Juggling work and family life is no small feat. It’s easy to excuse your stress as a product of the grind of daily life. However, what you think is normal fatigue may actually be symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Your health is like a seesaw. When everything is in perfect balance the seesaw is level, but any slight difference in weight can tip it one way or the other. As those weights build up over the course of your life, the seesaw tilts more and more out of balance.
Over time you can develop adrenal fatigue, or what is called HPA-Axis Dysfunction.
What is Adrenal Fatigue (HPA-Axis Dysfunction)
Adrenal fatigue is a term used in functional medicine to describe a set of symptoms including fatigue, body aches, and digestive problems, among others. It refers to the condition called HPA-Axis Dysfunction. The HPA axis is the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal network, which works to manage stress, energy, and immune responses.
Adrenal fatigue develops due to a prolonged stress response, also known as chronic stress.
However, the adrenal gland is not the only culprit in the development of adrenal fatigue. Let’s look at the body’s stress response to understand more.
The Stress Response
When you read about adrenal fatigue the first thing you’ll likely learn is that your symptoms of adrenal fatigue are due to the release of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Yes, cortisol is produced and released by the adrenal glands. However, that’s the last step in the process. There’s a tiny gland in your brain called the hypothalamus that first initiates the process of creating cortisol.
The hypothalamus does this by stimulating the pituitary gland with corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This is the first step in your stress response system. Your hypothalamus directly influences the pituitary gland and is able to influence many other hormonal reactions in your body, too.
Now, the pituitary gland is called the master gland because it controls the hormone production of most other hormone-secreting glands. For example, when you feel stressed, the pituitary gland stimulates the adrenal glands with adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH tells the adrenal glands to start producing cortisol.
The adrenal glands sit atop your kidneys and produce many important hormones. They produce small amounts of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in men and women. More importantly, they produce the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
Chronic stress and Cortisol
In normal amounts, cortisol is beneficial for the body. Its goal is to provide you with energy so cortisol increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and begins breaking down your storage of protein and carbohydrates. However, research shows that prolonged chronic stress reduces your body’s sensitivity to cortisol.
The result is chronic fatigue and a dysfunctional immune system – A.K.A. less than optimal health.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue vary from person to person but here is a list of what you typically experience.
- Body aches and pains
- Hair loss
- Headaches or migraines
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Loss of libido and/or motivation
- Anxiety or depression
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Skin discoloration
- Salt and sugar cravings
- Low blood pressure
- Brain fog
Stages of Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal fatigue doesn’t happen all of a sudden. In fact, there are three stages of adrenal fatigue.
Stage 1 – In the first stage of adrenal fatigue one or more cortisol measurement is out of balance. Symptoms often include tiredness, anxiety, and brain fog. You may also notice that you’ve put on a little bit of weight.
Stage 2 – In this stage there are two or more cortisol measurements out of balance. Your cortisol levels might be very high upon waking and extremely low in the afternoon. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue at this stage include anxiety, fatigue, continued weight gain, and irritability. You may also experience an energy crash during the day and feel a need for an afternoon “pick-me-up” like caffeine or sugar to make it through.
Stage 3 – This is the most severe stage and all your cortisol measurements will be low. You will most likely be feeling awful at this point. Symptoms at this stage include low energy, sleep that doesn’t make you feel rested, moodiness, irritability, depression, heavy brain fog, and poor concentration. You will likely feel like you need to stay in bed all day.
Causes of Adrenal Fatigue
The primary cause of adrenal fatigue is stress. Emotional stress is the most common culprit, however other stressors also result in HPA-axis dysfunction. Excessive exercise, inadequate nutrition habits, use of stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine, poor sleep habits, use of certain medications, and other lifestyle habits may also contribute to the development of adrenal fatigue.
Other factors that can also contribute to the development of adrenal fatigue include gut dysbiosis, thyroid disorder, mood disorders, and autoimmune disease.
How to Treat Adrenal Fatigue
HPA-axis dysfunction has been linked to a variety of other conditions like depression, low libido in women, and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also correlated to obesity and heart disease. Moreover, research demonstrates a link between HPA-axis dysfunction and chronic fatigue syndrome.
In spite of the research, conventional medicine will not make a diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. In order to treat adrenal fatigue, you will need to see an integrative practitioner. Testing for adrenal fatigue (HPA-axis dysfunction) involves collecting saliva samples at four different times over a 24-hour period.
There is no quick fix for adrenal fatigue. It can’t be treated through pharmaceuticals or procedures. Additionally, while adaptogenic supplements can support your adrenal system and may help your body cope with stress, your long-term plan still must deal with reducing your stress level and improving your stress responses. Treating adrenal fatigue takes lifestyle changes.
Treatment plans look different for each individual, however, every treatment plan will involve a variety of lifestyle interventions like nutrition, exercise, sleep hygiene, and stress management, and nutraceuticals like clinical-grade herbs and supplements to help support the body in healing.
Our team of integrative practitioners can help you connect the dots between your symptoms of adrenal fatigue and find the healing you need and deserve.