Adrenal fatigue — the reason you are so tired

February 24, 2012

Diet, Fatigue, Health

Adrenal function can be done through a simple saliva test. A number of treatment options are available, depending on the case and results found.

by Dr. Tricia Pingel — 

Imagine that you are walking through the woods one afternoon and come upon a bear. Instant fear elevates your adrenaline levels and sets off your fight-or-flight instinct. You turn and run, not looking back, until you are at a safe distance from the animal.

Only after you are out of harm’s way does your adrenaline level return to normal and your body calms down. This is how an adrenal gland operates, unless you are experiencing any of the three stages of adrenal fatigue.

Three stages of adrenal fatigue

Stage one — Normally functioning adrenal glands produce many hormones, the most important being cortisol, which helps the body deal with stress. Stage one of adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands increase production of cortisol. When cortisol levels elevate, the response is similar to that of seeing a bear in the woods and becoming frightened. In this stage, the body will stay in a high-stress state, never calming down and never being able to escape the bear.

High cortisol levels that occur in stage one usually cause increased sugar cravings, anxiety and depression.

Stage two — In stage two, cortisol levels are unstable and fluctuate up and down, sometimes from week to week, day to day or even hour to hour. A person who suffers this stage of adrenal fatigue can feel fine one day and be extremely exhausted the next. The adrenal glands will first give the body a low period (where it does not pump any cortisol), but then it becomes stressed and compensates by pumping too much.

In stage two a person will generally crave even more sugar to increase energy levels.

Stage three — The third stage in adrenal fatigue is complete exhaustion. The adrenal glands cease to pump out hormones, which causes low levels of cortisol, serotonin, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and epinephrine. A person generally feels very depressed in the third stage.

For those who reach this stage and seek medical help, physicians will often put them on antidepressant drugs instead of testing adrenal gland function.

Effects on the body

Adrenal fatigue can be very taxing on the body. Not only does it affect the immune system but also gut health. It can affect the stomach’s intestinal lining, breaking down the integrity of the intestines and causing diarrhea, constipation, inflammation and irritable bowel syndrome.

Hormones such as progesterone, estrogen and DHEA are affected by adrenal function. Production of these hormones decreases as the adrenal glands begin making more cortisol. Lower levels of these hormones can cause many complications.

Cortisol levels affect blood pressure, elevating it when more cortisol is produced and lowering blood pressure with less cortisol. Over time, blood pressure will stay elevated, cholesterol levels will be higher and a chance for the development of diabetes exists.

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue

  • Fatigue, trouble getting out of bed
  • Insomnia
  • Afternoon lows — extreme fatigue mid-afternoon
  • Sugar cravings
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Inability to handle everyday stresses
  • Light-headedness upon standing
  • Sick often — cough, sore throat, cold and flu
  • Thyroid disorder
  • Hot flashes not associated with menopause

Treatment options

Testing adrenal function is done through a simple saliva test. A number of different treatment options are available, depending on the case and the results found.

People live very busy and hectic lives. They often burn the candle at both ends and do not take the time they need to relax and bring the body out of stress mode. A huge part of treatment is stress control. This can be done through meditation, yoga, running, reading or however the individual is able to calm the body down.

A healthy diet is also very important for optimal adrenal function and should consist of fewer sugary and carbohydrate-based foods. Breakfast and lunch should never be skipped, and should include more protein-based foods and vegetables with small portions of complex carbs. People too busy to eat most likely have adrenal issues, and they need to take a few minutes to relax and enjoy a bowl of oatmeal or a piece of fruit.

Adrenal fatigue is often treated with nutrients, as well as B and C vitamins. Some herbs that are commonly used are rhodiola, ginseng and glycyrrhiza (licorice).

It is important to note that each person is different and, therefore, each treatment is different. Those who feel they may suffer from adrenal fatigue should always consult a naturopathic physician before beginning to take any herb.


Dr. Tricia Pingel is a naturopathic medical doctor located in Scottsdale, Ariz. She treats a variety of conditions, including menopausal symptoms with bio-identical hormone replacement, infertility, thyroid disorders, anxiety/depression, gastrointestinal concerns, food allergies, celiac disease, IBD and more. or 602-845-8949.

Reprinted from AZNetNews, Volume 30, Number 3, June/July 2011.



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