Chances are that you’ve heard of adrenal fatigue at some point. Although there is some controversy over whether or not adrenal fatigue is a legitimate diagnosis, there’s no doubt the symptoms are very real.
With adrenal fatigue, some people are told that their symptoms are all in their heads for months before getting a proper diagnosis. Others only have a handful of their symptoms treated with no clear reason why they had those symptoms in the first place.
Lab tests don’t always give a perfect picture of what’s going on inside your body. And unless your doctor is knowledgeable about a disorder like adrenal fatigue, it’s easy for it to be overlooked or dismissed. This is why it’s so important to educate yourself on what to look for and how to eliminate stressors that aggravate your adrenals.
The truth is that most people will experience the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue at least once during their lives. Adrenal fatigue begins with brain fog, weight gain, and depression and can lead to hair loss, lethargy, and bowel issues.
Does this sound familiar?
If so, adrenal fatigue could be the hidden cause of your health ailments.
Adrenal Gland Function
Before we get too far into adrenal fatigue, I’d like to explain what your adrenal glands are and how they work in your body. Your adrenal glands sit over your kidneys. And while they’re fairly small at only three inches in length, the adrenal glands have a big job to do.
Your adrenal glands play a significant role in your body. They secrete more than 50 hormones necessary for life, including epinephrine, cortisol, DHEA, progesterone, and testosterone. Since the adrenals produce so many essential hormones, they’re responsible for many of the functions we need to stay alive and healthy.
The adrenal glands are responsible for: 
- Energy production
- Hormone production
- Fluid and electrolyte balance
- Fat storage
- Sex steroids
One hormone, in particular—cortisol—is extremely important for keeping our body systems in balance, as well as protecting our cells. Too much cortisol weakens the immune system, setting in motion increased susceptibility to infections and cancer. On the other hand, too little leads to an overactive immune system and autoimmune disease.
Cortisol is responsible for: 
- Controlling the strength of the immune system
- Normalizing blood sugar
- Reducing inflammation
- Regulating metabolism
- Assisting in memory formulation
- Regulating blood pressure and electrolyte balance
Is Adrenal Fatigue Real? If So, What is Adrenal Fatigue?
The short answer is yes. Adrenal fatigue is real.
Those who suffer from adrenal fatigue will tell you that it really causes problems and disrupts their daily lives. The truth is many people deal with adrenal fatigue at some point in their lives. This is why it’s vitally important to understand what adrenal fatigue is so you can recognize the symptoms and even eliminate the source of the problem.
Your adrenal glands manufacture adrenaline, which helps you spring into action during times of stress.3 They’ve even been nicknamed the “glands of stress.” But the adrenal glands are also the first glands to fail during prolonged or intense periods of stress. The problem with stressors is they are “cumulative.” Their impact tends to add up in the body over time until your adrenal glands just can’t take anymore.
Adrenal fatigue or dysfunction used to be rare but is now all too common. This is because we live in a stressful world far different from what our bodies evolved to deal with. When you combine this with other lifestyle factors that further aggravate the adrenals, it’s no wonder so many people are dealing with symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Lifestyle factors that stress the adrenal glands include:
- Lack of relaxation
- Sleep deprivation
- Poor eating habits
- Excessive caffeine intake
- Environmental toxins
How Does HPA Axis Dysfunction Relate?
Although the term adrenal fatigue is widely known, I’ve found the lesser known cause of adrenal fatigue and the cascade of symptoms that follow is HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) dysfunction. HPA axis dysfunction is an alteration in your stress response over time that causes a domino effect which results in your body becoming desensitized to stress hormones.
It’s important to note that adrenal fatigue should not be confused with another medical condition called Addison’s disease where the adrenal glands are not functioning at all.4 While Addison’s disease is often caused by autoimmunity, adrenal fatigue is largely caused by stress along with a host of other factors, such as accumulation of toxic exposures, hidden infections, hormone imbalance, or even nutritional deficiencies.
