Many health experts believe approximately 80% of the population suffers from some level of adrenal insufficiency, yet are only diagnosed when an extreme deficiency (Addison’s disease) or overproduction (Cushing’s disease) of the adrenal hormones are found in routine blood work. This means that many people are trying to manage their lives and daily activities with malfunctioning adrenal glands, which go undetected, not meeting the level of severity to diagnose disease.
The adrenal glands are a crucial part of the endocrine system although they are no bigger than a walnut. Your adrenal glands — small, peanut-shaped glands located next to your kidneys — are the body’s key producers of stress hormones. Located just above the kidneys, the adrenal glands produce more than 150 different hormones, including adrenaline (sometimes called epinephrine), cortisol, norepinephrine, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), the major stress hormones in our bodies, absolutely essential to health and vitality. When out of balance, the quality of our health and well-being becomes severely compromised. The adrenals are the body’s first line of defense and the primary component designed to resolve stress.
When adrenal glands are stressed, an autoimmune inflammatory response can occur throughout the entire body. Common cases are caused when the adrenal glands are producing some – but not enough – of the stress hormone, cortisol. This is known as adrenal fatigue.
Common causes and triggers of adrenal dysfunction include acute life stressors, surgeries, prolonged emotional stress — particularly when you have an inability to manage this chronic stress, ongoing bacterial or viral infections, accidents or surgeries, insufficient amount of sleep, poor diet, and nutritional deficiencies, substance abuse, and more.
Symptoms of adrenal dysfunction include:
- Lack of energy
- Have trouble getting up in the morning
- Either have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Need caffeine or energy drinks to keep going
- Feeling exhausted for no reason
- Crave either salty or sweet snacks
- Inability to handle stress
- Chronic allergies
- Poor memory
- Poor concentration
- Menstrual cycle irregularities
- Chronic pain
Unfortunately, adrenal dysfunction can cascade into numerous health issues (such as those listed above). Consequently, adrenal dysfunction is not an isolated condition, rather it is often linked to other health issues.
Below are we outline some conditions associated with adrenal dysfunction:
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
If you have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), you already know that this illness is much more than just being tired a lot. People with this disorder are so run down that it interferes with their lives and can make it hard to function at all. Some people with chronic fatigue syndrome say they have trouble staying on top of their responsibilities at home and on the job, while others are severely disabled and even bedridden. Furthermore, they’re not just dealing with extreme fatigue but with a wide range of other symptoms, including flu-like symptoms and chronic pain.
CFS affects more than one million people in the United States. There are tens of millions of people with similar fatiguing illnesses who do not fully meet the strict research definition of chronic fatigue syndrome.
The Adrenal Connection
While CFS and adrenal fatigue are not the same, adrenal function may play a role in it. Those with CFS are often found to produce a low amount of cortisol. Furthermore, CFS is considered a malfunction of the pituitary, a pea-sized gland at the base of the skull, which regulates all our hormones. The pituitary, hypothalamus, and adrenals all work together as part of the HPA axis to regulate our health and hormones. Analysis of the data in over 50 studies that assessed adrenal function in CFS and Fibromyalgia patients demonstrates that the majority of these patients have abnormal adrenal function due to hypothalamic-pituitary dysfunction.
Similar to CFS, Fibromyalgia has been referred to as a “stress-related disorder” because stress both precedes its onset and aggravates its symptoms. Some theories suggest that Fibromyalgia may result from stress-induced changes in the hippocampal area of the brain; others from stress-induced disruptions of the HPA axis (which affects adrenal function and cortisol production); and still others from low levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, caused by genetic factors and triggered by exposure to stressors, such as emotional distress, physical trauma, viral infections, or inflammatory disorders.
Another theory proposes that stress can affect the hypothalamus in a way that reduces sleep and the production of human growth hormone (HGH). People with Fibromyalgia tend to produce inadequate levels of HGH. Cortisol, dopamine, and HGH can all affect pain perception.
The Adrenal Connection
In Fibromyalgia, the malfunction is in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that lies just above the pituitary. The hypothalamus also plays a key role in regulating hormones, as well as the nervous system. Thyroid and cortisol deficiencies are the most common ones associated with Fibromyalgia.
There are a number of hormonal deficiencies with this condition that must be addressed to ensure successful treatment. Unfortunately, these hormonal deficiencies are often missed or poorly treated because doctors have come to rely on standard blood tests that require an intact pituitary and hypothalamus for diagnosis and dosing of hormone levels. There is, however, severe hypothalamic and pituitary dysfunction with this condition, making the standard blood tests inadequate. Some typical hormone functions, not just levels, that need to be evaluated include:
- Growth hormone
When your adrenals are constantly stressed, an autoimmune, inflammatory response is set off in your entire body. This results in all of your organs, including the thyroid, being assaulted by cortisol. Thus, low adrenal function can cause your thyroid problem to be much worse than it would be otherwise.
Thyroid disorders can affect your sense of well-being, metabolism, and ability to ward off viruses and bacteria. Many people experience a constellation of symptoms and signs suggestive of an underactive thyroid gland and/or adrenal dysfunction. Some of the most common symptoms include: fatigue, weight gain, depression, sensitivity to cold, muscle or joint aches, brain fog, poor memory, brittle hair and nails, shortness of breath, thinning hair, PMS, significantly calloused heels, chronic yeast infections, low libido, infertility.
If low-thyroid people with these symptoms are put on thyroid hormone alone, they sometimes respond negatively. These people may have coexistent, but hidden, low adrenal levels. If they take thyroid hormone by itself, the resultant increased metabolism may accelerate the low adrenal problem.
It is also important to note that some adrenal hormones assist in the conversion of T4 to T3, and perhaps assist in the final effect of T-3 on the tissues. Some scientists believe that even the entrance of the thyroid hormone into the cells is under the influence of adrenal hormones. Thus, if your adrenal level is low enough, you might do well to take both adrenal and thyroid hormones together. Ultimately, this delicate balance should be only established by your expert in bioidentical hormone therapy, considering the right interpretation of your test results.
Mental Health Conditions
Similar to other chronic mood disorders, such as depression, the signs of adrenal dysfunction tend to develop over a long period of time. For this reason, many individuals overlook symptoms and do not recognize they are burning out until major warning signs have developed. Unfortunately, some of the defining symptoms of adrenal dysfunction are similar to mood disorders and include: a loss of meaning in work or home life, mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion, and loss of motivation. These issues can significantly reduce your sense of well-being and may even threaten your employment.
Fertility issues are often associated with adrenal dysfunction because both are linked to chronic stress. Many couples engage in expensive fertility programs without properly focusing on their adrenal health. It’s a reality though that stress alters the brain signals, which trigger the ovaries to release eggs each month. So women under chronic stress ovulate fewer eggs than less stressed women. Men and their testosterone and sperm production are also affected by stress.
Treating Adrenal Fatigue
If adrenal fatigue is caught early enough, patients can often feel better when treated with adrenal glandulars, vitamin C, pantothenic acid, and licorice. Patients with more severe adrenal fatigue may need low doses of hydrocortisone to improve adrenal function and improve quality of life.
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