Overview of Adrenal Fatigue

Above our kidneys sit a pair of glands called the adrenal glands, which secrete many hormones that help us cope with stress. They accomplish this through communications with the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, both located in the brain, in a feedback system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It is the signaling between the adrenal glands and the brain that regulate a variety of bodily processes during threatening situations to help us react and escape if necessary. During this “fight-or-flight” response, some blood vessels are dilated while others are constricted, redirecting blood flow to the muscles. Nutrients that had been stored for energy may be released and burned so that the body can respond quickly. The heart rate increases and the reflexes become faster.

Clearly, all of these physiological changes would be ideal if the stress involved being cornered by a wild animal in the jungle. If the stress is that we have deadlines at work, financial worries, or concerns about our relationships, most of these responses are not necessary. Occasional stress is good, as its discomfort coaxes us to get things done. If the body remains in a perpetual state of stress, all these physiological responses can also deplete us, leading to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Chronic stress can eventually shift our body into a perpetually imbalanced state where the adrenal gland is unable to keep up with the body’s demands. This advanced complication of chronic stress is known as adrenal fatigue syndrome.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

In addition to the “stress hormones” mentioned above, the adrenal glands produce a number of other hormones involved in other physiological functions. The glucocorticoids, for example, help direct metabolism and regulate blood sugar levels, which may become imbalanced if there is insufficient adrenal activity. Those with adrenal fatigue might find themselves more easily prone to “sugar crashes” or find themselves with intense salt or sugar cravings. Glucocorticoids also help control the immune response, modulating inflammation responses, so those with adrenal fatigue might also become more sensitive to infections, causing them to have to endure illnesses longer than usual. Low levels of mineralcorticoid hormones, which help balance the body’s sodium and potassium levels, blood volume, and blood pressure, may also cause pronounced changes in dietary habits and overall energy levels. In women, the adrenal gland also produces testosterone, a reduction of which can cause lowered sex drive.

Secretion of cortisol, another adrenal hormone, normally fluctuates following a day/night cycle, stimulated by light/dark patterns noted by the brain. Cortisol levels are normally highest in the morning, decrease throughout the day, and reach their lowest point several hours into sleep. Cortisol helps the body bounce back from stress by returning it to a more normal, “resting physiological state, and plays a wide variety of functions in metabolism, immunity, memory, and also plays roles in making the body sensitive to other hormones, like epinephrine. Lowered levels of cortisol can cause a person to become dehydrated, fatigued, run down, and have difficulties thinking. A person will have significant difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings and feel their energy continue to decline throughout the day.

Risk Factors of Adrenal Fatigue

The lowered adrenal hormone secretion keeps a person’s body in a perpetual state of stress, since it reduces the body’s capacity to deal with any kind of stress. The fluctuations in blood sugar and metabolism, combined with becoming less active due to exhaustion, can lead to weight gain. Because of the reduced immunity, adrenal fatigue may also open the door for chronic infections, which can cause further medical complications related to the infections themselves. The high blood pressure associated with adrenal fatigue may also lead to numerous complications, including stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.

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