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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 – regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, and serum sodium levels; inhibits inflammation; inhibits immune function; inhibits wound healing; inhibits bone, collagen, and muscle formation; and regulates mood and sleep.

  • Aldosterone – regulates serum sodium level and blood pressure.

  • Epinephrine and norepinephrine – regulate blood pressure.

What kind of stress stimulates the secretion of stress hormones?

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

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

  • Mental and emotional stress, including traumas and 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 differs 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 meets 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 fuel to produce cortisol and resist stress

  • Elevated cortisol level

  • Usually presents with:

    • Weight gain, edema

    • High 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 dominant -> PMS, irregular menses, painful menstruation, heavy menstrual bleeding, and other gynecological conditions (When there’s a great demand for cortisol production, progesterone is shunted to make cortisol. In the long run, progesterone will become deficient.)

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

Exhaustion stage

  • This happens when adrenal glands are exhausted and can no longer produce an adequate amount of cortisol

  • Low cortisol level

  • Usually presents with:

    • Fatigue that is not relieved 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

Diet and lifestyle changes that can help regulate adrenal functions

  1. A well-balanced diet, which includes a sufficient amount of proteins and vegetables, consuming vitamin C-rich foods, and avoiding sugar and caffeine.

  2. Avoid vigorous exercise, especially in the evenings - intense exercise can increase our demand for cortisol and raise our cortisol level, worsening symptoms at the 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 bed, and ensure a restful environment without disturbances.

  4. Stress management - try 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 traumas - seeking help from trauma-informed therapists or psychologists; look into modalities like trauma-informed yoga, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), flower essence, and homeopathy. These can all help reduce the intensity of response to past traumatic events. (Recommended reading: The Body Keeps the Score.)

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


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