Overview of Adrenal Fatigue
Above our kidneys sit a pair of glands called the adrenal glands, which secrete
many hormones that help us cope with stress. They accomplish this through communications
with the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, both located in the brain, in a feedback
system called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It is the signaling between
the adrenal glands and the brain that regulate a variety of bodily processes during
threatening situations to help us react and escape if necessary. During this "fight-or-flight"
response, some blood vessels are dilated while others are constricted, redirecting
blood flow to the muscles. Nutrients that had been stored for energy may be released
and burned so that the body can respond quickly. The heart rate increases and the
reflexes become faster.
Clearly, all of these physiological changes would be ideal if the stress involved
being cornered by a wild animal in the jungle. If the stress is that we have deadlines
at work, financial worries, or concerns about our relationships, most of these responses
are not necessary. Occasional stress is good, as its discomfort coaxes us to get
things done. If the body remains in a perpetual state of stress, all these physiological
responses can also deplete us, leading to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.
Chronic stress can eventually shift our body into a perpetually imbalanced state
where the adrenal gland is unable to keep up with the body's demands. This advanced
complication of chronic stress is known as adrenal fatigue syndrome.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
In addition to the "stress hormones" mentioned above, the adrenal glands produce
a number of other hormones involved in other physiological functions. The glucocorticoids,
for example, help direct metabolism and regulate blood sugar levels, which may become
imbalanced if there is insufficient adrenal activity. Those with adrenal fatigue
might find themselves more easily prone to "sugar crashes" or find themselves with
intense salt or sugar cravings. Glucocorticoids also help control the immune response,
modulating inflammation responses, so those with adrenal fatigue might also become
more sensitive to infections, causing them to have to endure illnesses longer than
usual. Low levels of mineralcorticoid hormones, which help balance the body's sodium
and potassium levels, blood volume, and blood pressure, may also cause pronounced
changes in dietary habits and overall energy levels. In women, the adrenal gland
also produces testosterone, a reduction of which can cause lowered sex drive.
Secretion of cortisol, another adrenal hormone, normally fluctuates following a
day/night cycle, stimulated by light/dark patterns noted by the brain. Cortisol
levels are normally highest in the morning, decrease throughout the day, and reach
their lowest point several hours into sleep. Cortisol helps the body bounce back
from stress by returning it to a more normal, "resting physiological state, and
plays a wide variety of functions in metabolism, immunity, memory, and also plays
roles in making the body sensitive to other hormones, like epinephrine. Lowered
levels of cortisol can cause a person to become dehydrated, fatigued, run down,
and have difficulties thinking. A person will have significant difficulty getting
out of bed in the mornings and feel their energy continue to decline throughout
Risk Factors of Adrenal Fatigue
The lowered adrenal hormone secretion keeps a person's body in a perpetual state
of stress, since it reduces the body's capacity to deal with any kind of stress.
The fluctuations in blood sugar and metabolism, combined with becoming less active
due to exhaustion, can lead to weight gain. Because of the reduced immunity, adrenal
fatigue may also open the door for chronic infections, which can cause further medical
complications related to the infections themselves. The high blood pressure associated
with adrenal fatigue may also lead to numerous complications, including stroke,
heart attack, and heart failure.
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