You say “Adrenal Fatigue”. I say “Um. No”

Why do I say that? Because despite the fact that many alternative practitioners swear by adrenal fatigue, and some people have made a career of it, I’m not convinced that it exists. Allow me to explain. a.gOn top of your kidneys, there are these small glands called the adrenal glands. Without going into too much detail, the adrenal gland is basically a stress gland. They secrete a number of hormones that help us survive during times of stress. Hormones like adrenaline (now more appropriately called epinephrine and norepinephrine), cortisol and aldosterone are released to help increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose to keep our muscles and brain working well to get us out of a sticky situation.

Imagine a time where you almost got into a car accident, thought you heard someone breaking into your house, or had all 4 of your children crying or screaming at exactly the same time. That stress response you experienced? Your adrenals were involved.

Here’s the back story. Years ago a researcher named Hans Selye conducted research on animals, mice mostly, that showed during times of acute stress cortisol goes up, then over time cortisol returns to normal, and eventually overtime if the stress continued, cortisol decreased. He referred to these three phases as “alarm”, “resistance”, and “exhaustion” respectively.

This was essentially the beginnings of adrenal fatigue.

oprahPractitioners that “diagnose” people with adrenal fatigue typically used a salivary cortisol test where you spit into four vials throughout the day and if your cortisol levels are lower than normal, you have adrenal fatigue. The explanation given by most practitioners is that you’ve been chronically stressed (who isn’t?), your adrenal glands are worn out (just like you), and they can’t make cortisol anymore.

This where I disagree.

A lot of research has been done since Selye’s original experiments and we now have a much more information as to how the adrenal glands work, including things that can inhibit or suppress cortisol, and can have nothing to do with chronic stress or worn out adrenal glands.

The science of this can get a little technical, so I’ll keep it light. There are numerous influences in the body that can tell the adrenal glands to stop making as much cortisol and that there are situations in the body where it may be beneficial to have low cortisol. Not shriveled up, worn out, and fatigued adrenal glands, but healthy ones that are being told by its higher-ups that it doesn’t need to make cortisol right now.

If you have a test done that looks at your cortisol levels and they show up as low, all that suggests is that you have low cortisol. Period. It doesn’t tell you why. And yes, low or high cortisol can certainly cause symptoms.   But it isn’t necessarily adrenal fatigue. Instead, I’d call it adrenal suppression or adrenal inhibition.

I know, I know. You say po-tay-to. I say po-tah-to. But there are too many people running around believing they have tired, raisin-like adrenal glands. It’s just not true. Chances are they are not worn out, they are simply being told by something else in the body to lower cortisol production.

And for the conventional medicine crowd, “regular” doctors don’t recognize adrenal fatigue at all. There is one condition, Addison’s disease, which is an autoimmune attack on the adrenal glands so that they can no longer produce cortisol. This, conventional medicine acknowledges.

To them adrenal fatigue doesn’t exist, and I don’t think it does either – at least in the way it is usually described. Where conventional medicine and I differ is, I can respect if someone has low cortisol and feels like crap because of it. To most medical doctors, if it’s not Addison’s, they don’t care about your cortisol.

no cat 2So do you have adrenal fatigue? Probably not. Might you have low cortisol? Absolutely, but it’s not because your adrenal glands are worn out. A more likely explanation is that cortisol production is being inhibited for some reason, which by all means look into, but please, puh-lease don’t call it adrenal fatigue.

If you're struggling with symptoms that have been blamed on adrenal fatigue I'd love to help. Reach out & book a strategy session. We'll get you on the right track in no time.