Most people have heard the terms “adrenal fatigue” and “adrenal stress”. Sometimes, these two terms get combined under one umbrella term known as “adrenal dysfunction”. However, fewer people have a clear understanding of the difference between adrenal fatigue and adrenal stress. Many use them interchangeably; this is not exactly correct.
Functional Medicine offers a fantastic approach to adrenal health. In order to heal the adrenal glands, it is important to understand what they do, why they do it, and how adrenal fatigue differs from adrenal stress.
Adrenal Function 101:
The adrenals are a pair of small glands that are situated on top of the kidneys. They perform several crucial functions, principally the task of managing stress. They are designed to handle both short- and long-term stress, largely by way of hormone secretion. Stress occurs whenever the nervous system senses anything that could be a potentially harmful threat. The adrenal glands give you a boost of energy when you need it. Examples include having to think on your feet, not having eaten in a while, combating an adversary, and so on.
During short-term stress, they produce mostly epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). These two hormones boost heart rate, blood pressure, muscle strength, and metabolism. During long-term or chronic stress, the adrenal glands gradually shift their hormone production to two other hormones: cortisol and DHEA.
Stress comes from many sources. Some examples include:
- Emotional/psychological stress (examples: anger, fear, relationship problems, traffic, hostile workplace or bullying at school)
- Physical stress (examples: injury, trauma, headaches/migraines, inflammation, aches and pains, repetitive strain)
- Biochemical stress (examples: toxicity, infection, allergies, food intolerance, metabolic problems)
If the stress lasts a short while and then goes away, no harm is done to the body. After all, that’s exactly what your adrenal glands are designed to do: handle immediate stress. However, if the stress becomes chronic, the adrenals produce too much cortisol and DHEA over a longer period of time. The body was not designed to handle prolonged or excessive stress hormone levels.
These hormones have “side effects” of their own, which include:
- Poor immune function (frequent infections, colds, and flu)
- Cravings for sweets
- Abdominal/belly weight gain (due to water retention)
- Excess blood sugar (which can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes)
- Paler skin
- Round face
In addition, it can become very difficult to get to sleep at night and short-term memory may begin to slip. Over time, these blood sugar and nervous system effects can lead to insomnia, diabetes, fibromyalgia, obesity, mood disorders such as depression, irritability, anxiety, and more.
Eventually, if the stress continues even further, the adrenal glands begin to get tired and wear out. This is known as adrenal fatigue. The adrenals begin to produce lower amounts of stress-management hormones because they simply don’t have any more left to give.
People with adrenal fatigue often experience symptoms such as:
- Low energy
- Greater difficulty getting going in the morning
- Afternoon “crash”
- Dependence upon caffeine
- Cravings for salty foods
- Tanner-toned skin
- Poor stamina (easily fatigued)
- Uncontrolled chronic inflammation
- May easily fall asleep, but cannot stay asleep
Evaluating adrenal gland function is the first step. After all, it is crucial to determine what’s happening with the adrenal glands, and at what time of day, in order to design a personalized healing plan. There is no single “cookie-cutter” adrenal protocol that works for everyone.
When we evaluate adrenal glands, we are checking for several things, each of which has clinical significance beyond what is immediately visible on the test:
- How much of each adrenal hormone is being produced by the body in one day?
- How much adrenal hormone is being produced at specific times of the day?
- Is the proper adrenal response intact or has it gone awry?
- Has the brain and its short-term memory function been compromised in any way?
- How do the different adrenal hormones compare and contrast with each other?
- How does each adrenal hormone compare with other laboratory test results?
No two people will be exactly alike. Therefore, there is no one “set protocol” that fits everyone. Some people will need to prolong the presence of cortisol in their bodies. This approach would not be appropriate for those with adrenal stress; in fact, this might make them feel worse.
Other people may need to have their cortisol levels reduced, which would not be a wise approach for someone with adrenal fatigue. Sample readings must be taken throughout the day so that we may gather a full picture of your adrenal function. This is because remedies for adrenal overactivity are not the same as those used for adrenal fatigue. Some people are in a transition from one stage to another; those people may need a combination. Therefore, the adrenal function must be evaluated thoroughly.
To address adrenal health, it’s only useful to use remedies for adrenal support after various sources of stress have been identified and minimized. Otherwise, any efforts to rebuild the adrenals may not be as effective. Again, we must eliminate the cause of the problem in order to begin to heal fully.
For help with adrenal stress and adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, poor blood sugar regulation, or the evaluation of adrenals, cellular functions, or any other health mystery or chronic symptom, you might be a candidate for a Functional Medicine approach. Please call our office at (210) 844-0277.
More Adrenal Information:
Adrenal Function and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – Pubmed.gov
Adrenal Insufficiency – Diagnosis and Treatment – Pubmed.gov