The adrenal glands are small organs located above the kidneys and primarily deal with stress by producing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenal.
When the body is overcome with stress, as supposed with adrenal fatigue, the glands may not be able to keep up with the demands, thus fatiguing them.
Also considering the adrenal glands produce more than 50 hormones, with some related to energy conversion and metabolism, a decline in their efficiency and productivity may compromise energy levels.
But despite the possible theories of adrenal fatigue, it is not an accepted medical diagnosis and most traditional doctors warn of receiving it as a primary condition.
However, supporters of the condition advise how to prevent and treat it, including by incorporating an adrenal fatigue diet and modifying other lifestyle habits.
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue was coined in 1998 by chiropractor Dr. James L. Wilson. On his official website, Dr. Wilson defines it as "a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a syndrome, that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level."
The condition is said to be caused by intense or prolonged physical, mental, and emotional stress. There are also believed risk factors to surface the condition, including poor diet, inadequate sleep, chronic illness, inflection, a toxic environment, amongst several others.
Although adrenal fatigue is not a clinically defined term in the medical world to this day, some doctors, healthcare providers, and general population have adopted to characterize a condition in which the adrenal glands have become fatigued by overuse caused by high stress.
Supporters of the condition tout it is the most common cause of fatigue. Difficulty falling asleep and waking up, salt and sugar cravings, and caffeine-dependency are additional symptoms.
Adrenal fatigue is also thought to be a mild form of adrenal insufficiency.
Adrenal Fatigue versus Adrenal Insufficiency
Unlike adrenal fatigue, which is concluded as a myth in a 2016 systematic review published in the BMC Endocrine Disorders, adrenal insufficiency is a true medical term.
Also known as Addison's disease, adrenal insufficiency occurs when the body produces insufficient amounts of hormones produced by the adrenal glands, including cortisol and aldosterone, which is responsible for controlling blood pressure.
Individuals with adrenal insufficiency usually develop non-specific symptoms slowly, including loss of appetite, nausea, and unintentional weight loss.
Whereas adrenal fatigue is not diagnostic, adrenal insufficiency can be detected through blood and certain stimulation tests. Diagnosing and treating adrenal insufficiency is critical, as leaving unmanaged can lead to serious consequences and even be life-threatening.
How Is Adrenal Fatigue Treated and Prevented?
While adrenal insufficiency has paramount treatment protocols, particularly through hormone replacement, there is no medically adopted regimen to manage adrenal fatigue.
However, proponents of the syndrome suggest prevention and treatment is based on supporting healthy adrenal functions, particularly through lifestyle and dietary changes.
Recommendations include a diet low in sugar, caffeine, and processed foods, along with "targeted" supplementation with certain vitamins and minerals as warranted.
The official website further summarizes a diet for adrenal fatigue with these listed 9 rules:
1. Eat a wide variety of whole, natural foods
2. Combine a healthy fat, protein and carbohydrate source with every meal
3. Eat lots of vegetables, especially the brightly colored ones
4. Salt your food to a pleasant taste
5. Eat mainly whole grains as your source of carbohydrate
6. Combine grains with legumes (beans), or legumes with seeds or nuts to form a complete protein
7. Avoid fruit in the morning
8. Mix 1-2 tablespoons of fresh essential oils (cold pressed olive, grape seed, safflower, flax, etc.) into grains, vegetables and meats daily
9. Eat high quality food; it becomes you
"By following these simple guidelines, your food intake can help support your adrenals and prevent low blood sugar," the site further suggests.
Supplementation may also be encouraged, in which Dr. Wilson has constructed his own brand and products such as "Dr. Wilson's Adrenal Fatigue Protocol®."
What Doctors Warn
Amidst the societal busyness, it is not too uncommon to let health take the backseat.
So there really is no denying that adopting healthier eating patterns, managing stress, exercising regularly, and achieving quality sleep can be beneficial to health, with or without supposing adrenal fatigue.
But health practitioners also warn that assuming adrenal fatigue can do more harm than good.
Because the indicated symptoms of adrenal fatigue are so generic and vague, there is significant concern of overlooking more serious health conditions. For instance, fatigue can be a general symptom of hormonal imbalances, anemia, sleep apnea, lupus, and other illnesses that require medical attention.
What’s more, some coined to have adrenal fatigue may directed to supplements that are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Others may even be prescribed to the steroid shot prednisone, which can lead to short and long-term side effects of weight gain, depression, diabetes, and severe diarrhea and vomiting.
Ultimately, placing the focus on adrenal fatigue and undermining the potential presence of a diagnosable health condition can lead to considerably harmful health outcomes, especially if it is not managed promptly and effectively.
What Should You Do if Experiencing Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms?
First and foremost, it is imperative to not self-diagnosis or treat any sort of condition without the guidance and supervision of a healthcare professional.
If experiencing any of the indicated symptoms, consult with a primary care provider for a comprehensive exam to help pinpoint and perhaps rule out other medical conditions.
But what if the workup comes back and a definitive answer is not reached? Feeling confused and disappointed is understandable, though taking a more holistic approach and modifying current lifestyle patterns can help resolve such undesirable and underlying symptoms.
Tips to ensure a healthier lifestyle include:
• Eating more wholesome foods, including whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean and plant-based proteins, and healthy fat sources
• Limiting the intake of caffeine and refined flours, sugars, and oils
• Exercising regularly, including with 150 minutes of aerobic activity weekly and strength training two to three times per week
• Sleeping the recommended 7 to 9 hours nightly
• Coping with stress effectively, including with meditation, yoga, and exercise
• Maintaining a healthy weight
• Attending regular doctor visits
• Sustaining close relationships and hobbies
A team of interdisciplinary team members, including with a primary care provider and dietitian, can also help create an individualized plan to address personal needs.