Adrenal fatigue refers to the depletion of the adrenal glands that stops them from producing various essential hormones, including cortisol, causing multiple symptoms.
Though increasingly popular in alternative medicine, adrenal fatigue is also a controversial diagnosis, as there is no scientific proof it exists. (1)
This article examines adrenal fatigue in relation to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) as their symptoms are similar.
Adrenal Fatigue And The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are tiny triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of each kidney and produce over 50 hormones, including sex hormones and cortisol. They are part of the endocrine system and essential to survival.
Alternative health practitioners believe that exposure to prolonged stress may cause the adrenal glands to release too much cortisol causing a deficiency of this stress hormone that leads to various nonspecific symptoms.
Cortisol: The Link Between The Adrenal Gland And The Thyroid
The main link between the adrenals and the thyroid appears to be cortisol. After all, the adrenal gland produces cortisol, a hormone that affects thyroid function.
How? Stress depresses thyroid hormone production to conserve energy for upcoming "fight or flight" activities (2, 3) which may contribute to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Chronic stress has also been linked to weight gain because it slows the metabolism regulated by the thyroid gland.
So, it makes sense that with adrenal fatigue, the inability to produce adequate cortisol levels can lead to reduced thyroid function and ultimately hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism, underactive thyroid. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn't produce enough of certain crucial hormones. Healthy thyroid gland, unhealthy thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism. Symptoms: thinning eyebrows, hair loss, swelling around eyes, goiter, puffy face, weight gain, fatigue weakness, slowed heart rate, elevated blood cholesterol level, muscle weakness, muscle aches, changes in menstrual patterns, depression and impaired memory, constipation, enlarged thyroid gland, joint pain and stiffness, dry skin, hoarseness, cold sensitivity.
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What Is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid is a chronic deficiency of essential thyroid hormones. The thyroid simply does not produce enough hormone.
It is a common thyroid problem and can easily be managed. But it can be fatal if left untreated.
Symptoms of Hypothyroidism
Hypothyroidism can manifest with no symptoms, or it can include several.
The most common symptoms of hypothyroidism include: (4)
- Cold intolerance
- Weight gain
- Dry skin
Less common symptoms include: (5)
- Memory problems
- Dry, thinning hair
- Hoarse voice
- Menstrual cycle problems, i.e., irregular periods or heavy or lighter bleeding than normal
These symptoms can vary depending on age, sex, and other factors.
Hypothyroidism Risk Factors
The main risk factors for developing hypothyroidism include:
- The presence of another autoimmune disorder, such as Hashimoto's or celiac disease. (6)
- Gender. Women are more likely than men to develop this disease.
- Increasing age
- Family history
- Pituitary gland disorders
- Radiation of the thyroid gland
- Thyroid surgery
- Certain medications
- Iodine deficiency
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue are similar to those of hypothyroidism and are said to include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Low energy
- Weight gain and other metabolic disorders
- Insomnia or other sleep issues
- A compromised immune system
- Brain fog
- Lack of focus
- Memory issues
- Weight loss (sometimes)
- Reliance on caffeine or other stimulants to provide energy
Despite the lack of scientific evidence regarding adrenal fatigue, there are two conditions that cause malfunctioning of the adrenal glands that impair their ability to produce cortisol: primary and secondary adrenal insufficiency.
Neither of these conditions involves fatigued adrenal glands.
Primary Adrenal Insufficiency
Primary adrenal insufficiency also called Addison's disease, occurs when the adrenal glands cannot make enough cortisol. In most cases, the cause of this disease is an autoimmune reaction attacking the cells of the adrenal cortex that produce cortisol, slowly killing them.
Addison's disease is a rare condition, affecting approximately 1 in 100,000 people in the United States. (7)
It is treated with steroid hormone replacement therapy.
Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency
Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain, fails to signal the adrenal glands to make cortisol. In this situation, the pituitary gland does not produce enough of the hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol.
Secondary adrenal insufficiency is much more common than the primary type, affecting 150 to 280 people per million globally. (8)
Symptoms of Adrenal Insufficiency
Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency can include (9):
- Mental illnesses, such as depression
- Low blood pressure
- Severe fatigue
- Weight loss
- Muscle weakness
- Salt cravings
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Stomach pain
Adrenal insufficiency can be life-threatening if left untreated, so you must work with your doctor to discuss treatment options.
Symptoms that suggest a medical emergency include:
- Severe drop in blood pressure that can cause dizziness
- Joint pains
Diagnosing Adrenal Fatigue
There are no standard medical tests to diagnose adrenal fatigue. But certain alternative health practitioners may take blood tests and/or urine or salivary cortisol tests to detect cortisol levels.
How to Improve Adrenal Function
Improving adrenal function and maintaining normal cortisol levels is an excellent goal whether or not you believe in adrenal fatigue. And you can do this by making some healthy diet and lifestyle adjustments.
Manage Your Blood Sugar
Out-of-control blood sugar levels can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and even cardiovascular disease and put stress on the adrenals. For example, low blood sugar levels send a "fight or flight" signal to the adrenal glands, which respond by releasing cortisol to help you survive the threat.
Here are a few ways to regulate your blood sugar levels and treat adrenal fatigue.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense, Whole Food Diet
The vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients of a whole-food diet, support blood sugar control.
- Fiber slows digestion, leading to a gradual rise in blood glucose levels. Try to get your fiber primarily from nonstarchy vegetables because grains (even whole grains) cause a significant spike in blood sugar levels.
- Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and stabilizes blood sugar levels.
- Chromium, a trace element found in meat, whole grains, and some fruits and vegetables, has been shown to improve blood sugar control. Research suggests that chromium can lower blood sugar, improve glucose tolerance, and increase insulin sensitivity. (10)
- Healthy fats. Studies suggest that replacing carbs and saturated fats with unsaturated fats lowers blood sugar levels and improves insulin control. (11)
Foods To Lower Blood Sugar
Keeping the above principles in mind, foods that can help lower or regulate blood sugar levels include:
- Chia seeds
- Salmon and other fish
- Flax seeds
- Ultra-processed foods. These foods contain artificial colorings, flavors, preservatives, and chemicals that damage your health. Their lack of fiber also promotes rapid digestion, resulting in elevated blood glucose and insulin levels.
- Sugars. Sugary foods lead to a spike in blood sugar levels, and they also cause an inflammatory response in the body that can lead to many health problems and diseases.
Keep a Regular Eating Schedule
Research suggests that a consistent eating schedule will help prevent significant peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels, thus improving blood sugar control.
Therefore, experts recommend eating healthy meals every three to four hours to enjoy healthy blood sugar levels. The key is to eat something that has a minor impact on your blood sugar several times a day. So, you might want to eat three healthy meals per day with a small snack in between or six small meals.
Chronic stress is bad for your adrenal system and your thyroid gland. In addition, studies show that stress also elevates blood glucose levels.
So, if you want to improve your health and your adrenal and thyroid function, it's a good idea to reduce your stress levels. Here are a few suggestions to help you do so.
- Meditate for at least 10-15 minutes each day
- Practice deep-breathing exercises
- Take leisurely walks around the block.
- Read a good book
- Enjoy aromatherapy with relaxing essential oils like lavender or sandalwood.
- Get a pet, especially a dog or a cat
- Do yoga
- Take up a relaxing hobby
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation
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