Adrenal Fatigue (Exhaustion)

Malgorzata Sypien, M.D., FAAFP, Integrative Family Practice, Chicago IL

My clinical experience has taught me that adrenal exhaustion is a real condition that causes serious problems, including exhaustion, chronic fatigue, malaise, light-headedness, stress, chronic colds, and a feeling as if life is a constant struggle of walking uphill. Some medical “experts”  feel that adrenal exhaustion is a hoax, but numerous scientific publications supporting the theory of adrenal fatigue.

Might I Be Experiencing Adrenal Fatigue?

Medical doctors rarely check adrenal levels, but integrative physicians do. In Chinese Medicine, the adrenals are very important and are considered part of your Kidney Life Force energy. The adrenals can grow depleted, especially if we are experiencing long term stress. While this can have debilitating effects for both men and women, the problems women will experience are specific, because adrenal exhaustion will affect the entire endocrine system, and all female hormones.

What Are Some Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?

What occurs when the adrenals get overworked is they start to pump out more cortisol. Cortisol is made in the outer layer of the adrenal gland, and is known as the stress hormone. To cope with short term stress, the adrenals will secrete adrenaline. But for chronic, long term stress, whether from emotional causes, environmental toxins or inflammation within the body, cortisol will be pumped out. This will result in blood sugar imbalances, weight gain (especially around the abdomen), hypertension, sleep problems, hot flashes, dizziness, night sweats, growth of facial hair and other body hair caused by a relative increase in androgens (male hormone) levels within your body.

If this continues on, the adrenals will eventually crash: they will no longer be able to supply adrenaline and cortisol or sex hormone production. And they will no longer be able to support the thyroid gland and your metabolic activity. They will no longer be able to synthesize essential minerals: all this will amount to a state of intense fatigue. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which is linked to Epstein Barr Virus, may also result from complete adrenal exhaustion. Along with tiredness come irritability, food cravings, extreme insomnia, inability to think straight or to focus, PMS, headaches, anxiety, feelings of internal coldness and often severe drops in blood pressure.

Yes, there may be in the long run. Too much cortisol produced by the body will shut down a portion of the immune system, especially the part that deals with infections within the cells. It also interacts with receptors for progesterone, an essential female reproductive hormone. When you don’t have enough progesterone circulating in your body, you will have problems with ovulation and fertility. Also, you will become more prone to bone thinning as a consequence of your progesterone deficiency. Having too little progesterone means having relatively too much estrogen. This condition which is known as estrogen dominance has been linked with fibroids, heavy menstrual cycles, migraines, insulin resistance (diabetes), weight gain/obesity, heart disease and breast cancer. Ironically, your adrenals actually require progesterone as raw material in order to make more cortisol, so when your system has been in chronic stress mode for a while, your body will divert progesterone supplies up to the adrenal glands to be converted into cortisol.

Under chronic stress, your body goes into war mode: progesterone is consigned to the adrenals factories to make more and more cortisol. A vicious cycle has been set up.

Restoring Balance

How can adrenal fatigue be reversed? Dr Sypien believes that simply taking Bio-identical hormones is a superficial approach that fails to connect hormonal imbalances with deeper, systemic issues. The same goes for oral contraceptives. To really get better, your body and mind as a “whole” needs to be addressed. We need to do two things:

  1. Support the Adrenals on a physical level.
  2. Remove the stressors, whether psychological, toxic or metabolic that have disturbed your inner ecology.

What Natural Medicines Work Best?

In our Integrative Family Practice office we believe that many women need to start by taking desiccated hormone as a supplement to kickstart the adrenals back into action. After this, or instead of this, herbs like L-Theanine, Schizandra Berry, Phosphatidylserine or Licorice Root and other adapatogenic herbs such as Rhodiola, Eleuthero, Ashwagandha, Licorice, Ginseng may be of great benefit and work holistically on your entire system. Other key nutrients are B and C Vitamins, in particular B6, minerals such as manganese, chromium, zinc, potassium and magnesium. Whole body detox using natural methods and foods, Supplementation with several, different forms of folic acid and Methyl Cobalamin (methylated B12 supplements) used in our Integrative Family Practice office by dr Sypien also helps recovery.

Can I Get My Cortisol Levels Checked?

Yes, dr Sypien, M.D.can order in 24 hours saliva test to evaluate yours adrenal function. Please bear in mind that it is advisable to check all your hormones as well to track what may be out of balance in your system.

What Is the Most Important Thing I Can Do For Myself?

Aside from getting the right checkups and natural medicine, you need to get adequate rest. It will take time to restore your adrenals, so you must not over work yourself. Try to reduce stress in every way, learn to meditate and breathe deeply. And get as much restful sleep as possible.