Are you constantly feeling tired and run down? If so, you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue. Chronic (long-term) fatigue and stress may negatively impact your adrenal glands and hormone production. (46) Continue reading to learn about adrenal fatigue, as well as strategies you can implement to improve adrenal gland function and overall energy levels.
What are adrenal glands?
The adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped organs found on top of the kidneys. They’re responsible for producing several important hormones, including cortisol, aldosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androgenic steroids, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These hormones help regulate your immune system, metabolism, blood pressure, response to stress, and other essential functions. (26)(32) If your adrenal glands are not functioning properly, they may over or underproduce these hormones, which can lead to several health issues. (48)
What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a term most commonly used by integrative healthcare providers and functional doctors to describe a collection of symptoms believed to be induced by chronic stress. (49) It’s important to note that adrenal fatigue is not an accepted medical diagnosis. Instead, you may also hear adrenal fatigue referred to as hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction. The two terms are often used interchangeably. (4)(46)The HPA axis represents the relationship between the adrenal glands, the hypothalamus, and the pituitary gland. When the body detects a stressor, such as emotional stress or immediate physical danger, the HPA axis is activated. Activation of the HPA axis triggers a response to release glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, from the adrenal cortex. (45)
Emotional, financial, and relationship stressors, as well as poor quality sleep, chronic health conditions, and excessive exercise, can all contribute to chronic stress. (17)(25) In individuals experiencing chronic stress, the HPA axis is constantly being activated, causing it to become less sensitive to activation signals. As a result, the HPA axis begins to down-regulate and the adrenal glands are unable to produce enough stress hormones, specifically cortisol and aldosterone. (45)
Identifying adrenal fatigue
Symptoms often associated with adrenal fatigue include:
- Cognitive deficits
- Decreased libido
- Hormone imbalances
- Insulin resistance
- Poor stress coping skills
- Sleep issues
- Weight gain (2)(13)(14)(16)(49)
If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, it’s best to consult your integrative healthcare practitioner for guidance. There is not a formal test for diagnosing adrenal fatigue. However, blood, urine, or saliva tests can help your practitioner determine whether your adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol levels are in check. (50)
Visiting your practitioner and having your hormones tested may not reveal adrenal fatigue, but it could help determine if you might be suffering from other health problems that exhibit similar signs and symptoms, such as an autoimmune disorder, anemia, or depression. (27) Once you and your integrative healthcare practitioner have a better sense of what is causing your symptoms, they may create an individualized treatment plan for you.
What is adrenal insufficiency disorder?
Adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s disease, is a recognized autoimmune disorder characterized by insufficient hormone production that occurs when adrenal glands don’t make enough of certain hormones. (29) Some integrative healthcare practitioners consider adrenal fatigue to be a mild form of adrenal insufficiency, however, the symptoms differ slightly. Adrenal insufficiency symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Darkening of the skin
- Hypoglycemia (low blood glucose)
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Joint pain
- Low blood pressure
- Low libido
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss (30)
Top natural strategies for supporting adrenal health
Incorporate these five simple strategies into your daily routine to help support your adrenal function.
Dr. Holly Lucille ND, RN, discusses the ins and outs of Adrenal fatigue and HPA axis dysfunction.
Eat nutritious foods
Although there is no specific diet for treating or reducing the risk of adrenal fatigue, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet may help support adrenal health and promote general well-being. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on the intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, fish, dairy, and moderate amounts of meat and poultry, may be the best diet for overall health and may reduce stress-induced inflammation. (5)
Aim for daily exercise
Research has found that regular exercise can combat stress and help you establish emotional resilience in response to acute stress. (7) The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. Strength training sessions twice per week is also encouraged. (47)
Get enough quality sleep
Did you know that poor quality sleep can negatively impact how your body responds to stress? (28) Research has demonstrated a possible link between inadequate sleep and increased cortisol levels. (1) According to the National Sleep Foundation, young adults should aim to get between seven to nine hours of sleep and older adults should get between seven to eight hours of sleep per night. (18) To support optimal sleep, maintain a regular sleep schedule, minimize external sources of light and sound around bedtime, and engage in regular physical activity. (11)(19)
Meditation is a practice that can help reduce stress, improve overall well-being, and encourage a heightened state of awareness, focus, and relaxation. (43) One study investigated the effects of meditation on stress and found that meditation significantly reduced the change in cortisol levels in the first hour of waking, known as the cortisol awakening response (CAR), compared to the control group. (23)
Consider taking adrenal support supplements
When advised by a healthcare practitioner, taking certain supplements, such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, Panax ginseng, and vitamin C, may help support the health of your adrenal glands. Individuals with adrenal gland issues may experience high levels of certain hormones, while others may experience low levels. (31) Depending on your condition, your practitioner may recommend a protocol of specific supplements.
Learn more about supplements for adrenal health on the Fullscript blog.
The bottom line
The adrenal glands are small glands located on the kidneys that produce and control the secretion of several hormones. Chronic stress can negatively impact adrenal gland function, which can contribute to the development of certain health conditions. Managing your stress through lifestyle modifications, as well as supplementation when directed by your integrative healthcare practitioner, may help support overall adrenal health.
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