Often patients will start up our conversation telling me that they are tired, or not sleeping right and keep waking up feeling anxious.
That they’ve seen a doctor and having had their blood tests done are told that there is nothing wrong with them … their blood tests are “ok” but they don’t feel that fine. They’re tired and are getting over being told that they need to “go and eat well, take it easy and start meditating”.
This causes frustration and feelings of a lack of understanding on the doctors’ part. That simply being told they’re ok or being written a script isn’t going to help their situation.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
Medically speaking Adrenal Fatigue doesn’t exist.
It comes from a term coined by alternative practitioners on the basis of a cluster of symptoms that (in their ideology) relates to a chronically impaired adrenal – HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal ) axis stress pattern. The latter is the central control unit that monitors many bodily processes with STRESS MANAGEMENT being one of its roles.
“Adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances and digestive problems. … Your adrenal glands produce a variety of hormones that are essential to life.” Definition by the Mayo Clinic.
Adrenal fatigue is a description of what happens when a person is exposed to chronic stress. It is better recognized in the medical literature as “HPA Axis Dysfunction”, this is a bit of a mouthful – yet a more accurate description.
Your adrenal glands are small pyramid-shaped glands that sit on to on the kidneys. They produce over 200 hormones of which adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol play important roles in our life. The 1st two are responsible for our fight/flight responses.
Supporters of the unproven theory of ‘adrenal fatigue’ claim it occurs when the adrenal glands are ‘burnt out’ from producing these hormones in response to stress. Certain conditions, such as the rare Addison’s disease, can prevent your adrenal glands from making enough hormones. The symptoms of Addison’s disease include:
- body aches,
- unexplained weight loss,
- low blood pressure,
- loss of body hair and skin discolouration.
Addison’s disease is recognised by doctors and can be detected through blood tests that show insufficient hormone levels. On the other hand, these tests are often normal in adrenal fatigue.
Some might ask – WHAT’S THE FUSS ALL ABOUT???
What does Adrenal Fatigue (HPA Axis Dysfunction) mean?
Adrenal fatigue reflects dysfunction or dysregulation of the adrenal gland and it’s relationship to the hypothalamus and pituitary glands – due to an extended period of chronic stress. Over time, this stress is thought to cause the adrenal glands and HPA axis to become imbalanced. The adrenals initially produce an excess of cortisol in response to the stress. The hypothalamus and pituitary step in and “down regulate” or simply “put the brakes” on the adrenals to self preserve themselves, thereby decreasing cortisol production.
This dysregulation in the cortisol cycle can also cause irregular peaks in the evening.
Adrenal fatigue is a controversial “condition” for several reasons. One important reason is the early focus on the adrenal glands becoming “tired”. The better description of “adrenal fatigue” and burnout tend to present themselves in the dysregulation of the HPA axis and disturbances in the cortisol cycle.
What are the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue (HPA Axis Dysfunction)?
Adrenal fatigue symptoms can vary from individual to individual, but there are some common symptoms experienced by almost all. These include insomnia, a feeling of being overwhelmed by stressful situations, food cravings, high levels of fatigue each day, and weak immunity.
These are all related to the dysregulation of the HPA axis and the various hormone levels that depend on it.
- body aches
- low blood pressure – better from lying down.
- digestive issues
What is the cause of Adrenal Fatigue?
Long-term stressors as listed below can contribute to this. Most often occurring is a combination of factors, such as those burning the candles at both ends by juggling several stressors together. E.g. Working long hours with young children.
- too much work
- family life
- lack of sleep
- too little or too much physical activity
- alcohol or substance use or abuse
- mental health issues – such as anxiety and depression
A poor diet means that your body has fewer reserves and less capacity to deal with stress. There are many causes of fatigue. Chronic or latent disease can be a factor, as can regular exposure to toxic chemicals or pollutants.
How do you treat Adrenal Fatigue / HPA Axis Dysfunction?
Modifying those chronic stressors that have lead to this are vital.
Lifestyle modification is vital, it is literally a case of taking stock of your life and start to distress.
This might mean removing added sugars and junk food from your diet, getting enough sleep, and avoiding or eliminating sources of stress.
There are other ways to support your body, make it more resilient to stress. Adaptogenic supplements are meant to potentially help to moderate your stress response, while basic nutrients like vitamin C can be of assistance.
Guidance from an appropriately trained health professional is advised.
What treatments help Adrenal Fatigue / HPA Axis Dysfunction?
Modifying those chronic stressors is vital.
Sensibly basic lifestyle modification is the best place to start such as stress minimization, eating a good diet and getting more sleep.
Supplements in the form of vitamins and minerals are useful as is the judicious use of some herbal supplementation. The latter can be useful at trying to restore a balance within the adrenal glands and HPA axis by regulating cortisol levels.
For the best results, discuss your supplementation with your healthcare professional.
What’s The Next Step?
Be prepared to make changes, these may be confronting and at a time where one has been stressed this can be difficult to make objectively.
Allow yourself time to heal. It took time to get into this situation and like anything – being given a road map to find your destination is most important. It may take months or more to recover.
One step or change on its own isn’t going to work. There is a magic cocktail for recovery and requires several facets to be brought together in SYNCHRONICITY. Otherwise, there is a high likely hood of not recovering.
Adjusting your day to day activities that includes time out and being able to switch off your “fight/flight mode. Learning how to effectively manage and process our stress is vital.
This article is meant to inform the reader re: the term “adrenal fatigue”. It is not to be used for diagnostic purposes nor is the content to be used in a therapeutic sense for the reader to self-treat. It is an overview of the topic and is meant to inform the reader only.
Readers are advised at all times to seek medical advice if they are unsure of their health.