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Adrenal Fatigue and Stress Exhaustion

Updated on March 30, 2016
Do I have adrenal fatigue?
Do I have adrenal fatigue? | Source

Becoming exhausted by stress is commonplace in today’s modern world. Anyone who has suffered an anxiety disorder or continued stress for a considerable length of time will tell you how tired they feel day in and day out. You may have had a long term illness or been fighting infections, and this too can drain you of energy.

We are all open to high stress levels for many reasons but as you can imagine, eventually stress takes a toll on us. It can feel as though we need winding up or our batteries are drained. Feeling stressed is a reaction, and for some people it will come and go throughout their lives. For others it can become a continual state of affairs, known as chronic stress and often a long term anxiety disorder can develop from this. There are physiological reasons for feeling so tired or run down and I want to look at the role of the adrenal glands with regards to stress and anxiety.

Stress and Adrenal Glands

The almost triangular shaped adrenal glands are situated one on top of each of your kidneys, and they play an important role in the state of your general health. The adrenal glands produce and regulate hormones, two of which are very important in relation to stress. These are:

  • Epinephrine or more widely known as adrenaline
  • Cortisol


Adrenaline is a stress hormone that is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight response” hormone. When we are stressed or fearful this response is activated and prepares us to deal with the task at hand. Many people consider that one has to be extremely frightened in a sudden fashion to warrant the pouring out of adrenaline, but the fact is that continuous stress at any level will initiate an adrenal response and produce a steady stream of adrenaline output. “On edge” or constantly anxious means you are on high alert and this response simply stays active.

Your stressed mind or mood is effectively telling your adrenal response system that you are under threat (stress), and this is where cortisol also plays a part. To enable you to fight that threat, you need to have physical and mental power. While adrenaline provides us with this power or energy, cortisol lowers some of the non essential functions of our body that are not needed to fight a threat, such as the digestive system. If these hormonal responses are always turned on it can wreak havoc with your state of health.

Adrenal Fatigue Diagnosis

If you asked your doctor if you have adrenal fatigue, he may shake his head and change the subject. Many doctors simply don’t immediately think of it as a stress related illness. They are much more familiar with other adrenal gland related illness such as:

  • Cushing’s Syndrome – higher cortisol levels than normal over a long time
  • Addison’s Disease – lower levels of cortisol over a long time

The World Health Organization recognizes that stress and adrenal fatigue should be considered as an illness, but many general practitioners who test for adrenal hormonal imbalance are more likely to be alerted by the extremes of imbalance associated with the conditions mentioned, and adrenal fatigue might be harder to ascertain from this alone. Because of this, many more people may be suffering with adrenal fatigue than we imagine. Stress related illness is growing every year, and that stress is caused by so many factors.

Blood tests may be valuable in aiding diagnosis of adrenal fatigue but will probably not be enough alone. A doctor may only pick up on adrenal fatigue by recognizing the ongoing symptoms that a sufferer may feel, but not be inclined to refer you for testing, so ask if you feel it is necessary.

There is also a diagnostic test called the adrenal stress index test (saliva test) which measures your levels of cortisol against your circadian rhythm. This test is used for other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. A 24 hour urine collection may also be needed to measure cortisol.

Your blood pressure may be affected and this is another area in which your doctor can look in helping to secure a diagnosis. Of course, blood pressure problems are not unique to adrenal fatigue and he will have to look at the whole picture. There is also a pupil dilation test that you can do yourself (see video above).

If your doctor knows well of your chronic anxiety problem, he may try to put everything down to anxiety only and treat that anxiety with medications. It is up to you to make sure you get through to your doctor just how much the physical and mental symptoms are affecting your everyday life. For a doctor to tell you that you are simply stressed out, need to relax and take some SSRI antidepressants will not be enough to reverse severe adrenal fatigue. Ask for blood, urine and saliva tests.

