prescribed cortisone in oral, topical, inhaled, or injectable forms.  Cortisone works very quickly to quell the inflammatory response of the body.  It buffers the tissues against “foreign invader” syndrome which elicits the response of the inflammatory “soldiers” (cytokines) which are present for protection.  Cortisone also impacts blood pressure, blood sugar, and gives a stimulatory response to other hormonal functions in the body.   Our natural production of cortisol usually follows a curve, with the highest amount produced in the mornings, telling us to get up and get ready for the day.  It gradually goes down during the day such that at night, when it is bedtime, cortisol levels are very low allowing us to sleep.

When this natural curve of cortisol production becomes skewed, then it can affect our energy levels, our ability to fall and stay asleep, and how effective our sleep is at healing and rejuvenating the body.  So here is the loaded question, “How do cortisol levels become skewed?”

Factors That Contribute to Cortisol Imbalance

Cortisol levels can become skewed “in multiple ways.”

Environment:  If indoor air is full of mold or mycotoxins, chemicals, or even high dust counts, this keeps an ongoing stimulation to many parts of the immune system.  In its protective efforts, the adrenal glands throw out cortisol in a much more sporadic fashion.  It is possible that due to this overstimulation, the secretion of cortisol just stays switched on. Repercussions of this result in the symptoms of feeling very “wired”, hungry with high levels of cravings for sugary and starchy foods, and not being able to sleep well.  When cortisol is imbalanced, weight gain is not surprising as blood sugar levels and insulin are also imbalanced.  Additionally, elevated cortisol levels can impact the function and regularity of sex hormones and thyroid hormones which simply adds to the complexity of the problems.

Excessive emotional stress:  Stress can come from multiple causes, and no one escapes without at least some degree of stress.  But when stress levels are unrelenting and there is no end in sight, then the attempts of the adrenal system to secrete more cortisol to help prop one up emotionally can lead to the same switched-on effect as a toxic burden. (And, let’s not forget that dealing with a toxic burden like mold can also cause more emotional, relational, and psychological stress. The adrenal system is attempting to handle both burdens at once–sort of a double whammy scenario. Thus, it is not surprising that many mold patients must address adrenal insufficiency as part of the treatment program to fully recover.)

Diet:  Foods high in chemicals, refined carbs, and caffeine all have the ability to overstimulate the adrenals. Thus, it is no mystery as to why we often reach for these types of foods when we are “stress eating”, is it?

Stress in general:  The holidays can be joyful but can also bring their special level of stress!  Need I say more?

When the Adrenal Glands are Overworked

So far we have discussed the overstimulation of the adrenal glands, but what happens next?  After a period of time, which varies widely from one person to the next, the body then goes into what I term “burn out”.  The adrenals are no longer able to respond appropriately and simply go very quiet in an effort to conserve their energy and function.  The result is then a very low output of cortisol, even when it is called for.  Additionally, this cortisol output may become very dysregulated, in which there are big surges of cortisol followed by flatline output! You can imagine how impactful that can be on the body as a whole and, indeed, it does lead to fatigue.   Additionally, blood pressure and heart rate can vary widely, from high to low.  This is due in part to the rapidly fluctuating levels of salts in the bloodstream, insulin, and other autonomic nervous system responses.

Diagnosing Adrenal Fatigue

The weird thing is that there is no single traditional blood test that diagnoses this condition.  A blood level of cortisol can certainly be checked, but if the body is in the pattern of rapid swings of highs and lows, you may not catch any abnormality and even if you do, it may only reflect that moment in time and not actually define the process that is occurring.  Salivary testing of cortisol done over the course of the day is the best way of tracing the curve of what is truly happening.  Additionally, 24-hour urine collections may help to see the total amount of cortisol being produced as well as how it is being diverted to assist other processes.  As you can see, it is a complex issue!

Adrenal Fatigue Interventions

You may not have access to the testing to look at your adrenal situation but if you suspect that you have issues with this, then there are some steps you can take to feel better and to turn the tides before getting worn down!

1. As always, address the air that you breathe.  I cannot reiterate this enough, you will not get better if you are breathing air laden with molds, mycotoxins, and chemicals.  As we are in the colder season now, many believe that drier air does not grow mold, but if there is moisture in your home, or if HVAC systems are not clean, then you may still be getting a big hit.  A word here about humidifiers, often used for the dry air:  if you decide to use them, KEEP THEM CLEAN!  I have seen many just covered in mold when the lid is removed!  Use of the Micro Balance EC3 products can also help with this.  Also, please don’t use scented candles, potpourri, or plugins as much as the temptation may be for those evergreen and gingerbread smells during the holiday season!  Synthetic scents are chemicals and simply add to your burden.

2. Keep your diet clean. Keep the treats and alcohol minimal, if at all.  There are healthy alternatives that do not continue to overstimulate your system and add to the exhaustion.

3. Practice quieting techniques, whether it be meditation, prayer, or other self-soothing. These go a long way in resetting the patterns of adrenal hyperstimulation.

4. Exercise! Burning off excessive adrenaline with a brisk walk or another form of aerobic activity works wonders.  A caveat here, however, is that you can overdo it if not careful.  You must listen to your body and start slowly if you are extremely fatigued, a few minutes may do it.  If you are a seasoned athlete, then make sure to alternate heavy workouts with rest or stretch/yoga days to allow proper adrenal rest.

5. Proper supplementation can help. Adrenal Boost has a combination of ingredients to both regulate and nourish adrenal tissues.  Its blend of botanicals, adrenal concentrate, and micronutrients support the adrenal glands, as well as the body’s ability to respond to and counter-act the negative effects of stress. CellTropin can also be helpful as it assists the endocrine system and pituitary gland which play important roles in balancing adrenal function. This type of nutritional and homeopathic support can help both with energy during the day and with proper sleep at night, which is vital for adrenal restoration.

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