"Adrenal fatigue" isn't what ails you

November 14, 2018 Providence Health Team

When you don’t feel on top of your game — you’re tired, feeling stressed and out of sorts — it’s easy to reach for a medical explanation. Fire up the laptop, tap a few keys, and voila!, out comes a trendy diagnosis: adrenal fatigue.

Check the symptoms attributed to this “malady": tiredness, check; food cravings, check; feeling overstressed, check; overuse of caffeine, check. 

That must be it. Your adrenal glands are tuckered out; your cortisol levels are out of whack; your body can’t keep up with the demands imposed upon it.

But like many trendy explanations, adrenal fatigue isn’t proven by science. In fact, it may interfere with your ability to recognize serious health problems, such as Addison’s Disease or depression.

Fixing the symptoms

Most practitioners and websites that tout adrenal fatigue offer common-sense remedies. Eat healthier foods. Get more sleep. Try to calm your busy mind.

Of course this is good advice for anybody. We’ve written time and again about the importance of eating better, of sleeping better, and reducing stress in your life.

Often, adrenal fatigue advocates will go on to tout the benefits of vitamins and herbs, from magnesium to licorice root. While these remedies may offer some benefits, there is no solid evidence that they address the function of your adrenal glands. Many of them aren’t regulated by any governing body like the Food and Drug Administration, which means they may or may not be safe. And using them may delay you from getting to the bottom of a real medical problem.

The fact is, adrenal fatigue is a catch-all phrase that’s used by some to describe an assortment of common symptoms.

Says the Endocrine Society: “No scientific proof exists to support adrenal fatigue as a true medical condition.”

The importance of an accurate diagnosis

Adrenal insufficiency is a real diagnosis. Commonly known in one form as Addison’s Disease, it occurs when the adrenal glands are damaged and don’t produce enough of certain hormones. Secondary forms of endocrine problems can also inhibit the production of needed hormones. According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the secondary forms of adrenal insufficiency are the most common.

Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include fatigue, muscle weakness, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. Sometimes, the symptoms can worsen suddenly, causing an adrenal crisis, which can be life-threatening. People experiencing dramatically worsening symptoms such as vomiting, weakness and nausea should immediately seek medical treatment. If they are in adrenal crisis, they may need an immediate injection of a corticosteroid.

Of course, there are other endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism, which can cause symptoms such as fatigue and depression. If properly diagnosed, thyroid disease can be readily treated in a range of ways, from taking iodine tablets to thyroid surgery, depending on the specific disease and the needs of the individual patient.

The point is that you shouldn’t guess about what ails you. See your primary care provider. You can find a Providence provider near you in our online directory

Health Myth Busters: Is adrenal fatigue a real thing?

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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