Here is the first part of my article, which published in the May 2014, Womens Health and Fitness Magazine.
Adrenal fatigue or reductionist thinking?
Often, being given a distinct diagnoses that can relate to modern living can make sense to us, a modern condition that makes sense of the hectic lifestyle and the symptoms that we have been experiencing. Over the last decade there has been much literature on a so called ‘Adrenal fatigue’, whose symptoms are wide reaching from fatigue, digestive dysfunction, weight and sleep issues.
Walther Canon and Hans Seyle, probably the most prominent scientists to study and interpret the mechanics behind, adrenaline, cortisol and the stress response, showed that when rats were exposed to high levels of stress, they developed issues such as ulcers, intestinal bleeding and then finally death. The common suggested auto immune diseases that are becoming more prevalent, such as intestinal hyper-permeability or leaky gut can therefore be interpreted as symptoms of chronic stressors.
The premise of adrenal fatigue works something along these lines.
- You are exposed to stress
- You produce stress hormones (Alarm phase)
- Your body returns to normal
- You become stressed again on a regular basis
- You enter the adaptation phase
- You constantly maintain the stress response through permanent exposure
- The adrenal glands become exhausted
- Suggestion that you have adrenal fatigue or exhaustion phase
There are many problems with this interpretation and deduction of adrenal fatigue, and how many practitioners treat this reductionist diagnosis. If your adrenals were truly fatigued, you may not actually be with us anymore and ultimately be dead. Cortisol which is produced by the adrenal glands, is the primary hormone that directs immune function, inflammation and is involved in virtually all aspects of body function. Certainly the terms hypocortisolemia, too little cortisol and hyper, too much cortisol make sense, and that is what a typical adrenal stress test tells us. Are we producing too much or not enough cortisol , on that particular day, based around a suggested norm?
Cortisol does go up and down, and probably outside of suggested arbitrary norms especially if you experience or engage in the following:
- Excessive physiological or structural stress, intense exercise without adequate rest.
- Psychological stress
- Diet or fail to eat enough calories, eating too much may also contribute over time
- Eat a so called healthy diet based upon current guidelines
- Fail to get adequate sleep.
- Chronic exposure to environmental pollutants
The longer one stays in a state of chronic stress the more compromised all aspects of body function become. This can ultimately result in hormone, immune and metabolic systems dysfunction.
The positives from treating the aspects of adrenal fatigue are a compliance of those suffering from the suggested condition, to address aspects of why they have got to this current state of affairs. Overworking, too much or too little exercise, not enough sleep and psychological stress recognition can be aspects that can be changed with great effect.
To create effective change, should we not consider other aspects of function that would treat the root cause, rather than plaster over the symptom? Lets take a look at the cross over between symptoms of both adrenal and thyroid dysfunction, which have roots in energy and digestion. You may start to notice that there are many symptoms that you may experience a mixture of both and to highlight adrenal fatigue alone is problematic. The thyroid gland supports energetic process’s and when this becomes compromised we call on the adrenal glands to act in a supporting role. Addressing energy, metabolism and digestion, should be the target of any lifestyle or therapeutic interventions.
|Adrenal symptoms||Thyroid symptoms|
Low blood pressure
Sweats a lot
Need to wear sunglasses
Weight gain or loss
|Difficult to lose or gain weight
Feel cold hands and feet
However treating adrenal fatigue in isolation with adaptogenic herbs, restriction of sugar and other stimulants as is often the case, may be unwarranted and most importantly ineffective in resolving these issues. Treating any system in isolation is reductionist and often gives you at best, reductionist results. The complex interaction of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal-Thyroid-Gonadal axis is a system that helps our body manage many global aspects of our body’s function and therefore addressing adrenal balance leaves a gaping hole in your treatment strategy. Consider that the adrenals and in particular cortisol production can be a slave to the your environment, nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle choices. Take stock, address what may be affecting your stress hormone production, If these factors can be changed do so. Stress is a double-edged sword. We need a certain amount of stress to improve our physiological function. Constant exposure to stress decreases our biological state.
Raising biological wholeness such as energy levels, cognition and increasing balance throughout the hormonal system can give much better results than focusing on the adrenals. Remember that the adrenals and ultimately cortisol production elevate in response to, what you eat, or fail to eat, the environment, psychological and physiological stress. All of these aspects are changeable. In the next article I suggest some strategies that can be used to improve energy and lower adrenal stress.