The Surprising Truth About Adrenal Fatigue

Last Update: June 28, 2024

Have you noticed yourself gaining weight easily, feeling weak and tired, or constantly battling stress and anxiety? These symptoms are all consistent with what some people call adrenal fatigue.

You’ll hear people complaining left and right about their adrenal glands “shot,” and a growing industry of adrenal supplements and tonics has popped up to to treat this popular condition. Meanwhile, many doctors claim there is no such thing as adrenal fatigue. Who is right? And, most importantly, how can you stay healthy and happy under the stress of modern life?

First, let’s get some background on the glands in question. The adrenal glands are two small lumps of tissue on top of our kidneys. They produce cortisol and other hormones that control our energy, weight, and response to stress.

Some medical conditions can cause these glands to stop working. The best example is adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s disease. This disease affects about 1 person out of every 100,000, and happens when the immune system destroys the adrenal glands.

Though Addison’s disease is widely accepted in modern medicine, adrenal fatigue is a different story. Those who believe in adrenal fatigue explain it as a mild version of adrenal insufficiency brought on by stress. But before we spend too much time dwelling on this concept, let’s delve into some of the myths about the adrenal glands.

Myth 1: The adrenal glands can get fatigued.

The truth is that stress is a killer. Stress can cause heart disease, weight gain, insomnia, anxiety, and lots of other things you’d really rather avoid. Of course, stress can affect your adrenals, but these glands never actually get fatigued. They’re also can’t get tired, burned out, or collapse.

Instead, the problems really occur when the delicate system in which the adrenals operate is thrown out of whack.

The adrenal glands work as part of several glands that control our energy and metabolism. This group of glands is known of as the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) axis. When we are healthy, this system is able to gently adjust the rhythm of adrenal hormones to meet our immediate needs. This condition has been called HPA stress, or more simply, adrenal stress.

Unlike adrenal fatigue, adrenal stress is very real. In the last 10 years, more than 930 studies have shown that your health hinges on the integrity of your adrenal rhythms. When these rhythms are not dialed in, they can cause you to gain weight more easily, feel exhausted, get sick more often, and even die earlier.

Scientists know that a large number of factors unique to modern life can make adrenal stress more of a problem today than ever before. These include processed foods, working shifts and odd hours, electromagnetic fields, environmental toxins, and inadequate sleep.

One key sign of adrenal stress is recognizing symptoms that occur at the same time every day. Maybe you find yourself feeling frazzled and anxious just after dinner most nights. Maybe your energy levels drop in the afternoon and you can barely function throughout the rest of the day. Maybe you find yourself waking up with your mind racing at 2 a.m. each night. The other thing that should make you question the health of your adrenal glands is the inability to lose weight. If you find diet and exercise just doesn’t work for you, or you end up regaining more weight than you lost, your adrenal glands may be sabotaging your efforts.

Myth 2: Your adrenals need lots of pills to stay healthy.

The whole idea behind adrenal fatigue is that your adrenal glands aren’t able to make enough cortisol. If that were the case, you could simply take cortisol pills or herbs to help your body produce your cortisol.

Because the real cause of the problem is the factors that disrupt our bodies’ rhythm, the cure for adrenal stress is restoring those rhythms to their proper patterns. Strategically using sunlight is one of the best documented ways to help.

Within an hour of waking up, expose yourself to bright sunlight or a light therapy box emitting at least 10,000 lux. Get at least half an hour of exposure without wearing sunglasses or looking directly at the source of light.

You can also try installing low wattage (40 watts or lower) red-colored light bulbs for your bedroom. For the last 50 minutes of your day, relax or read a book or journal in your bedroom, but don’t use any other sources of light or electronics. Also, make sure all the windows in your bedroom block any outside light and cover any lights on alarms, thermostats, or other appliances. This will help get your sleep cycle and internal rhythms back to normal.

Myth 3: Once you have adrenal stress, you’re stuck with it.

The last myth about adrenal disfunction is that you’re permanently stuck with this condition. Though adrenal stress is real, and can be debilitating, you can also correct it by resetting your body’s rhythms. In a clinical trial I conducted, I saw that changing your diet alone can correct eating rhythm by more than 50 percent in as little as one month.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

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Dr. Alan Christianson

Dr. Alan Christianson is an Arizona-based Naturopathic Physician who helps people overcome adrenal and thyroid disorders and achieve lasting fat loss. He authored the New York Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease. Dr. Christianson is the founding physician behind Integrative Health.

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