You’re waking up feeling exhausted every day. Your body feels sore all the time. Your cravings for sweets or salty snacks are through the roof. Your mood is all over the place. And, now that you think about it, you’ve been suffering from a lot of stress lately. Sound familiar?
This collection of symptoms is relatively common, especially during periods of chronic stress. If you’ve been searching for a solution, you might come to believe that these problems are linked to your hormones—the chemicals that help regulate all kinds of bodily processes and keep you stable. But if someone has suggested that what you’re experiencing is “adrenal fatigue,” you might want to think again.
What is adrenal fatigue—and is it real?
Adrenal fatigue is a term intended to explain a group of symptoms that commonly plague people overwhelmed with ongoing physical or mental stress.
It’s said to describe a state in which the body—which is working overtime to stabilize your mood and health while you navigate stress—cannot keep up with the demands your stress causes. Specifically, adrenal fatigue references the inability of the adrenal glands, which sit above your kidneys, to produce enough of hormones like cortisol (the stress hormone). The lack of hormones is supposedly what causes negative side effects.
Adrenal fatigue is believed to produce the following “nonspecific” symptoms:
- Mood problems
- Salt and sugar cravings
- Stimulant reliance
- Weakened immune system
- Body aches
- Digestive problems
The trouble with adrenal fatigue is that it is not a generally accepted medical diagnosis. There is no scientific proof that the adrenal system operates in this way. In fact, the adrenal glands typically produce more cortisol when you’re faced with excessive stress—a phenomenon that can have its own negative effects on your health.
Adrenal fatigue and its supposed symptoms stand in contrast to a condition called adrenal insufficiency, which is an accepted medical diagnosis. With adrenal insufficiency, the adrenal glands fail to produce adequate hormones—the very thing adrenal fatigue claims to do! However, adrenal insufficiency is usually caused by damage to the adrenal glands or a problem with the pituitary gland.
Many symptoms of adrenal insufficiency do not match those of adrenal fatigue, though. These include unexplained weight loss, joint pain, nausea and vomiting, low blood pressure, dry skin and abdominal pain. Fatigue, dizziness and brain fog are also common. Thus, it’s clear that these two problems are not the same and should not be confused for one another.
Experts believe that the symptoms people with “adrenal fatigue” experience are common to many underlying health problems—from thyroid disorders to mental illnesses to sleep disorders to heart and lung diseases. Thus, the danger in accepting an unproven diagnosis of adrenal fatigue is twofold.
First, you might not get a diagnosis for the underlying health problem that’s really plaguing you. If left untreated, that problem could worsen over time and make you feel even worse.
Second, common treatments for adrenal fatigue involve supplements or medications designed for adrenal support. Taking these products when your adrenal glands are working normally could cause even larger problems by potentially hampering your hormone production.
More research on adrenal fatigue is necessary, but for now, it’s probably best to turn a skeptical eye to the condition and its treatments.
Potential explanations for adrenal fatigue symptoms
It’s normal to want an answer to explain your chronic feelings of fatigue and moodiness. These feelings can be overwhelming and often cause more stress on top of what you’re already going through! But this doesn’t mean you should accept adrenal fatigue as an “easy answer.”
Additionally, the unproven nature of adrenal fatigue does not mean that chronic stress can’t cause those common symptoms or take its toll on your health. Stress can absolutely harm you from head to toe—it’s just unlikely that it’s due to your adrenal glands becoming overwhelmed. These symptoms should still be taken seriously.
The first step in finding a solution to your symptoms is to speak with your doctor. Through examinations and tests, your primary care physician may be able to identify another underlying cause, whether it’s depression, hyperthyroidism or diabetes. In some cases, no underlying problem will be apparent. This can be frustrating to hear, since a lack of diagnosis also means a lack of a simple solution.
Fortunately, no diagnosis might also mean you are perfectly healthy—you just need to find healthy coping mechanisms for your stress! Lifestyle changes can make a big difference here, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, good sleep, stress-relieving activities like meditation or yoga and a great support system. Identifying your specific stressors and removing them from your life can also help ease the burden you’re putting on your body overall.
Often, making small changes to ease your stress can make big changes in the way you feel each day. This might take more effort than taking an adrenal support supplement would, but the end result can have a profound impact on your wellbeing.