Adrenal Fatigue: An Actual Condition or Not?

People are talking about adrenal fatigue. The symptoms are vague and mimic those of many conditions. Many doctors aren't convinced it's a real medical problem, but a growing number of health professionals say adrenal fatigue is among the most commonly undiagnosed conditions today. Could you have it?

What is adrenal fatigue?
Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and operate a host of hormonal functions in your body. They produce stress and sex hormones: norepinephrine, cortisol, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. When they work in sync, the adrenal hormones regulate energy level, ability to cope with day-to-day life and stress, sex drive, sleep cycles, appetite, and much more. The theory behind adrenal fatigue is that people who live with extreme stress deplete their stores of adrenal hormones because their adrenal glands can't produce enough to keep up with demand. That results in decreased energy levels and sex drive, cravings for caffeine, sugar, and salt, as well as anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and more.

Christiane Northrop, MD, OB-GYN is a leading authority on women's health and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. She writes that adrenal exhaustion (AKA adrenal fatigue) is a condition caused by the body's inability to cope with life stressors. "If the intensity and frequency of the stresses in your life—either those internally driven (such as your perceptions about your life) or those externally driven (such as having surgery or working the night shift)—become too great, then over time your adrenal glands will begin to become exhausted."

Other doctors disagree. The Hormone Foundation and Endocrine Society say adrenal fatigue is not a real medical condition. There are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms. There are no specific tests to diagnose adrenal fatigue. They also say many of the treatments recommended by those who support the theory of adrenal fatigue are simply common sense, while others are potentially dangerous.

Some health providers recommend supplements specifically designed to support adrenal health, but The Hormone Foundation and Endocrine Society say some of these contain extracts of human adrenal, hypothalamus (a part of the brain that produces hormones), and pituitary glands that could be harmful and have not been properly tested. Taking adrenal hormone supplements when they aren't needed can halt your adrenal glands natural ability to produce stress hormones, which could cause an adrenal crisis.

What are some safe "common sense" remedies for adrenal fatigue?

  • Get plenty of rest and exercise.
  • Maintain regular times for going to bed and waking up.
  • Practice stress management techniques like meditation and Tai Chi.
  • Eat a healthy diet of unprocessed, whole foods, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid caffeine and minimize sugar and salt intake.
  • Include protein in every meal and snack.
  • Take a multivitamin/mineral supplement.

Doctors agree that following these healthy living tips make everyone feel better. Northrop also recommends patients look closely at what's causing extreme stress in their lives. Solving the root problems may be the best remedy for treating this mysterious and controversial condition.

If you think you may be experiencing adrenal fatigue, consult with a naturopathic physician, chiropractor, endocrinologist, or other medical doctor who uses an integrative, complementary approach.




National Institutes of Health
Adrenal Gland Disorders

Adrenal Exhaustion
Dr. Christiane Northrup, MD