Adrenal Fatigue- Fact or Fiction?


If we were to name the presiding condition of the 21st Century so far, it would be adrenal fatigue. But go back only 5 or 10 years and no one had heard of it, let alone tried to diagnose or treat it. So what is adrenal fatigue and is there any reason why it has gained so much prominence and controversy in such a short space of time?


Helen Marsden

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What is adrenal fatigue?

Your adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys and are responsible for the production of hormones that control your body’s response to stress, in particular, cortisol. The theory behind adrenal fatigue is that if you suffer from an acutely stressful event, or suffer from prolonged, chronic stress, then your adrenal glands can become overloaded and ineffective, failing to produce the right amount of cortisol for the demands of the body at the right time of day.

Normally, cortisol levels are highest in the morning on waking, and decline naturally through the day until their lowest level, just before bed. This means that we wake with energy and vitality to take on the day ahead, and fall asleep in an easy and relaxed state at bed time. If your cortisol cycle is broken, then the theory goes that this can lead to you feeling exhausted on waking and alert when you’re supposed to be going to sleep. Other symptoms attributed to adrenal fatigue include craving salt and sugar and retaining fat around your middle, being irritable and moody, as well as feeling fatigued and depressed.

So far so good, but why the controversy?

Adrenal fatigue would not traditionally be diagnosed by a conventionally trained GP. Indeed, the Society of Endocrinologists has stated that adrenal fatigue is not even a medical condition; to date, they argue there is no evidence that this condition exists. While there are conditions that do affect the adrenal glands; Addison’s Disease (primary adrenal insufficiency) and Cushing’s Syndrome (which leads to the over-production of cortisol), there is no evidence that overloading the adrenal glands through stress causes any functional problems which could lead to adrenal insufficiency.

Who is likely to diagnose adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is much more likely to be diagnosed by an alternative or natural health practitioner, and they are much more likely to treat it by natural methods such as nutrition and lifestyle than a course of drugs. They will typically use non-invasive saliva testing to assess cortisol rhythm – cortisol levels that remain flat all day or even rise at bed time would signal to them that the adrenal glands are impaired.

And our view?

It is easy to see how our fast-paced, switched-on-all-the-time lifestyles could cause our natural circadian rhythm to become disrupted, and how living with such high levels of stress could cause us to become fatigued and irritable, as well as ill, but whether it is ever going to be a fully recognised condition is still debatable. However, what we do know is that many of our customers suffer a lower quality of life because of symptoms for which they cannot get a diagnosis.

In our view, the risk in labelling these symptoms adrenal fatigue is relatively low, especially if treatment protocols remain largely lifestyle related. Most treatment advice centres on getting a full night’s sleep, eating an unprocessed diet rich in vegetables and whole grains, taking time in the day to meditate and re-charge batteries and taking regular moderate exercise – which is great advice for a healthy lifestyle for us all. And if it alleviates symptoms – then all the better.

Problems can arise if symptoms which are general and non-specific are attributed to adrenal fatigue when in fact they are early signs of something more serious or of another treatable condition. You can screen for some common causes of these symptoms with the Well Woman UltraVit or Well Man UltraVit tests. Please remember it is also always important to talk to your GP and rule out any more serious conditions before seeking an alternative diagnosis.

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