Adrenal fatigue and adrenal exhaustion are practically an epidemic in our society today and are responsible for a vast number of debilitating symptoms, and yet most people are unaware that they have the condition. Adrenal fatigue, also sometimes referred to as adrenal insufficiency, develops when the adrenal glands no longer produce their hormones adequately and do not function optimally.
The adrenal glands are two small glands about the size of a walnut sitting on top of your kidneys that play a very large role in your level of emotional and physical health. They are responsible for the production of a variety of hormones that are critical to many body functions and systems like maintaining blood sugar; managing stress and fatigue; converting carbs into energy, gluconeogenesis (turning protein and fat into glucose); regulating the immune system and inflammatory response; normalizing blood pressure; electrolyte balance; the distribution of stored fat; cardiovascular function; and regulating our fight or flight response system.
Malfunctioning or depleted adrenal glands lead to excessive fatigue, exhaustion, cravings for sweets and caffeine, inability to handle stress, unstable blood sugar and a variety of other debilitating symptoms.
The outer portion of the gland is called the adrenal cortex and this is where cortisol, aldosterone, DHEA and a small amount of sex hormones are produced. The inner portion of the gland is called the medulla and it produces norepinephrine and epinephrine, also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline.
The most crucial stress hormone produced by the adrenals is cortisol, because it counteracts stress. It supports our need to cope with stress. When the adrenals are fatigued or exhausted they no longer produce enough cortisol. When there isn’t sufficient cortisol in the body, then the individual is susceptible to auto-immune disorders, chronic pain syndromes, chronic fatigue, asthma, allergies and more. In an attempt to self-medicate the many symptoms that occur as a result of a malfunctioning adrenal gland, the individual often reaches for drugs and alcohol, or caffeine and sugar which only perpetuates the problem even further.
When adrenal fatigue progresses to the last phase, it is called adrenal exhaustion. At this point the adrenals are hardly functioning at all and the individual has a hard time staying ambulatory throughout the day and dealing with any stress seems like a monumental task. Their overall health at this point is severely compromised. This is a dangerous stage and requires the guidance of a skilled physician with expertise in advanced adrenal exhaustion. If not attended to adequately, advanced adrenal exhaustion can result in death.
Stress hormones are needed when we are facing a dangerous, threatening or emergency situation, they provide us with extra strength, energy and alertness to deal effectively with the situation at hand. However, overstimulation of the stress hormones is what leads to adrenal fatigue.
The primary system involved in the bodies stress response system is known as the HPA axis, which involves a complex interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. It is responsible for controlling essentially all the bodies hormones, nervous system activity, storage and expenditure of energy, as well as regulating the immune system, controlling reactions to stress and a variety of other body processes like digestion, mood, emotions and sexuality.
When you’re under stress, the hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotrophin-releasing factor, or CRF, which then flows through your pituitary gland and stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH, which then stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This process makes you alert and gives you the energy needed to deal with the stressful event.
In a normal circumstance, once the threat (the stressful event) passes then the hormones recede and the body returns to its non-stress state. However, in the fast paced, high stress life that most people live in these days and the diet they eat this cycle is ongoing. Overstimulation of the adrenal glands keeps the system releasing stress hormones on a regular basis. The body is in a constant state of fight or flight and eventually burns itself out.
When cortisol is released too much and too frequently, then eventually the adrenals stop putting out cortisol out at the levels that are required for optimal functioning – adrenal fatigue occurs.
Overstimulating could occur from a one-time event where there is intense stress such the loss of a loved one or a medical crises, or it can be the result of chronic, ongoing stress in your daily life that eventually builds up and grates away at the adrenals slowly.
Overstimulation is caused by the following primary factors:
1) Excessive stress
Too much stress in our life is #1 on the list of causes of adrenal fatigue. This can be from the demands of your job, raising a family, financial struggles, health conditions, too many responsibilities, relationship difficulties etc. Anything in your life that causes you ongoing stress can lead to adrenal fatigue.
If you grew up with child abuse in your childhood, then you are likely to develop adrenal fatigue very young. A child living with child abuse is in a constant state of fight or flight. Their adrenal glands never get a break as their body is continually releasing high levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
In fearful circumstances like abuse, stress floods the brain with cortisol repetitively and excessively. Over time, this repetition damages the brain and the adrenal glands. In an attempt to adapt to this situation, the brain then lowers the threshold at which cortisol is produced to a dramatically lower level, however the system remains in a hypersensitive state.
