Following on from comments posted last week I thought it might be best to answer with a full explanation …. So thanks Jess, as it was a great question!
Adrenal fatigue is a term which is often used in alternative medicine but is not accepted by mainstream doctors. It’s a term often used to explain a feeling of fatigue, a ‘tired but wired state’ or complete exhaustion and depletion and is associated with poor sleep, brain fog and low mood.
The adrenal glands are small glands which sit above the kidneys and release hormones like adrenaline or cortisol in response to stress or to regulate metabolism. They control our ‘fight or flight‘ response and are a very important part of the HPA axis which is how our brain controls our bodies response to stress. In conventional medicine you can have over-functioning of the adrenal glands called Cushing’s disease , which is usually caused by a benign tumour or adrenal failure called Addison’s but unless your blood tests show these conditions you will be classified as normal.
In reality, the term adrenal fatigue actually responds to something called ‘allostatic load’ which basically means our body cannot keep up with the stress it is under. It is the wear and tear which develop when you are exposed to an activated and prolonged stress response.
When under prolonged stress we experience a chronic state of triggered ‘fight or flight response’, from which we might get insomnia, anxiety or agitation. Chronically high levels of cortisol from this response can also cause us to put weight on round our middle, give us brain fog, crave sugary and fatty foods and have negative stressed out thoughts. It can also affect our hormones, immune system and libido. Adrenaline, another stress hormone, causes our digestion to stop working so well, causing poor digestion, bloating and IBS symptoms.
Because of the negative effects of this long term stress response, our body tries to protect us, the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to tell it that enough is enough and that it needs to calm its response down. Levels of cortisol and adrenaline drop and this can lead to us feeling more tired, achy and have a feeling of exhaustion; the body is trying to get you to slow down or stop to rest. It shows how important it is to listen to your body and I often say it is like the body screaming out for you to start to take care of it.
Chronic stress could be emotional or from work or relationship difficulties, or it could be from physical problems like chronic inflammation, gut flora imbalance or poor diet so we need to really address all of these in order to correct it and reset the body.
So, I guess the answer is the condition is real, but the term is misleading and implies the adrenals are fatigued, but the reality is more like the whole body is fatigued and the symptoms are a response to long term challenges to the body….it is generally reversible, especially if caught early and it requires an integrated approach looking at diet, lifestyle, stress reduction and treating any underlying inflammatory or gut problems…. I hope that helps explain it!
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