So-called adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a group of non-specific symptoms. Although having found a level of popularity among alternative health practitioners, there is no medical evidence that the condition exists.
Since its conception in the late 1990s, supporters of adrenal fatigue have claimed that the disorder affects millions of people on a global scale.
In this article, we will look at how the term "adrenal fatigue" came into being, the role of the adrenal glands and some medical issues that do impact the adrenal glands.
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on adrenal fatigue
Here are some key points about adrenal fatigue. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- According to scientists, there is no evidence that adrenal fatigue exists
- Adrenal fatigue proponents claim that the condition is due to overworked adrenal glands producing too little hormones
- The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys
- Adrenal glands are vital for homeostasis
- There are a number of disorders that do affect the adrenal glands
- Some supplements prescribed for adrenal fatigue might be dangerous
- Adrenal fatigue was described by James Wilson in 1998
- The Endocrine Society say "'adrenal fatigue' is not a real medical condition"
- Alleged symptoms of adrenal fatigue are tiredness, craving salt and loss of body hair.
What is adrenal fatigue?
In 1998, the chiropractor and naturopath James Wilson first coined the term "adrenal fatigue" in his book of the same name.
According to adrenal fatigue's proponents, it strikes people who endure long stretches of mental, physical or emotional stress.1
People who are allegedly more likely to contract adrenal fatigue are shift workers, single parents, drug addicts and those with stressful jobs.
However, as mentioned above, there is no scientific evidence that such a condition exists.
The Endocrine Society, representing the opinions of 1,400 of endocrinologists, released an official statement regarding adrenal fatigue:
"'Adrenal fatigue' is not a real medical condition. There are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms."
Adrenal fatigue proponents suggest that medical science will eventually "catch up," but despite more than a decade having elapsed since its "discovery," no evidence has been forthcoming.
Despite this, there are certainly genuine conditions that affect the adrenal glands; we will discuss some of them briefly on the next page.2
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Adrenal fatigue is one of the most controversial topics in endocrinology.
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are said to include:
- Trouble getting to sleep and waking up
- Craving salt and sugar
- Unexplained weight loss
- Reliance on stimulants such as caffeine
- Loss of body hair
- Skin discoloration.3
All of the above symptoms are relatively generic but could indeed signal some type of illness. On the other hand, many of the symptoms could also be due to nothing more than a busy life and a lack of sleep, or, alternatively, a caffeine addiction, bad nutrition or heightened stress levels.
The theory behind adrenal fatigue is that the adrenal glands, which are activated during stress, are overworked. According to believers, long-term stress causes these glands to become fatigued and unable to keep up with the demands of the body.
Diagnosing adrenal fatigue
Certain alternative health practitioners might take blood samples or use "stimulation" tests to prove whether or not an individual has adrenal fatigue. But, as the illness does not exist, there are no real ways to diagnose it.
Believers in adrenal fatigue claim in their defense that modern scientific techniques are not sensitive enough to pick up the diminished functioning of the adrenal glands, but that our bodies still feel the effects.
To understand adrenal fatigue, and the real condition - adrenal insufficiency - here is a brief introduction to the functions of the adrenal glands:
Function of the adrenal glands
There are two adrenal glands in the human body, one on top of each kidney.4
The outer section of the adrenal gland - the adrenal cortex - produces cortisol and aldosterone. The inner section - the adrenal medulla - produces adrenaline and norepinephrine.
These hormones carry out a number of vital tasks including:
- Maintaining metabolism, including the management of inflammation and blood sugar levels
- Regulating salt and water balance via mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids
- Maintaining pregnancy
- Signaling the start of sexual maturation and controlling its progress through puberty
- Controlling the stress-related "fight or flight" response.
On the next page, we look at genuine adrenal gland disorders, adrenal insufficiency and suggested treatments for adrenal fatigue.