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Adrenal Fatigue or Dysfunction

Adrenal Fatigue or Dysfunction

Constantly wired and tired? With Adrenal fatigue or Dysfunction you may be feeling irritable with mood swings, have sweet cravings and a foggy memory?

Adrenal fatigue is a term used since the 1990’s by naturopaths and integrative doctors. More recently understanding the mechanisms that are involved with how cortisol (a hormone produced in the adrenal gland) affects the body has advanced.  Adrenal fatigue or dysfunction is becoming more understood and new information is showing that it is more about how the brain responds to stress than just your adrenals!

What are the signs and symptoms? General Adaptation Stages

  • Dizzy upon standing
  • Craving sweets
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Low thyroid function impacts: cold hands/feet, thinning hair, and low body temp (low metabolic function, memory fog
  • Low immunity, becoming sick easily
  • Chronic pain with fibromyalgia like symptoms
  • Premenstrual Syndrome or menopausal symptoms worsening

Modern medicine does not acknowledge adrenal fatigue as a condition. Research now clarifies that most situations resulting in low cortisol levels are not a result of your adrenals being “tired” or “fatigued”. The problem lies higher up the chain – the brain.  The problem is linked more with proper brain signalling to regulate the stress response. We are starting to believe the stress response is “in your head”. Now that is not to belittle or say that there is nothing going on; overall there definitely is.

Diseases of the adrenal glands do exist, such as Cushing’s and Addison’s disease. However, these diseases are considered uncommon.

More often it is long-term stress and various other physical or psychological traumas that lead to an abnormal stress response; but it is usually a brain issue more so than an actual adrenal response issue.

Finding out the why?

We treat each and every disease differently. How we treat someone who is legitimately struggling with fatigue due to a damaged dysfunctional adrenal gland is different from an abnormal stress response that is occurring in the brain. It may relate to adrenal dysfunction in metabolism and the clearance of cortisol. Adrenal and adaptogenic herbs and vitamins and other nutrients will support the adrenal glands with their needs. However, if the central point to the dysfunction is in the brain then we need different approach to the problem.

What is occurring with Adrenal Fatigue or Dysfunction?

The cause of adrenal fatigue is a brain signal malfunction. When the balance is out, the signs show up as altered hormone levels in blood tests. The adrenal glands’ lack of output is mainly occurring because the brain is not communicating to the adrenal glands appropriately.  The human body is intricately connected and when one area is out of balance it affects others. The more resilient you are is based on how the brain and adrenals talk back and forth. They are doing this all the time and this is heightened during times of stress.

When our body deals with stress acutely (a sudden event occurring), our cortisol and adrenaline increases to help mobilize energy and put out the fire of inflammation. At the same time, our other hormones stay at healthy levels so we can adapt. This is a normal situation, an alert mechanism from the body to remove you from a difficult or dangerous situation. It is not detrimental to our bodies in fact, a little of this is a good thing.  However, when our bodies have to deal with a continual stream of stress (chronic), over time, the impact on the body results in dysregulated hormones. When your body continues to produce cortisol for extended periods of time, due to an overactive stress response other hormones pay the price.

Cortisol the master stress hormone, is also released in times of low blood glucose, for example, when the body is in a fasting state overnight whilst sleeping.  This is why fasting when you are unwell, is not recommended. It is the prolonged release of cortisol at consistently high levels that results in symptoms such as decreased immunity, tendency to bruise easily, anxiety, irritability, skin eruptions, hormonal imbalances, sweet cravings, weight gain (cortisol indicated higher area of the abdomen), poor or compromised digestion as the body is in a consistent state of alarm in the initial stages and then over time exhaustion sets in. This progression is known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Each stage triggers signs and symptoms and the timing of progression is an individual thing. See below.

General Adaptation Stages

Cortisol production has a daily rhythm. It is secreted in a rhythmic pulsation fashion, higher in the morning and then tapering off throughout the day. Cortisol is designed to help stabilize blood sugar and help deal with stress and inflammation. Stress results in a dramatic rise in blood levels of glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids all provoked by cortisol.

Daily cortisol pattern


The more dysfunctional our adrenals become, the more we start progressing into deeper stages of adrenal fatigue where our brain (the master controller) is not able to communicate with our adrenals properly.

Below are examples of healthy and fatigued cortisol patterns. The question we now need to consider: Is it the brain axis malfunctioning, and what can we do to restore this imbalance?

Various Cortisol Patterns

Assessing the glands that help control and regulate stress is very important to your health. Your body is designed to be healthy, and part of being healthy means how you respond to stress. Your adrenals are instrumental in producing hormones throughout the day that are designed to do just that.

If extreme adrenal fatigue is a part of your life the cortisol pattern can be low in the morning and raise slightly in the evening which impacts sleep.

Which Tests?

The Dutch Test, measuring urinary cortisol, becomes a very useful tool in providing a comprehensive look at what is occurring.  Saliva testing shows free cortisol patterns throughout the day.  24hr Urine testing gives a better test for overall cortisol production and metabolism. DUTCH gives you it all!

How to treat?

There are various patterns to adrenal dysfunction, the most important aspect is determining what is causing the long-term stress. There are excellent adaptogenic herbs, activated B- Complex vitamins, minerals, ensuring hydration and a whole food diet, maintaining blood sugar levels, stress reduction techniques and mechanisms to improve the overall brain, HPA axis balance.

Determining Adrenal Dysfunction 

Count how many of the adrenal symptoms are present in your life.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Sweet cravings
  • Weight gain in the upper abdominal area
  • Dizzy when standing up from a laying position
  • Drinks more than 2 caffeinated beverages throughout the day
  • Memory loss – forgetful
  • Irritable and mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Constant Fatigue
  • Pain

If you have three or more symptoms, there may be a possibility that your HPA axis is under stress and needs support. Measuring using the DUTCH hormone urine test may help to put your health back on track.

Change begins with the first step! – Start your road back to health with Karen Green Naturopath

Gaining Health Naturally Naturopathy Brisbane, Sunshine Coast Qld

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