When a child is exposed to continuous and overwhelming stress early in life, such as abuse, it alters the production and release of their stress-regulating hormones like cortisol and essential neurotransmitters like epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and GABA.
The scenario I just described above is also true of other high stress events like living with domestic violence, surviving a natural disaster, prisoners of war, civilians living in a war zone, living with a chronic health condition, poverty or any other event that threatens your livelihood and puts you in a constant state of hypervigilance.
Additionally, it is vital to understand that emotional stress is not the only type of stress that exists. There are many different kinds of chronic stress, that may include metabolic, oxidative, environmental, neuroendocrine, infectious, cognitive, structural, energetic, immune, and sensory.
2) Sugar, White Flour and Other Refined Foods
The human body was not genetically designed to consume white refined sugar, white flour and other refined junk food, because they are void of any nutritional value. A diet lacking in nutrients put a continuous strain on the adrenal glands as well as the liver, pancreas and other organ systems and is the second leading contributor in the causes of adrenal fatigue.
When we eat sugar, white flour and other refined foods, they are absorbed very quickly by the body and bring our blood glucose levels up too quickly to an excessively high level. This sends an emergency signal to the pancreas to bring the blood sugar levels back down, so it releases an excessive amount of insulin to deal with the excessively high levels of blood glucose.
This in turn causes the body to call on the adrenal glands to release cortisol to bring the blood sugar levels back up, because it works in conjunction with insulin to keep blood sugar in balance. Every time you eat sugar and refined foods the pancreas and the adrenals go through this cycle and this puts too much demand on them.
In time as the adrenal glands are called on over and over to regulate this vicious pattern, the adrenal glands become depleted and they no longer release the amount of cortisol that is necessary for adequate functioning and thus blood sugar stays in a consistently lower state and this leads to the problem of hypoglycemia in addition to adrenal fatigue.
Caffeine elevates our stress hormones. It triggers the body to release norepinephrine and epinephrine, the hormones involved in our stress response system, also known as the fight or flight response. As we discussed above, stress hormones are needed when we are facing a dangerous, threatening or emergency situation, they provide us with extra strength, energy and alertness to deal effectively with the situation at hand. However, in the case of caffeine there is no emergency to deal with and your body is put into the stressful fight or flight response on an ongoing basis for no reason at all. Your body is in a chronic state of stress.
An hour or so after you ingest caffeine the stress hormones dissipate and then you feel tired, hungry and cranky so you reach for more caffeine. This cycle puts excessive wear and tear on the adrenal glands and over time leads to adrenal fatigue.
Nicotine causes the liver to release high levels of sugar, which as we learned above, when high levels of sugar are in the blood the pancreas is alerted to release insulin to bring the sugar levels down. This results in a plunging of the blood sugar level and the excessive release of insulin and cortisol. Every time you light up your causing this vicious cycle to ensue and will eventually burn out the adrenals.
5) Environmental toxins
Common everyday chemicals found in your personal care products, cleaning supplies, perfume, air fresheners, cologne, dish soap, cosmetics, housing construction, laundry soap, pesticides, herbicides, etc. contain endocrine disruptors and are also a leading cause of adrenal fatigue.
The adrenal glands are one of the main glands involved in the endocrine system. Hormone/Endocrine disruptors enter the body through our food, air and water and attach to our hormone receptor sites and impede normal functioning of the endocrine system, which results in a variety of abnormal reactions throughout the body. Keeping the endocrine system in balance is a very delicate process and it takes very little amounts of toxins to cause damage.
In some cases, endocrine disruptors mimic our hormones, which causes an excess while in other cases it blocks hormones from being produced or functioning as they should.
The body is not capable of breaking down these kinds of toxic chemicals. Once they are taken in by the body, they are extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to eliminate. They accumulate in our tissues and fat cells and continually recirculate throughout the body.
Heavy metals, particularly mercury, can directly inhibit output of adrenal hormones. When the adrenal glands don’t function properly, you can’t cope or manage your stress adequately. This results in a vicious cycle where the fatigued adrenal glands cause even more stress and the elevated levels of stress continuously drain the adrenal glands even more.
6) Candida overgrowth
Candida is a catch 22. On one hand, it is believed that weak adrenals will allow Candida yeast to proliferate in the body. However, on the other hand, the toxins that Candida emits alter and disrupt neurotransmitters and hormones in the body, thus disrupt the endocrine system, challenge the immune system, and put the body in a constant state of stress which weakens the adrenal glands.
