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Adrenal fatigue affects many people especially those who are under prolonged stress and or have had acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. As the name suggests, fatigue is the dominant symptom. Adrenal fatigue can also follow on the heels of a major surgery, childbirth or even car accidents.
What is Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal fatigue is known as a group of symptoms or syndrome that occur subsequent to the underperformance of the adrenal glands and thus deficient hormone production. Patients with adrenal fatigue may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, but will absolutely experience a general sense of unwellness, tiredness or “gray” feelings. Of note is a feeling like you cannot cope anymore, even with things which would’ve previously not been perceived as particularly stressful.
The main purpose of your adrenals is to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship problems. Adrenal function is of paramount importance because these small glands play a pivotal role in determining the way your body responds to every change in your internal and external environment
It is also their job to keep your body’s reactions to stress in balance so that they are appropriate and not harmful or excessive. For example, the protective activity of anti-inflammatory adrenal hormones such as cortisol help to minimize reactions like swelling and inflammation in situations ranging from allergies to autoimmune disorders. These hormones closely modulate many metabolic processes:
- the utilization of carbohydrates and fats
- the conversion of fats and proteins into energy
- the distribution of stored fat – especially around your waist (the spare tire) and at the sides of your face
- normal blood sugar regulation
- proper cardiovascular function
- gastrointestinal function
After mid-life (menopause in women, andropause in men), the adrenal glands gradually become the major source of the sex hormones circulating throughout the body in both men and women. These hormones themselves have a whole host of physical, emotional and psychological effects, from the level of your sex drive to the tendency to gain weight.
Adrenal fatigue can wreak havoc with your life. In more serious cases, the activity of the adrenal glands is so diminished that you may have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few hours per day. With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in your body is more profoundly affected. Changes occur in your carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart and cardiovascular system, and even sex drive. Many other alterations take place at the biochemical and cellular levels in response to, and to compensate for, the decrease in adrenal hormones that occurs with adrenal fatigue.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal Fatigue leads to lower levels of a number of hormones, and those hormones can affect every part of your body. So every case of adrenal fatigue tends to present itself slightly differently, although there are almost always common symptoms and experiences.
- Feeling unrefreshed in upon waking, even after a long sleep
- Intense fatigue
- Inability to deal with stress
- Craving salty foods
- Weakened immune system
- Feeling quite wired/ agitated, yet tired
- Asthma, allergies or respiratory complaints
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Dry skin
- Extreme tiredness an hour after exercise
- Frequent urination
- Joint pain
- Lines in your fingertips
- Loss of muscle tone
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Low sex drive
- Lower back pain
- Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
- Weight gain
Blood Sugar Balance and Sugar Metabolism
Adrenal fatigue can affect blood sugar and sugar metabolism as stress normally causes the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol, which helps raise blood sugar levels so the cells can more glucose to generate energy for your response to the stressor. The elevated blood sugar, in turn, requires higher levels of insulin to get the glucose from the blood into the cells. When this cycle is repeated frequently, the cells may become insulin resistant to protect themselves from too much glucose, especially when no energy-consuming physical action is taken in response to the stress. The greater the insulin resistance, the more insulin it takes to get glucose into the cells. In this way, chronic or repeated stress can contribute to persistent insulin resistance, and the resulting high levels of glucose (hyperglycemia) and insulin circulating in the blood that are likely precursors to metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Testing for Adrenal Fatigue
Dr. Smith will likely order blood work, but in some cases salivary cortisol levels taken at four different times over the course of the day (a kit you take home) is a better option for a more detailed survey of adrenal function. Usually Dr. Smith will also assess some other adrenal hormones in her lab work such as DHEA. Both blood and salivary tests are equally sensitive when testing cortisol levels.
Treatments for Adrenal Fatigue
Treatments for adrenal fatigue vary from using certain botanical medicines - which certainly will always play a major role, to using intravenous vitamin therapy. Usually this combination very quickly delivers results that both address the symptoms and nourish your adrenals back to optimal function. Additionally, patients usually need some blood sugar support and dietary changes to support stabilizing and decreasing insulin resistance while healing the adrenal glands.
Bioidentical hormone therapy works importantly and symbiotically with other adrenal fatigue treatment interventions to also support and balance normal sex hormone levels. Often with hormones we must come at a few of them simultaneously to achieve lasting results and regain optimal function, however it does require expertise. Additionally many botanical medicines are not safe in conjunction with conventional drugs, so it is crucial to see a licensed naturopathic doctor when using herbs as medicine.