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 sit on top of each kidney and produce over 50 hormones, including sex hormones and cortisol. As part of the endocrine system, the adrenals are essential to survival.
Alternative health practitioners believe the stress hormone cortisol is a critical component of adrenal fatigue, as the adrenal glands release more cortisol when stressed.
If stress becomes too intense or chronic, the adrenals become overtaxed and can no longer produce cortisol levels necessary for healthy bodily function, aka adrenal fatigue.
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, in adrenal fatigue, the inability to produce adequate cortisol levels can lead to reduced thyroid function and ultimately hypothyroidism.
What Is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid is a chronic deficiency of essential thyroid hormones. The thyroid simply does not produce enough hormones.
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)
Less common symptoms include: (5)
Dry, thinning hair
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
Certain autoimmune diseases can trigger hypothyroidism. The leading cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks thyroid tissue.
Other risk factors include:
The presence of another autoimmune disorder, such as celiac disease. (6)
Gender. Women are more likely than men to develop this disease.
Pituitary gland disorders
Radiation of the thyroid gland
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue are similar to those of hypothyroidism and are said to include:
Weight gain and other metabolic disorders
Insomnia or other sleep issues
A compromised immune system
Lack of focus
Weight loss (sometimes)
Reliance on caffeine or other stimulants to provide energy
Though there is no scientific evidence for adrenal fatigue, a couple of conditions cause adrenal impairment affecting the adrenal glands' cortisol production: primary adrenal insufficiency and secondary adrenal insufficiency.
Neither of these conditions involves tired adrenal glands.
Primary Adrenal Insufficiency
Primary adrenal insufficiency also called Addison's disease, occurs when the adrenal glands cannot make enough cortisol. The main cause is an autoimmune reaction attacking the adrenal cortex's cells that make 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, does not signal the adrenal glands to make cortisol. (The pituitary gland does not produce enough of the hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) that tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol.)
Fatigued adrenal glands do not cause it.
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 this disorder can include: (9)
Mental illnesses, such as depression
Low blood pressure
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
Irregular menstrual periods
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
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 test 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:
Salmon and other fish
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
Take up a relaxing hobby
Practice progressive muscle relaxation
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