Other common causes of overstimulation that leads to adrenal insufficiency may include chronic illness, chronic infection, excessive exercise, gluten intolerance, malabsorption or maldigestion, surgery, sleep deprivation, parasite or bacterial infection, hypoglycemia and alcohol and drug addiction — however on the flip side, sometimes people with adrenal fatigue become an alcoholic or an addict in an attempt to soothe their symptoms from under working adrenals.
The hypothalamus triggers the pituitary to release ACTH, which is what tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Therefore a problem in either one of these areas can contribute to how well the adrenals function as well. Antibodies to the pituitary, viruses, bacteria, trauma to the head, or tumors can all result in a low-functioning pituitary. Additionally, it is possible to be born with an under-active pituitary.
When the problem lies in the hypothalamus or an inability of the pituitary to produce ACTH, this is considered to be secondary adrenal fatigue. The problem is not in the adrenal glands themselves, but in the lack of messages from the hypothalamus or the pituitary. An ACTH stimulation test can be used to determine if the condition is primary or secondary.
One may be also be born with a genetic impairment in their ability to produce aldosterone or cortisol, which results in weak adrenal glands.
Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms
It’s very important to keep in mind that the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are shared with a variety of other conditions like thyroid disorders, hypoglycemia, neurotransmitter imbalances, hormonal imbalances and many others. One should always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner who is highly skilled and knowledgeable about adrenal disorders and have adrenal insufficiency testing to rule out any other possible conditions before assuming adrenal fatigue.
Hypothyroidism almost always occurs in conjunction with weak adrenals at least to some degree and many people are often diagnosed with a thyroid problem and the adrenal issue is ignored. The thyroid will be downregulated when the adrenal glands are not functioning properly. When there is low thyroid output, the adrenal glands need to be addressed first; the thyroid may take care of itself once the adrenals are functioning again. Treating the thyroid before treating the adrenal glands can cause more deterioration in the adrenal glands.
People in the advanced stage of adrenal exhaustion can’t stand up for very long because they feel too weak. They must be sitting or lying down the majority of the day. Standing is essentially impossible.
- The primary symptom of adrenal fatigue is relentless fatigue that is not relieved by any amount of sleep or rest.
- You feel weak, exhausted and tired for no apparent reason on a regular basis
- You have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, even when you had a reasonable amount of sleep
- You are slow to bounce back from an illness or stressful situations
- Cravings for salty food or sweets
- Inability to lose weight or weight gain, particularly in the waist area
- Lightheadedness when you rise from sitting position
- The need for stimulants to function in the morning or keep going through the day
- Trembling when stressed out
- Increase in PMS symptoms and/or menstrual flow that is heavy and stops and starts over
- Feel slightly better for a brief period after eating
- Frequent occurrence of flu or respiratory conditions
- Feel too tired to enjoy life
- You have more energy and feel more alert in the evening (however, this is true only in the early stages of adrenal fatigue. If you have advanced to the more severe stage of adrenal exhaustion, you don’t have energy at any point of the day, including the evening.)
- Inability to handle stress is another classic hallmark in the list of adrenal fatigue symptoms
Other symptoms of adrenal fatigue may include:
•Back or neck pain with no apparent reason
•Low body temperature
•Feel better when not dealing with stress
•Low sex drive
•Difficulty in achieving daily tasks
•Constipation and/or diarrhea
•Low blood sugar
•Loss of stamina and muscle strength
Conditions Associated with Adrenal Fatigue
Weak and malfunctioning adrenal glands are believed to be a major contributor in practically most medical and psychiatric disorders, however, the following conditions are some of the most common:
- Nervous breakdown (The adrenals lose their ability to deal with the stressful situation at hand.)
- MCS – multiple chemical sensitivity
- CFS – chronic fatigue syndrome
- FMS – Fibromyalgia
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Anxiety disorders
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Neurotransmitter Deficiencies
- PMS – premenstrual syndrome
- Autoimmune disorders
- Frequent infections
- Thyroid disorders
- Candida overgrowth
- Insomnia and Sleep Disruption
- Mild Depression
Additionally, it’s also important to note that not everyone with adrenal fatigue will experience all symptoms that are possible. One person may have only a few symptoms while another person may be completely incapacitated with symptoms. It depends on the degree of damage that is done to a particular person’s adrenals and many other factors such as age, other conditions that may be present, the integrity of other organ systems in each person, which phase of fatigue they have progressed to, etc.
Part II… Coming Soon!
Part II will include an Adrenal Fatigue Diet + Comprehensive Treatment Recommendations To Boost Adrenal Health Naturally.
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