Adrenal Fatigue: Why it’s a Controversial Label & What You Can Do to Alleviate the Symptoms

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Neal Sanche

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Neal Sanche

Earlier this week we talked about the effects that high levels of cortisol can have on the body. Now let’s look what can happen at the other end of the spectrum.

In our work-centric culture, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of adrenal fatigue. Your naturopath or acupuncturist may have even suggested that you have it.

But what is adrenal fatigue? And what’s the controversy? Let’s take a closer look by answering some common questions.

“My sister said she was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I have a lot of the same symptoms that she does. Might I have it too?” 

Dr. James Wilson is a wellness expert who coined the term “adrenal fatigue.”

He gave this name to a set of symptoms he saw among his patients, which included:

  • Decreased ability to handle stress
  • Decreased productivity
  • Problems with digestion
  • Insomnia
  • Mental fog
  • Increased sensitivity to allergens
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Feelings of despair

He noticed that stress was a common element in his patients’ histories, and looked for reasons that might be. And wouldn’t you know, he started to suspect that insufficient cortisol—the stress hormone—might be the reason behind it. 

“Some people say that adrenal fatigue isn’t a real condition.”

The term “adrenal fatigue” is not accepted by conventional medicine. When medical doctors see low cortisol levels accompanying symptoms of exhaustion, they then look for an underlying condition, like a viral infection, Addison’s disease, or other issues of the pituitary or hypothalamus.

If none of these additional issues are present, there is no proven medical protocol in place for them to follow.

Integrative health practitioners take another view. Your naturopath or DO would likely label your symptoms as adrenal fatigue—especially if your lab tests show low cortisol levels (<6 mcg/L at 8:00 am).

In this model, your adrenals work a bit like a fuse. They can blow out because they’ve been in use for too long (long-term stress), or because there was a power surge (sudden shock). This exhausts your adrenals, and they become less capable of producing cortisol.

“What can I do to alleviate the symptoms?”

There are many different approaches to treating adrenal fatigue, but the general idea is to incrementally increase cortisol levels while decreasing exposure to stress. Conventional doctors often express doubts about the safety of the treatments prescribed for this condition—keep in mind that you’re looking for gradual gains, so treatments that promise to drastically increase cortisol are generally not the ones you’re looking for.

Here are a few simple and sensible treatment options that can be beneficial:

  • Reset your body’s clock. You want to smooth out your sleep/wake cycle, so setting a regular bedtime and wake-up time is key. Plus, you’ll want to prevent any spikes from popping up and ruining your rhythm, so try skipping the stimulants.
  • Reduce your exposure to light and sound. You’re going to want to pass on that IMAX summer blockbuster. That also means turning down your computer screen’s brightness and listening to soothing tunes.
  • Remind your body what relaxation feels like. Lie down. Laugh. Eat slowly.
  • Light exercise is key. Look for low impact, relaxing exercises like hatha yoga, qi gong, or even walking with light weights.

“So knowing my cortisol levels can help me determine what to do next?”

Starting with a blood test can definitely help point you in the right direction to finding your old self. The debate goes on, but low cortisol levels are something you can look at as part of your and your healthcare practitioner’s plan. Whether or not adrenal fatigue is accepted as an official diagnosis, there are still options for treating the symptoms that constitute the syndrome. A WellnessFX Performance package can test your cortisol level.

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The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.