Adrenal Fatigue & Exhaustion: Hanging On For Dear Life

Adrenal Fatigue & Exhaustion

Adrenal Fatigue & Exhaustion: Hanging On For Dear Life

Tired all the time? Feeling burned out? Overwhelmed?

Feel like you can’t muster the energy to get through your day? Staring at the ceiling at midnight exhausted but unable to sleep? Or are you sleeping more than 9 hours every night yet still experiencing fatigue?

These are the main symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue and Adrenal Exhaustion.

The former, adrenal fatigue, is a modern day epidemic. The human body is not made for chronic, never ending stress. Even long standing low levels of stress can lead to adrenal fatigue.

Let’s start with what the Adrenals are exactly:

The Adrenals are small glands located on top of the kidneys. For two 1” x 3” glands, they are the powerhouses of the body. They produce cortisol, adrenaline (increase heart rate), aldosterone (control blood pH), and DHEA (a sex hormone-more on DHEA in our next blog).

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces in response to stress or danger. That stress can be physical or emotional. It’s involved with our fight or flight defenses. Cortisol regulates blood sugar (gotta have sugar on hand to fight or run) and controls blood pressure (increases to fight or run). It also plays a role in inflammation.

High amounts of cortisol (and adrenaline) are great when you are running from a tiger or battling a bear. Due in part to cortisol, you’ll run faster, punch harder, and not feel any pain when that tiger or bear takes a bite out of you! But this is the modern world, our battles are different now; long work hours, inboxes overfilled, problems at school, aging parents, traffic, bills…when does it end?

It ends with your energy crashing, aka Adrenal Fatigue or worse, Adrenal Exhaustion.

Are Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion real?

Sure, burnout from overwork and overstress causes fatigue! But Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion are really caused by a burnout of the whole stress response of the body. Over time, high levels of cortisol from long standing stress hurts the body and the brain though cortisol mediated inflammation. It causes achiness, brain fog, anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia, and more. So, the brain finally puts the brakes on the adrenals, slowing cortisol production.

Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion are not only caused by too much stress in your life. Other triggers can be: trauma, poor blood sugar regulation, and poor diet. During and shortly following a trauma, our bodies produce a lot of cortisol.

How many of you have lost a loved one, not been able to sleep, then feel like you could sleep forever, and can’t find any energy or finish any tasks effectively? I know I have!  It’s not unusual for victims of any trauma to experience extreme fatigue after the trauma has ended.

Examples of trauma are: emotional and physical abuse, war, physical illness, injuries, or the loss of a loved one. Poor diet and blood sugar regulation puts stress on our bodies, just as emotional stress does.

How are Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion different?

In Adrenal Fatigue, you are able to push through your day despite being tired. With Adrenal Exhaustion, you may not be able to pull yourself out of bed! People with Adrenal Fatigue can feel a combination of insomnia and fatigue, wired but tired, an inability to fall asleep at night, overreactions to stress, overly anxious, increased blood pressure, and heart palpitations.

People suffering from Adrenal Exhaustion want to and do sleep a lot, can’t react to stress, may have no appetite, may have low blood pressure and heart rate, and often feel depressed. Weight gain can also occur in Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion.

But what happens when you go to your doctor and ask them if you have Adrenal Fatigue or Exhaustion? Big eye roll or blank stare! Most doctors will not know what you are referring to. This is because true adrenal shut down is called Addison’s disease.

This is when the adrenals truly cannot produce cortisol and this can lead to death. What we call Adrenal Fatigue really is an Adrenal Dysregulation or Disordered Stress Response (term coined by Aviva Romm MD). I prefer the latter term but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll use Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion in this article.

How do you know if you have Adrenal Fatigue or Exhaustion?

Testing. Cortisol can be tested with blood or saliva.

We’ll often first test an early morning blood cortisol along with other blood work. If you have severe Adrenal Fatigue, the cortisol is typically low normal, and with Adrenal Exhaustion, it is measurable but very low. Cortisol is so low in Adrenal Exhaustion that there usually is no cortisol found in saliva.

For Adrenal Fatigue, saliva cortisol testing is the best measure because it is more sensitive and much easier to collect saliva to get readings throughout the day and before bed. It tells your doctor how your cortisol is fluctuating and when to target therapy. Below you can see an example of what normal saliva cortisol results look like upon testing.

Sample Saliva Cortisol Results

Is there anything that can be done?

Yes. In an ideal world, we would prescribe a long vacation. Unfortunately, you can’t bill a 3 month sailing trip on the Mediterranean or Fiji beach trip to your insurance. In lieu of a prolonged vacation, you can come and see us. We use herbs and bioidentical hormones like hydrocortisone to heal your ailing adrenal glands. Book your Complimentary Phone Consult to learn more about how we might be able to help you.

Dr. Kimberly Brown, ND, LAc
Naturopathic Doctor
(408) 357-3422
San Jose Integrative Medicine
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