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Feeling Wired and Tired? How Adrenal Fatigue Affects You

What are adrenal glands?

Adrenal glands are two triangle shaped glands sitting on top of our kidneys. They secrete hormones to help us cope with stress and help regulate our immune function, metabolism, blood sugar and blood pressure.


Hormones secreted by the adrenal glands (aka Stress Hormones)

  • Cortisol – regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, serum sodium level, inhibit inflammation, inhibit immune function, inhibit wound healing, inhibit bone, collagen and muscle formation, regulate mood and sleep.

  • Aldosterone – regulate serum sodium level, blood pressure.

  • Epinephrine, norepinephrine – regulate blood pressure.

What kind of stress stimulates secretion of stress hormones?

  • Physical: pain, illness, low temperature, low blood sugar, changes in circadian rhythm

  • Chronic infections, toxins (heavy metal, mycotoxins), chronic inflammation can increase our body's demand for cortisol too

  • Mental emotional stress; including past traumas, PTSD

What is adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is a dysfunction of our adrenal glands, either in excess (secreting too much cortisol) or insufficiency (secreting too little cortisol). It is also referred to as functional adrenal insufficiency or functional adrenal excess. It is different from Cushing syndrome (pathological adrenal excess) and Addison’s disease (pathological adrenal insufficiency).

Adrenal fatigue is a “functional” disorder, which means even though the adrenal function is low or high, it has not reached the severity and meet the definition of a disease. However, the disorder is significant enough to cause systemic symptoms.


Short term stress

Alarm stage

Adrenal glands secrete more cortisol and epinephrine to cope with stress

  • Temporary elevation of cortisol and epinephrine

  • Usually presents with: anxiety, palpitations, chest tightness, sweating, insomnia or poor sleep

Long term stress

Resistance stage

  • Adrenal glands still have enough reserve and fuels to produce cortisol and resist stress

  • Elevated cortisol level

  • Usually presents with:

  • Weight gain, edema

  • Elevated blood sugar and blood pressure

  • Irritability, anger, insomnia

  • Acid reflux (increased gastric acid production)

  • Decrease in muscle mass, poor stamina

  • Poor immune function

  • Female: low progesterone, estrogen dominate -> PMS, irregular menses, painful menstruation, heavy menstrual bleeding and other gynecological conditions (When there’s a large demand of cortisol production, progesterone is been shunted to make cortisol. In the long run, progesterone will become deficient.)

  • Male: low testosterone -> loss of muscle mass, low libido


Exhaustion stage

  • Happens when adrenal glands are exhausted and it can no longer produce adequate amount of cortisol

  • Low cortisol level

  • Usually presents with:

  • Fatigue that is not relived with sleep or rest, prolonged and extreme fatigue

  • Weight loss

  • Low blood pressure, low blood sugar, low serum sodium level

  • Frequent colds, colds that take a longer time to recover, poor wound healing

  • Signs and symptoms of inflammation

  • Depression, poor concentration, poor memory

  • Decreased muscle mass, poor stamina, poor endurance


Other symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue

  • Gastrointestinal – irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain

  • Immunological – allergic rhinitis, eczema, food allergy/sensitivity

  • Endocrinological – poor growth (in children), low thyroid function, inhibited ovulation, infertility

  • Musculoskeletal – osteoporosis

How to regulate your cortisol level with diet and lifestyle changes

  1. Well balanced diet - sufficient amount of proteins and vegetables, consume vitamin C rich foods, avoid sugar and caffeine.

  2. Avoid vigorous exercise, especially in the evenings - intense exercise can increase our demand for cortisol and raise our cortisol level, which can worsen symptoms at resistance or exhaustion stage. If you raise your cortisol level in the evening, it can also affect your sleep.

  3. Good sleep hygiene - go to bed before midnight, relieve stress before going to bed, ensure a restful environmental without disturbances.

  4. Stress management - try out different ways of relieving stress, for example: moderate exercise, meditation, essential oils, flower essence, emotional freedom technique (EFT), diaphragmatic breathing, counseling, traveling, etc.

  5. Work on past traumas - psychotherapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), counseling, EFT, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), flower essence and homeopathy can all be helpful at reducing the intensity of response to past traumatic events.

  6. Heal the body - resolve any underlying health conditions, especially chronic infections, environmental toxins and chronic inflammation.