Do you still feel very tired when you wake up in a morning?
Do you still feel very tired when you wake up in a morning? | Source

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

It helps matters if you feel strongly that you may be suffering with adrenal fatigue when approaching your doctor. If you can go to your doctor with a set of symptoms and a history of stress or related criteria that you can recognize, it will help get a firm diagnosis.

Have you been suffering with any of these symptoms for a considerable length of time?

  • Constant worry/apprehension
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems – finding it hard to wake in the morning
  • Chronic physical illness/infections
  • Chronic pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Increasingly allergic
  • Having had surgery
  • Emotional problems/traumas
  • Body aches
  • Low blood pressure
  • Drinking excess caffeine to keep going
  • Work stress/overwork
  • Family/relationship stress
  • Anxiety Disorder/panic disorder
  • IBS type symptoms
  • Loss of body hair
  • Craving salty and sweet foods

Adrenal Fatigue and Pain

Do you have unexplained neck and back pain?
Do you have unexplained neck and back pain? | Source

All of the above could indicate signs of adrenal fatigue. On the stress front, many other symptoms may further help you decide such as:

  • Constant “nervous” feeling
  • Feeling weak
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Palpitations
  • Never feeling refreshed after sleeping
  • Regular headaches
  • Over eating/feeling better for eating
  • Frustration
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Sensitive to the cold
  • Upper back and neck pain

These lists are not exhaustive but do give you a general picture of the kinds of longstanding symptoms to look out for in determining the chances of you having adrenal fatigue. Only you know if you have been under a great deal of stress and can identify with these symptoms.

There will come a point with prolonged stress when your adrenal glands say enough is enough! At this point the hormone levels will drop from high to a very low level. This is what would be termed adrenal fatigue, or sometimes people may use the terms adrenal depletion, adrenal exhaustion, adrenal apathy or adrenal insufficiency. It is classed as a syndrome because, as you can see, there are many signs and symptoms.

A Doctor Explains How to Deal with Adrenal Fatigue

Treatment for Adrenal Fatigue

Treatment for adrenal fatigue that has been brought on by extreme and prolonged stress requires a multi treatment approach.

Handling stress

Of course if stress has got you to the stage of adrenal fatigue, then you must address the stress factor. This can be of the self-help kind, but perhaps you don’t understand how to help yourself. There are so many books out there that can help you learn how to handle stress more effectively, so for those on a low income this is one way forward.

A therapist or counselor can also help you to look at ways to address the stress in your life. Look out for anxiety or stress management therapists from whom you may learn tips to handle stress, not just for now but for life!

Lifestyle and Diet Changes

  • Exercise regularly, but be wary of strenuous exercise. Good exercises are walking and yoga or Tai chi. Go at your own pace, but increase the exercise slowly over time.
  • Learn good breathing practice, breathing from the diaphragm
  • Take up meditation
  • Make sure you get a good night’s sleep every night
  • Eat regularly. Little and often is a good way but make sure you eat within an hour of rising in a morning
  • Lay off junk or ready made packet foods
  • Make sure you have good levels of protein every day
  • Avoid bananas and anything high in potassium
  • Eat more vegetables
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Reduce, or better still stop all caffeine in the diet
  • Use sea salt in your diet

It might be a good idea to ask your doctor if you can be referred to a dietician for extra advice. Also ask your doctor/dietician about mineral and vitamin supplements.

Other Help for Adrenal Fatigue

There are supplements or natural products that can be freely bought for adrenal fatigue. As long as you don’t have any other chronic health conditions, these should be ok to buy and use without seeing a doctor. Of course just because these products are supposedly natural, you should always check with your doctor if you are in any doubt. Your doctor may prescribe melatonin to help with getting back to a good sleep pattern.

It may take up to two years to fully recover from adrenal fatigue, but some improvement may be seen within a few weeks. The hardest part is getting a doctor to recognize the need for your potential adrenal fatigue to be explored. It is too easy to waft away the notion of adrenal fatigue by addressing the stress only. It is a physical illness that needs the correct testing, treatment by a doctor and correct lifestyle/dietary changes.


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