Is adrenal fatigue a real condition?
Since its conception in the late 1990s, supporters of adrenal fatigue have claimed that the disorder exists and affects multiple people.
The term first came about after a chiropractor came up with the diagnosis and published the information.
This article looks at the term "adrenal fatigue" and debunks myths about the condition, as well as examining the role of the adrenal glands and some medical issues that impact them.
- There is no scientific evidence that adrenal fatigue exists.
- Adrenal fatigue proponents claim that the condition is due to overworked adrenal glands producing too little hormones.
- There are a number of disorders that do affect the adrenal glands.
- Some supplements prescribed for adrenal fatigue might be dangerous.
- Alleged symptoms of adrenal fatigue are tiredness, craving salt, and loss of body hair.
What is adrenal fatigue?
The adrenal gland serves an important function, but adrenal fatigue is not a real condition.
In 1998, the chiropractor and naturopath James Wilson first coined the term "adrenal fatigue" in his book of the same name.
According to people who propose adrenal fatigue as a real condition, it strikes people who endure long stretches of mental, physical, or emotional stress.
People who are allegedly more likely to contract adrenal fatigue are shift workers, single parents, people with alcohol or drug dependence, and those with stressful jobs.
However, as mentioned above, there is no scientific evidence that this condition exists.
The Endocrine Society, which represents the opinions of 1,400 of endocrinologists, released an official statement regarding adrenal fatigue:
"No scientific proof exists to support adrenal fatigue as a true medical condition. Doctors are concerned that if you are told you have this condition, the real cause of your symptoms may not be found and treated correctly. Also, treatment for adrenal fatigue may be expensive, since insurance companies are unlikely to cover the costs."
Adrenal fatigue proponents suggest that medical science will eventually "catch up," but despite more than a decade having passed since its inception, research has demonstrated no evidence.
Despite this, there are certainly genuine conditions that affect the adrenal glands.
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
- nonspecific digestive problems
All of the above symptoms are relatively generic but could indeed signal some type of illness. Many of the symptoms, however, 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 people who believe that the condition exists, long-term stress causes these glands to become fatigued and unable to keep up with the demands of the body.
A balanced, nutritious diet can offset many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue.
Some sources recommend a specific diet for adrenal fatigue. High-protein foods or supplements may be recommended.
Given the lack of evidence surrounding this condition, it is unclear what role, if any, the diet should take, or whether the additional protein is a good idea. However, any nutritious, balanced diet is likely to promote your immune system, sense of well-being, and overall health.
This includes regular intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, low intake of fatty, sugary, and processed foods, and limited consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Eating a balanced diet is a major key to overall wellness and may help prevent many of the symptoms assigned to adrenal fatigue.
Anyone who is concerned about symptoms should see a doctor for advice. It is also important to ask a doctor about any major dietary changes related to health issues.
Certain alternative health practitioners might take blood samples or use salivary cortisol testing to prove whether or not an individual has adrenal fatigue. However, as the illness does not exist, there are no real ways to diagnose it.
People who believe 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 fully understand the real condition, in contrast to which adrenal fatigue is not, adrenal insufficiency, here is a brief introduction to the functions of the adrenal glands:
Adrenal gland function
There are normally two adrenal glands in the human body, one on top of each kidney.
The outer section of the adrenal gland, known as the adrenal cortex, produces androgenic hormones, cortisol, and aldosterone. The inner section, called the adrenal medulla, produces adrenaline, or epinephrine, 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
- regulating blood pressure
- maintaining pregnancy
- signaling the start of sexual maturation and controlling its progress through puberty
- controlling the stress-related "fight or flight" response
Adrenal insufficiency is the medical term applied for conditions in which the adrenal glands do not release adequate amounts of their hormones. Cortisol is often the worst affected hormone.
The symptoms of adrenal insufficiency can include:
- ongoing fatigue
- muscle weakness
- loss of appetite and weight
- abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea
- low blood pressure
- depression and irritability
- salt cravings
- a headache
- excessive sweating
- irregular menstruation in women
In worst-case scenarios, adrenal insufficiency can become a life-threatening adrenal crisis, with symptoms including:
- sudden, intense pain in the lower back, legs, or abdomen
- severe diarrhea or vomiting
- loss of consciousness
Adrenal crisis can be fatal if immediate treatment is not received.
Below are some medically proven adrenal gland disorders. Some of these can lead to adrenal insufficiency if not treated correctly:
· Adrenal tumors: These include adrenal adenoma, adrenocortical carcinoma, and pheochromocytoma.
· Addison's disease: This condition means the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the glucocorticoid, cortisol, and also usually involves deficiency of production of the mineralocorticoid, aldosterone. Symptoms include abdominal pain, weakness, and too much skin pigment.
· Congenital adrenal hyperplasia: This is a group of disorders that involve mutations in genes that code for enzymes responsible for the production of cortisol in the adrenal glands. Frequently, these conditions affect the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics
· X-linked Adrenoleukodystrophy: A genetic disorder causes damage to the myelin sheaths that coat nerves. Very long-chain fatty acids accumulate in the brain and adrenal glands. This build-up causes adrenal insufficiency.
· Cushing's disease: Cortisol levels produced by the adrenal glands are increased, due to a tumor in the pituitary gland.
· Hyperaldosteronism: The adrenal glands produce too much aldosterone, leading to high blood pressure, high sodium in the blood, and an increased excretion of potassium and hydrogen ions. This causes low potassium in the blood and a condition involving alkali levels called metabolic alkalosis.
· Hypoaldosteronism: The adrenal glands produce too little aldosterone, leading to decreased sodium and excessive potassium levels in the blood and low blood pressure.
Always talk to a doctor before taking supplements to treat a condition.
Many alternative practitioners will start "treating" adrenal fatigue by recommending that an individual quit alcohol, drugs, caffeine, and cigarettes. They will also recommend eating healthily, exercising more, and sleeping better. All of these changes will, of course, make anyone feel better.
There is a range of products available to relieve its "symptoms," despite a lack of scientific basis. These products often take the form of supplements and vitamins.
Because the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate these types of supplements, they have not been tested for safety, and there is no guarantee that a tablet contains what it claims to.
Taking adrenal hormone supplements without an underlying medical condition can be dangerous. The adrenal glands can become reliant on or suppressed by the supplements and might not begin working again for some time if they are stopped. This can cause adrenal insufficiency or crisis and become potentially life-threatening.
For anyone experiencing worrying symptoms, it is important to take advice from a medical professional. Although it can be frustrating having symptoms that defy diagnosis, taking advice from untrained practitioners can be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.
As a general rule, caution is advised if a website both diagnoses an illness and sells the cure.
However, if your symptoms are bothersome enough to affect your daily life activities, a physician will be willing and able to help you figure out why your symptoms are occurring and help you in finding ways to address them.