Twelve Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms to Watch For
The ability to handle stress, physical or emotional, is crucial for human survival. Your body has a complete set of stress modulation systems in place, and the control center is the adrenal glands. When these glands become dysfunctional, your body’s ability to handle stress and fight infections decreases.
Signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:5
- Mild depression or anxiety
- Multiple food and/or inhalant allergies
- Weight gain
- Increased effort to perform daily tasks
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Dry and thin skin
- Low blood sugar
- Low body temperature
- Unexplained hair loss
- Alternating diarrhea or constipation
Seven Causes of Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal fatigue is often caused by excessive stress, which can be from many sources.6 Chemical toxicity and nutritional depletion are among the physical causes. Mental, emotional, or spiritual stress may be a major factor, too. Financial, family, or other stress may also contribute to burnout. Even infections can play a role. You need to identify the stressor causing your symptoms to properly treat adrenal fatigue.
1. Nutritional Deficiencies
Many people today have subclinical deficiencies of essential nutrients, such as B vitamins, vitamins A, C, and E, magnesium, zinc, and other trace elements. Our adrenals require vital nutrients in order to properly function. On top of that, when under stress, your need for nutrients is even greater.
Sadly, the standard American diet is at many times lacking in micronutrients.7 Incorporating whole, unprocessed foods into your diet gives your adrenals the macro- and micronutrients they require to properly function.
Things we ingest that stress the adrenals include:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Processed foods, additives, and chemicals
- Genetically modified ingredients
- Corn, soy, and canola
- Foods low in protein
- Excessive sugar
- Foods low in quality fats and high in unhealthy fats
- Poor quality water (affects the oxygenation of your tissues and makes your body work that much harder to adequately perfuse your vital organs and tissues.
Reasons why many diets are low in nutrients the adrenal require include:
- Produce grown in nutrient-depleted soils
- Soil today contains a fraction of the magnesium present in soil hundreds of years ago
- Unhealthy eating habits, such as eating in the car or on the run, further diminish the value derived from food and our ability to digest it
- Allergic reactions to foods, such as wheat and dairy products, can damage the intestines and reduce the absorption of nutrients as well
Foods to eat to support your adrenal glands include:
- Healthy fats
- Olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, ghee, and butter
- Eggs, meat, poultry, and fish
- Healthy carbohydrates
- Potatoes, beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
- Dark greens, purple cabbage, red apples, green kiwis, green beans, squash, etc.
2. Environmental Toxins
Toxic chemicals often play a large role in adrenal burnout. Every day, we’re exposed to thousands of chemicals in air, water, and food. Check out these 10 tips to decrease your toxin load.
Common environmental toxins are found in:
- Dental products
- Opt for natural, organic toothpaste
- Beauty products
- Avoid products with parabens, phthalates, ammonia, and sodium lauryl sulfate
- Cleaning products
- Opt for natural, organic cleaners
- Over-the-counter and prescribed medications
Toxins may also be generated internally due to microbial imbalances in the gut and impaired digestion. When food is not properly digested, it may ferment in the intestines, producing harmful substances that are absorbed through the intestinal lining. A healthy body has the ability to eliminate many toxins on a daily basis.
However, as adrenal weakness develops, the body’s ability to eliminate toxins decreases. This produces a vicious cycle in which weaker adrenals impair the elimination of all poisons, which then further weakens the adrenals.
3. Chronic Infections
Chronic infections contribute greatly to the toxic load of the body. Infections also trigger inflammation and stress that must be countered using the adrenal hormones cortisol and cortisone.8 Chronic infections may originate in infected teeth and gums, though infections can be located anywhere in the body.
One of the most commonly overlooked causes of adrenal fatigue are intestinal infections that give rise to an inflammatory response. Such infection can occur subclinically with no obvious signs at all. Infections in the gut, including giardia, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), fungal dysbiosis, and h. pylori, are just a few that may contribute to adrenal dysfunction.
4. Stimulants or Excessive Exercise
Stimulants damage the adrenal glands by pushing the secretion of stress hormones and adrenaline. Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol are among the most common culprits. Over time, this depletes the body of essential neurotransmitters.
