Stress: A cause of adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is a common condition that can be easily tested for and effectively treated.

by Dr. Sarv Varta K. Khalsa — 

Adrenal fatigue is one of the most common and under-diagnosed health conditions in modern society. We live fast-paced lives with busy schedules that don’t allow much time for rest and relaxation. Just the stress of daily responsibilities can eventually take its toll.

Our adrenal glands play a key role in allowing our bodies to adapt to stress. However, when the level of stress exceeds our body’s ability to cope and recover, adrenal fatigue develops. With our country at the beginning of a recession, there is no shortage of stress facing most Americans today.

What are the adrenal glands’ function?

The adrenals are the size of walnuts and located on top of the kidneys. They secrete many hormones that have widespread effects in the body. One of the most important hormones is cortisol, also called the “stress hormone.” Cortisol is produced in response to stress, which is a necessary protective mechanism for survival. It is also involved in the breakdown and distribution of fat. Dysregulation of cortisol production can lead to weight gain, especially in the abdominal area.

The adrenals also produce estrogen and progesterone. This becomes very important during a woman’s transition into menopause. As the ovaries decline in function, the adrenals take over as the main source of these hormones. If a woman’s adrenals are weak, the transition into menopause tends to be difficult, intensifying symptoms.

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Lack of concentration or “brain fog”
  • Insomnia
  • Mood changes
  • Decreased libido
  • Worsening symptoms of PMS
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Frequent colds and flu

What causes adrenal fatigue?

The simple answer is stress! Our bodies are exposed to various forms of stress — physical, as well as psychological.

Physical stress can occur from a prolonged illness, blood sugar imbalance or chronic pain. Psychological causes can include the death of a loved one, loss of a job or relationship, or everyday life stresses. Acute stress caused by things such as economic challenges are more noticeable, while some elements of chronic stress can be more insidious. A feeling of lack of control in your life or decreased levels of happiness are more subtle forms, but can have a tremendous impact on the adrenals over time.

The adrenal glands allow your body to cope with stress to a certain point but they eventually can’t keep up with the demand. At this point, cortisol levels start to decline. Symptoms can vary for each individual, but the universal symptom is fatigue.

Can I be tested for adrenal fatigue?

Yes! A simple test called the Adrenal Stress Index test can evaluate adrenal function. Multiple salivary samples are collected so the daily cortisol rhythm can be mapped out and then compared to a normal curve.

Levels should start off high in the morning and slowly decline through the day, being lowest at night. With adrenal dysfunction, cortisol levels often don’t follow the expected curve, or levels are consistently low.

Based on test results, an individualized treatment plan can be developed, depending on the pattern and level of dysfunction. It is important to remember that fatigue is a common symptom with many potential causes, so proper testing and diagnosis is vital. Other common conditions that cause fatigue can be ruled out with simple blood tests.

Make sure your physician orders a salivary cortisol test rather than a blood test, as it is a superior method of testing for adrenal dysfunction.

What should I do if I think I have adrenal fatigue?

The first step is to find a healthcare practitioner who is trained in appropriate testing and is knowledgeable about the adrenal hormone pathways involved.

Adrenal fatigue is a common condition that can be easily tested for and effectively treated. With increasing financial challenges looming, it is tempting to put healthcare at the bottom of our list of priorities — when, in fact, it should be near the top. Making conscious choices to safeguard your health and ensure that your adrenals don’t get fatigued will allow you to weather the stress of our current times and come out ahead in the end.


Sarv Varta K. Khalsa, N.M.D., is an associate at Arizona Natural Medicine, L.L.C., located in Chandler, Ariz. She is an integrative family practice physician with a special interest in women’s health. 480-722-2811 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 3, June/July 2008.

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