What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a decrease in function of the adrenal glands that characteristically manifests as a reduced output or alteration in the diurnal pattern of adrenal hormone secretion including cortisol. People suffering from decreased adrenal function commonly complain of fatigue but may also experience sleep disruptions, weight changes, salt and/or sugar cravings, allergies, anxiousness, nervousness, low blood pressure and numerous other symptoms.
Who Experiences Adrenal Fatigue?
Saliva testing reveals that adrenal fatigue is widespread in the United States. Functional Medicine clinics have observed that over 85% of patients are experiencing some level of adrenal dysfunction or adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue does not discriminate – it may be experienced by men as well as women, and it can occur at any age. Today many individuals in their early twenties are already experiencing adrenal fatigue.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue results from continuous or sudden stress. It may begin abruptly, or as a result of periods of prolonged, repeated stress. Sources of stress may be positive or negative and include (but are not limited to):
- Recurrent disease and illness
- Physical stress – injury, diet, surgery, tobacco/alcohol addiction, etc
- Emotional stress – marriage, divorce, death of a loved one, strenuous work relationships, a new baby, financial insecurity, etc
- Environmental stress – chemical pollution of air, water, food, etc
Phases of Adrenal Function and Fatigue:
Phase 1: Early adrenal fatigue-acute fight or flight i.e. the alarm reaction. A new situation is met with anxiety and surprise. A person intermittently secretes slightly higher levels of the adrenalin, the fight or flight hormone, in response to a slightly higher level of stress. The adrenal cortex is stimulated to produce additional cortisol and related hormones.
Phase 2: Evolving adrenal fatigue also called adaptation or resistance. It begins when the stress is constant enough, to cause sustained excessive levels of certain adrenal hormones. This is the body’s response to long term protection. It secretes further hormones that increase blood sugar levels to sustain energy and raise blood pressure. The adrenal cortex (outer covering) produces hormones called corticosteroids for this resistance reaction.
Phase 3: Established adrenal fatigue or exhaustion. The body’s ability to cope with the stress is now depleted. At this point, adrenal hormones drop from excessively high to excessively low and the body experiences adrenal exhaustion. Mental, physical and emotional resources suffer heavily. The body experiences “adrenal exhaustion”. The blood sugar levels decrease as the adrenals become depleted, leading to decreased stress tolerance, progressive mental and physical exhaustion, illness and collapse.
Successful support and treatment protocols for all people suffering from decreased adrenal function include:
• Lifestyle modification to include exercise, healthy sleep patterns with ideal sleeping hours of 10pm – 9am, balanced diet high in vegetables and including healthy fats and proteins, frequent laughter and deep breathing exercises.
• Avoidance of food allergies/sensitivities, caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars
Individualized treatment plans may include the following depending upon the saliva testing results (phase I, phase II or phase III):
• Supplementation of dietary cofactors necessary for adrenal function including Vitamins C, B5, B6 and E
• Adaptogen therapy including licorice, rhodiola, etc.
• Adrenal glandular supplementation
• Physiologic cortisol supplementation
• Phosphorylated serine (elevated cortisol levels only)
It is important to note that the different stages of adrenal fatigue may all present with the same symptoms, yet treatment protocols can be significantly different depending on the diurnal pattern and volume of cortisol production for each individual. Testing adrenal function is therefore a critical first step in devising the correct treatment plan .