Other less obvious, but no less important, stimulants may include:
- Feelings of anger
- Loud music
- Tragic news
- Movies with suspense or excessive violence
Other activities that may act as stimulants include:
- Vigorous exercise
- Recreational drug use
- High-risk sports
- Surfing, diving, or extreme climbing if done in excess may deplete the adrenals
Most of these activities provide a temporary “high,” which is caused in part by the secretion of high amounts of adrenal hormones. Over time, however, this weakens the adrenals and can eventually lead to adrenal depletion and insufficiency.
5. Toxic Emotions
Uncontrolled emotions are another cause of adrenal burnout. These include habitual worry, anger, or fear. This applies particularly to high strung, Type A, nervous individuals as they are especially prone to adrenal burnout. “Don’t worry, be happy” is a great prescription for adrenal fatigue.
Prayer and meditation release calming neurotransmitters.9 They also take the body from a state of fight or flight into the parasympathetic mode of relaxation, which is extremely helpful in healing adrenal fatigue. In addition, cultivating an attitude of gratitude can do wonders for your adrenals.
Any excessive stress can deplete the adrenals.10 An excessive workload, long hours, lack of sleep, or emotional stress are common. Other stressors in cities are noise and electromagnetic pollution. Cell phones, microwave towers, and appliances—such as televisions, cell phones, wearable electronics, microwave ovens, and computers—give off strong EMF fields that can be stressful to our bodies.
7. Other Causes
Other stressors that can lead to adrenal fatigue include:
- Chronic illness
- Chronic pain
- Gluten intolerance
- Malabsorption and poor digestion
- Sleep deprivation
- Excessive caffeine intake
Adrenal Fatigue Quiz
Take this simple quiz to find out if you might have adrenal fatigue or adrenal dysfunction.
- Do you have difficulty awakening from sleep in the morning, often hitting the snooze button multiple times?
- Do you need coffee to get going in the morning?
- Have you recently gained weight, especially around your midsection?
- Do you feel like you get every cold and flu bug that is going around or that your immune system is shot?
- Do you have more difficulty dealing with stress and deadline pressure than you used to?
- Do you have a lack of interest in sex?
- Do you frequently feel lightheaded upon standing quickly?
- Do you struggle with poor memory or “brain fog”?
- Do you feel especially tired in the mornings and afternoons between 3-5 p.m.?
- Do you feel the need to snack or eat frequently to maintain normal blood sugar levels?
- Do you crave salty foods?
- Do you feel extremely tired between 7-10 p.m. but get a second wind if you stay up later?
- If you are female, do you struggle with PMS symptoms (such as heavy bleeding, moodiness, and fatigue) during your menstrual cycle? If you are male, do you feel like your stamina, energy, and ability to maintain muscle have decreased?
- Do you frequently have pain in the upper back or neck for no apparent reason?
- Do you notice an improvement of symptoms when your stress levels are lower, such as during a vacation or time away from work?
If you answered “yes” to more than 10 of the questions above, you may have adrenal dysfunction, often referred to as adrenal fatigue.
Minimize Stressors to Help Support Your Adrenal Glands
Chronic stress is very common in Western society. Most people are experiencing stress in some form from things such as work, illness, death, or marital disruption. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the amount of stress overextends the capacity of the body to compensate and recover.
Since stress is extremely difficult to completely avoid, I created Adrenal Essentials and Adrenal Cortex. These are specifically formulated to support your body’s response to stress, support healthy adrenal function, provide energy, and support metabolic function.
Another key supplement to have in your arsenal to support overall adrenal health is HPA Axis Daytime Maintenance. This helps support a healthy hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to promote a healthy response to stress. I also have an entire line of products I find very helpful in managing stress and maximizing adrenal function.
If you’re concerned you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, I encourage you to find a Functional Medicine doctor near you. If you’re local to my office in Colorado, you can contact me to set up an appointment. I’d love to help support you on your journey to optimal health and wellness.
Click here to visit the Dr. Jill Health Store for products to help with Adrenal Stress.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.