Recognising adrenal fatigue: More stressful than it should be

Adrenal fatigue

Despite their small size, the adrenal glands are one of the most important organs in the human body.

The hormones they secrete affect blood sugar level balance, energy and mood, the immune response and many other aspects of our physiology that we would otherwise take for granted. This should make a diagnosis a quick and easy task, yet adrenal fatigue sufferers can struggle for years to find out why they feel the way they do.

When adrenal fatigue occurs, it can have a severe impact on the quality of life for the individual, even though they are commonly told by doctors that there is nothing wrong with them.

With no drugs currently being produced for adrenal problems, doctors are not educated in adrenal function during their training; as a result, the mainstream stance on adrenal function is that only three levels exist – normal, Cushing’s (super-high output of cortisol) or Addison’s (where cortisol is so low it can result in death).

Causes of adrenal fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is caused by a sustained period of stress which, over time, depletes the reserves of the adrenal glands until they are unable to maintain normal production of the necessary hormones. Cortisol is normally the hormone found deficient, but it can also affect DHEA and aldosterone. Adrenaline release generally increases to compensate for this, causing a range of anxiety-related symptoms.

Each individual experiences adrenal fatigue slightly differently, but symptoms typically include: extreme tiredness, difficulty sleeping, digestive disturbances, bouts of low blood sugar levels, low blood pressure, dizziness upon standing, sugar and salt cravings, poor appetite in the morning, moodiness, low libido, increased allergies, regular infections and colds and a difficulty in losing weight.

Adrenal fatigue diagnosis

Adrenal fatigue is best diagnosed through the use of an adrenal stress index test, which measures salivary levels of DHEA and cortisol over four points in a normal day.

This simple and non-invasive test gives a good snapshot of the function of these walnut-sized organs, and allows knowledgeable practitioners to pick up on particular patterns. This test is available from a number of private labs, including Genova Diagnostics in London, and remains relatively inexpensive.

Other useful tests include the ACTH Challenge test, which sees a physician inject the patient with the pituitary hormone and check for an appropriate response from the adrenal glands; this is mainly useful to determine whether the adrenal or pituitary glands are the primary source of imbalance.

A single measurement of serum cortisol is next to useless, simply because the adrenal hormones follow a 24-hour rhythm and a practitioner can make no conclusions on the basis of a single reading. Unfortunately, NHS endocrinologists have been slow to abandon their single-point blood draw and miss countless episodes of adrenal fatigue as a result.

Getting back the results of these tests should make things simpler. However, in many cases, sufferers of adrenal fatigue are passed from pillar to post as the medication-centric professionals within the health system struggle to make appropriate interventions. The other alternative is to look for a private practitioner knowledgeable in the treatment of adrenal fatigue.

Seeking help

Those in this situation should look for a practitioner who has dealt with the condition before, and understands the unique and sometimes paradoxical responses that adrenal fatigue sufferers are likely to exhibit.

They should be aware of the specific nutritional requirements of the adrenals, such as vitamin C and B5, as well as recognizing the links and cross-overs of related disorders such as hypothyroidism and fungal infections. A firm understanding of the impact from adrenal extracts, licorice root and hydrocortisone supplementation is also essential.

Having adrenal fatigue is hard. Finding a diagnosis and a practitioner to work with can be just as much of a struggle and, while this will no doubt change in coming years, the above points represent a start in taking control of the condition and your day-to-day health.

Learn about the basic principles of treating adrenal fatigue here

London Nutritionist and Fitness TrainerAbout The Author

Marek Doyle is a London nutritionist, personal trainer and the pioneer of the Combined Allergy Test.

In 2008, he was recognised as one of the UK’s top trainers and counts world champion athletes, cover models and TV personalities amongst his clientèle.

His website is

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