Adrenal Fatigue: Real condition or medical myth?

This weekend, my husband shared an email with me that caught my interest. After returning from a few days out of town, we were both feeling a bit weary from too much food and drink and too little sleep. Oddly, I think his phone was reading our minds, when up popped an email that read….

“Feeling tired for no reason? Craving coffee, soda, and junk food just to keep going? Feeling stressed and struggling to keep up with all your daily demands? Are symptoms of depression going up while your sex drive takes a nose dive? Maybe it’s Adrenal Fatigue.”

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He was immediately intrigued and ready to sign up for the 8-week course to combat adrenal fatigue through “gentle workouts and self-care practices that naturally revitalize you.”

“Whoa,” I said. “Let’s look into this ‘condition’ and see if the proposed treatment is worthwhile.”

Interestingly, my research of adrenal fatigue and the program’s claims yielded no real evidence in support of the condition. What did I find? Lots of trendy articles and alternative health claims that lacked any research-based or medical support.

Adrenal fatigue is a marketing term, not a real disease.

Eventually, I learned that the term “adrenal fatigue” was coined in 1998 by James Wilson, PhD, a naturopath in alternative medicine. The term became more popular with the release of Wilson’s 2001 book “Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.” To the author’s credit, this book is a great example of compiling a collection of stress-related symptoms and repackaging them into a clever, medical-sounding syndrome. It is based on the theory that our adrenal glands get overworked by stress and stop producing the hormones we need, including cortisol. However, there is no science to back up the theory of adrenal fatigue.

The Endocrine Society, the world’s largest organization of endocrinologists (physicians who research and treat patients with diseases related to glands and hormones), flatly state that adrenal fatigue is not a real disease. In fact, the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are so general, they can apply to many diseases or conditions, such as depression, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, or many other conditions that stem from the stresses of everyday life.

The primary problem with the concept of adrenal fatigue was best explained by Dr. Anat Ben-Shlomo, an endocrinologist at the Cedars-Sinai Adrenal Program. “Adrenal fatigue is not an actual disease. Stress can have an impact on our health, but it doesn’t affect your adrenal glands this way. When you’re stressed, the adrenal glands actually produce more of the cortisol and other hormones you need. They will give you all that’s necessary.”

The research was also clear. Multiple peer reviewed studies have debunked adrenal fatigue, notably in a 2016 issue of the medical journal BMC Endocrine Disorders, “Adrenal fatigue does not exist: a systematic review” by Flavio A. Cadegiani and Claudio E. Kater.

It is important to add that there is a disease known as adrenal insufficiency caused by the inability of the adrenal glands to produce adequate cortisol. This disease is due to damage to the adrenal gland, not the lifestyle factors identified in the theory of adrenal fatigue.

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The symptoms often blamed on adrenal fatigue are very real and include:
• Feeling tired and fatigued every day
• Difficulty waking up in the morning
• Difficulty handling stress
• Craving salty food or sweets
• Higher levels of energy in the evening
• Consuming too many stimulants, like caffeine
• A weak immune system

Unfortunately, clinging to adrenal fatigue as the singular reason for these symptoms can be problematic. These can be symptoms of excessive physical and emotional stress, poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption, and poor sleep quality to name a few. They can also be signs of something more serious like diabetes or mental health disorders.

What can you do?
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, begin by self-examining your daily life patterns, such as diet, digestion, exercise, sleep, work, and family life. You can work with a registered dietitian trained to assess and diagnose nutrition-related issues and provide appropriate medical nutrition therapy.

Mental health can also cause physical problems. We all experience big life changes at some point, as well as daily pressures. Having stress-reducing routines are useful when life happens. If you are experiencing medical conditions like depression and anxiety, they can negatively affect mood and energy levels and cause some of the symptoms that mirror those associated with adrenal fatigue.

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Have you had a recent physical exam? Blood sugar that is too high or two low could be the culprit behind some of these symptoms. Have your doctor check your blood sugar levels and work with you to help keep them balanced.

Getting enough sleep is also crucial to your health. Maintaining a regular sleep routine, limiting caffeine and alcohol, and exercising regularly promote healthy sleep. Use your bed only for sleep, and don’t stay awake in bed for more than a few minutes. Reduce screen stimuli (like internet and TV use) near bedtime.

If you find you these symptoms are significantly impacting your quality of life, check in with a healthcare professional to find the real reason, and don’t waste your time or money treating a myth like adrenal fatigue.

For more information about how nutrition and lifestyle changes can combat the symptoms attributed to adrenal fatigue, contact Karen Kruza, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Kruza Nutrition.

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