We estimate that around 80% of the population in the Western world suffers from adrenal fatigue at least once. It is a defining condition of our modern, fast-paced lives, and it puts an immense amount of pressure on the adrenal glands and the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response.
Chronic stress has become so common that it is seen as normal. In fact, some people wear it as a badge of honor to express how hard they work and how many different roles and tasks they juggle. The problem is that the organs and systems that have to compensate for this constant burden are susceptible to burn-out, and then the body is left exposed to the destructive effects of stress without its main defense mechanisms.
You can’t fight your own body and win, and that’s exactly what people are doing when they are going through chronic stress and adrenal fatigue, yet still keep pushing themselves. At some point, they collapse in exhaustion and go to doctors to try to figure out what is going on, and hope it will just be a pill away from being fixed.
But if you think like that, you will run into two problems immediately. First of all, most conventional medical practitioners do not recognize (and therefore do not diagnose and treat) Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) as a medical condition. Lab tests for AFS are unreliable, as it differs widely from person to person, and the stress hormones the tests look at can vary depending on the time of day or your state while taking the sample. Stress hormones naturally fluctuate.
The second problem is that adrenal fatigue cannot be “fixed” with a pill or a couple of days of rest. Just as it took weeks, months, and even years, to get to a state that is bothersome enough to make you go to a doctor, it will take time to recover as well. Of course, with the right treatment plan, you can make faster progress and begin to feel relief early on.
But what is adrenal fatigue anyway, and how does it differ from other similar conditions?
Although Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and AFS share many symptoms, they are not the same condition. The causes of CFS are not yet understood, but we know that AFS is caused by chronic stress, whether physical or psychological.
When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands secrete anti-stress hormones, with cortisol being the main one, to help bring your system back to a state of homeostasis. Your adrenals are part of the NEM’s hormonal response, though they are linked to all the organs and system of the NEM.
If the stress becomes chronic, your adrenals have to keep pumping out cortisol in a way they are not made for, and they begin to dysregulate. In the beginning stages of AFS, your cortisol levels are higher than normal, and that causes a host of problems, but when your adrenals are exhausted, their cortisol levels drop, and that can create even bigger issues.
Cortisol is responsible for important functions like regulating blood pressure and blood glucose levels, maintaining heart and blood vessel function, suppressing the immune system, and neutralizing inflammation. So you can imagine how your body would be impacted if these functions are out of balance.
The Phases And Symptoms Of Adrenal Fatigue
The adrenal glands are part of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis, which acts as a hormone cascade in response to stress. When you experience stress, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to secrete ACTH, a hormone that will stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
The HPA’s functioning will vary depending on the stage of adrenal fatigue you’re in, and there are four distinct yet connected stages. Symptoms also vary depending on the stage.
In the first stage of AFS, your ACTH levels begin to rise in order to stimulate your adrenals to work harder as a responsible response to the growing demand for cortisol. At this point, you will not experience any symptoms, though if you are under heavy stress, you can conclude that your adrenals and your NEM are at risk of dysregulation. And, of course, the earlier you catch AFS the easier the recovery.
As you enter the second stage, your adrenals are so overworked they don’t produce the amount cortisol required. Although you cortisol levels now resemble those prior to the state of chronic stress, the high-stress levels are making your pituitary gland secrete more and more ACTH in order to stimulate the adrenals. So basically, the signal and stimulation are there, but the adrenals are now too tired to comply.
With the second stage, you may begin to feel some of the typical AFS symptoms begin to surface, such as insomnia, mood disturbances, sluggishness, PMS, weight gain, and low libido. Fatigue, which is the main symptom of AFS, will start to show up here and there, though not enough to be too obvious yet.
Stage three marks the adrenal exhaustion phase, and the fatigue becomes more persistent. Lowered immunity may also expose you to frequent infections, and together with the fatigue, will make it much more difficult for you to function properly. At this point, the rest of the NEM is strongly impacted, and your metabolic, cardiotoxic, neuroeffector, inflammation, and detoxification responses take a hit.
With each of these NEM circuits getting out of balance, you will experience symptoms accordingly – from blood glucose fluctuations to heart palpitations, to brain fog, to digestive issues, to slowed detoxification, and many more.
With the fourth and final stage, your adrenals are at risk of complete failure, and your symptoms now are not so distinguishable from the symptoms of Addison’s disease. Adrenal failure is a medical emergency, and it is characterized by such extreme fatigue and debilitation that it becomes very challenging to do the smallest thing. Nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, weight loss, and other severe symptoms make it seem as though the body is breaking down.
Hopefully, you will take the necessary steps before getting to this stage so you can recover and regain your state of health. Adrenal fatigue recovery consists of getting a lot of rest and sleep, eating an adrenal fatigue diet, supplementing when necessary, detoxifying your system if needed, mild physical activity such as adrenal breathing and adrenal yoga exercises, and stress management techniques.
The great thing about this treatment plan is that it can help you become healthier overall. And as your adrenals get stronger, any other conditions you may have will also begin to improve. But, it is highly recommended that you don’t attempt to make these changes on your own, as there are many factors at play that could backfire. Having the guidance of a trained professional will make the recovery process safe and suitable for your unique state.