Understanding Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome that occurs when the body doesn’t have enough cortisol or aldosterone. Without the right levels of these hormones, the body cannot maintain essential life functions (National Institute of Health [NIH], n.d.). While associated with exceptional prolonged stress, adrenal fatigue may also surface when the body experiences an infection or illness. Adrenal fatigue suggests that long periods of stress could drain the adrenal glands, leading to low amounts of cortisol. Decreased adrenal function may result in brain fog, low energy, depressive mood, salt and sweet cravings, lightheadedness, and other symptoms (Campos, M. M.D., 2018). Since the adrenal glands control the levels of cortisol produced, determining why the adrenal glands would be depleted in the first place may help with understanding adrenal fatigue.

The body has two adrenal glands sitting above each kidney that produce certain hormones required for functioning. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis stimulates the adrenal cortex in order to release these hormones. To do this, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which activates the pituitary gland so the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) can be released. Once released, the ACTH travels through the bloodstream to the adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex then releases cortisol and aldosterone. (“Understanding the Stress Response,” 2018). Cortisol helps the body use sugar and protein for energy and allows the body to recover from infections and stress. Aldosterone maintains the right amount of sodium, potassium, and water in the body (National Institute of Health [NIH], n.d.). Below is a video from YouTube that further explains the HPA axis.

If chronic or prolonged stress is experienced, it’s best to visit a health physician. As there are many indicators, adrenal testing is limited. The Harvard Health Blog mentions:

The cortisol level, when checked four times in a 24-hour period, was no different between fatigued and healthy patients in 61.5% of the studies. The review raises questions around what should get tested (blood, urine, and/or saliva), the best time, how often, what ranges are considered normal, and how reliable the tests are, to name a few. In summary, there is no formal criteria to define and diagnose adrenal fatigue. (Campos, M. M.D., 2018).

Since there is no official way to diagnose adrenal fatigue, it is important for those suffering with symptoms – tiredness, brain fog, lack of motivation, among many others – to keep an eye on their health. (Campos, M. M.D., 2018). While there is controversy on whether adrenal fatigue is real or not, opinions on the topic may vary. Modern medicine does not respond to the associated symptoms, and many doctors are apt to suggest that the condition is something else or that there isn’t a condition present at all. According to the Harvard Health Blog, “Anemia, sleep apnea, autoimmune diseases, infections, other hormonal impairments, mental illnesses, heart and lung problems, and kidney and liver diseases are just some among many medical conditions that could cause similar symptoms.”Since high levels of stress are experienced on a daily basis, unhealthy coping mechanisms are often put to work. According to the American Psychological Association, stress is managed poorly. “Four in ten Americans (43 percent) say they overeat or eat unhealthy foods to manage stress, while one-third (36 percent) skipped a meal in the last month because of stress. Those who drink (39 percent) or smoke cigarettes (19 percent) were also more likely to engage in these unhealthy behaviors during periods of high stress.” In order to successfully cope with prolonged stress, positive lifestyle choices are best for treating adrenal fatigue. The American Psychological Association’s “Stress Tip Sheet” lends a guide on how to cope with stress in a progressive way. By taking small steps, healthy stress management may look like this:

  • Understand how you stress– Evaluate your thoughts and behaviors when stressed. Compare and contrast these behaviors to times when you’re not stressed.
  • Identify your sources of stress– Recognize what triggered stressful feelings (social, financial, health, etc.).
  • Learn your own stress signals– Understand your triggers. Stress signals could be irritability, tiredness, headaches, confusion, etc.
  • Recognize how you deal with stress– Determine what your coping mechanisms are and point out whether they are healthy or not.
  • Find healthy ways to manage stress– Consider stress reducing activities like riding a bike or listening to music. Create a balance that focuses on changing one behavior at a time to avoid burn out.
  • Take care of yourself– Eat a rounded diet, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and engage in regular exercise. Prioritizing these elements will ensure a healthy mind and body.
  • Reach out for support– Supportive help from family and friends can improve stress management. Psychologists may also offer options when it comes to managing stress and changing unhealthy behaviors.

Controlling stress is a learned behavior. Altering just one area of your life at a time can lead to improvements in stress related symptoms and overall well-being. Follow these guidelines at your own pace and say goodbye to adrenal fatigue!

– Kristen Fontaine



Campos, M., M.D. (2018, February 28). Is adrenal fatigue “real”? Retrieved February 14, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-adrenal-fatigue-real-2018022813344

Challenged, N. (2018, July 28). 2-Minute Neuroscience: HPA Axis. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAeBKRaNri0

Harvard Health Publishing. (2011, March). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved February 14, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. (n.d.). Managing Adrenal Insufficiency. Managing Adrenal Insufficiency, 1-7. Retrieved February 14, 2019, from    https://www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/patient_education/pepubs/mngadrins.pdf.

Stress a Major Health Problem in The U.S., Warns APA. (2007, October 24). Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2007/10/stress

Stress Tip Sheet. (2007, October 5). Retrieved February 27, 2019, from   https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2007/10/stress-tips

This entry was posted in The Nature of Stress. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *