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Adrenal Fatigue—How Stress Affects Hormone Levels

Medically Reviewed by

Adrenal fatigue is categorized as a nonspecific collection of medical symptoms including, body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances, and digestive problems. Chronic stress is thought to be the cause.

How it Happens—The Hormone Connection

While not all medical professionals support theories regarding adrenal fatigue, those who do, believe that the physical, mental and emotional stresses of life overwhelm the body. The small organs above the kidneys, known as the adrenal glands generally manage stress by producing hormones such as cortisol. This prepares the body for “fight” or “flight” in taxing situations. When faced with continual stress however, the adrenal glands become overworked or fatigued.

Who Gets Adrenal Fatigue?

Supporters of adrenal fatigue believe that there is a greater likelihood of developing the condition if an individual is/has:

  • A working student
  • A shift worker
  • An alcohol or drug abuser
  • A single parent
  • A stressful job

Adrenal Fatigue—A milder form of adrenal insufficiency?

While many medical practitioners do not commonly accept a diagnosis of “adrenal fatigue”, “adrenal insufficiency” is a specific medical condition, also known as Addison’s disease.
Symptoms may develop slowly, over a period of several months, and include:

  • Muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite
  • Darkening of the skin (hyperpigmentation)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Cravings for salty foods
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Body hair loss, or sexual dysfunction in women

Adrenal insufficiency is diagnosed through medical testing, and is treated with prescription drugs that replace the hormones the adrenals would normally produce.

A blood test, or special stimulation tests can be used to diagnose adrenal insufficiency. These reflect inadequate hormone levels secreted by the adrenal glands.

Unfortunately, tests to detect a smaller decline in adrenal function (resulting in adrenal fatigue) are not sensitive enough. Proponents of this theory believe the body however is.

Challenges with Diagnosis and Treatment

Because there are no definitive medical tests to identify the presence of adrenal fatigue, it is difficult to diagnose. Given this, many alternative-healing practitioners must rely on patient symptoms to detect small decreases in hormone levels. To further complicate the process, adrenal fatigue can also mimic other medical conditions such as, fibromyalgia, depression, sleep apnea or adrenal insufficiency.

Treatment for adrenal fatigue by those who support the theory may consist of eating healthy foods, maintaining a new exercise regimen, setting a specific time for sleeping and waking, or giving up smoking, alcohol, or drugs. In addition, nutritional supplements may also be recommended.


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