Vague and frustrating symptoms can leave you feeling helpless. Things like fatigue, general body aches, unexplained weight changes, or brain fog can be confusing to determine the cause.
Many diagnoses can cause these symptoms, with one of them being adrenal dysfunction or adrenal fatigue. Your adrenal glands are responsible for supplying hormones when you need them – especially hormones related to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system.
If your body is under a chronic state of stress and too many of these hormones are being made and used – the adrenal glands can start slow down production.
This means when you need these hormones, your body can’t give them to you and you can get a cluster of vague and disruptive symptoms.
Today we’re going to share more about what the adrenal glands do, what adrenal fatigue is and how to spot it, and how to be evaluated for adrenal fatigue.
Your adrenal glands are made up of two parts, the cortex and the medulla and you have an adrenal gland sitting on top of each of your kidneys.
Adrenal glands release hormones when stimulated by the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The hormones adrenal glands release include:1
These hormones impact several aspects of your health including metabolism, immune health, reproduction, and heart health.
Cortisol helps maintain your blood pressure, works to balance insulin, and contributes to fat deposition. Another function of cortisol is to slow down growth. While this sounds like a bad thing, proper cortisol levels help balance out many major body systems and functions.
DHEA is a sex hormone and is converted into testosterone. The release of DHEA is responsible for starting puberty in both men and women and is the main source of testosterone for women.
You’ve probably heard of epinephrine or its other name adrenaline. Epinephrine is responsible for beginning the stress response called the fight-or-flight response.2
Your heart rate and blood pressure increases, glycogen in your liver is turned into glucose for energy, and your breathing increases just to name a few of the things that happen during this response thanks to epinephrine.2
Like everything in our body, it’s all about balance. If you’re being chased by a tiger, or more likely exercising vigorously or working hard on a project at work – you want to be alert and focused.
You need a slight stress response to complete many tasks throughout your day, even getting up in the morning. This is why your body releases cortisol when you wake up.
But if your adrenals aren’t working properly, this balance falls apart and you don’t see the benefits of these hormones when you need them.
Adrenal dysfunction can be caused by several things including medical diagnoses like Addison’s Disease and thyroid disorders.
But in functional medicine, there is another theory as to the cause of adrenal dysfunction which is the ‘fatigue’ of the adrenal glands due to overstimulation of your stress response.
Stress can be caused by many things – family, work, financial worries, and world events. You also experience stress when you are sick, have nutritional deficiencies, and even over-exercising.
Living in a state of chronic stress, your body triggers the HPA axis to tell the adrenal glands to make more stress hormones like cortisol, DHEA, and epinephrine.
After a while, your body starts to lose track of what should be considered stressful and what isn’t. This means your stress response is triggered during situations you wouldn’t normally need stress hormones. It can also mean when you need these hormones – for example to focus on a test or project – your body may fail to recognize you need them.
The overstimulation and overproduction of these hormones can lead to an overall fatigue of the adrenal system causing a chronic underproduction of a natural stress response.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
The above symptoms are not always caused by adrenal fatigue – things like mental health disorders, autoimmune disorders, an imbalance in the gut microbiome, and other disorders can cause them too.
But it’s important to evaluate your stress, determine if you have chronic stress, as well as potentially have your hormone levels monitoring to see if your adrenal glands are functioning properly.
Blood and urine tests evaluating cortisol, DHEA, and other hormone levels can help provide information about your stress response. There are other tests too that stimulate a rise in cortisol to see if your body properly responds by making more cortisol.
Evaluating other causes of the symptoms is another way to see if adrenal fatigue is the reason. If no other diagnoses are present and you continue to have persistent symptoms – you may have adrenal dysfunction or fatigue.
Treating adrenal fatigue depends on the cause of chronic stress. Dr. Cabrera and his team can help you determine if you have adrenal fatigue and help you improve your symptoms using a functional medicine approach.
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