“Help! I want to feel better” Adrenal Function

© 2014 Dr. Sharon Norling

Do you feel tired, suffer from lack of sleep, have joint pain or muscle stiffness, frequently catch the flu or colds, feel anxious and depressed, have headaches or gastrointestinal disturbances, difficulty concentrating or remembering or experience allergies? Do you have difficulty getting up in the morning, more fatigue from 3:00-5:00 PM, and get a second wind in the evening? Do you or others see you as “not your old self”?

My patients tell me they have seen a physician, all the tests were “normal” but they know they don’t feel well. You may have adrenal fatigue. What is it, how do you diagnose it and what are the solutions?

Adrenal Fatigue affects an estimated 80% of people, yet it has been ignored and largely untreated by the medical community. Women’s health is extremely impacted today by adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue has a broad spectrum of non-specific yet often debilitating symptoms. She is physically run down and emotionally spent. The onset of this disease is often slow and insidious. Patients are told that they are stressed and need to learn to relax more. But there is more to the story. Today, adrenal fatigue can be accurately diagnosed and overcome by specific natural approaches. You are not alone. According to a study from the American Psychological Association, 2007:

33% of Americans feel they are living with extreme stress.

75% say that money and work are the leading causes of stress.

48% feel that their stress has increased over the past five years.

Once your brain senses some kind of stress, your heart begins to race, you become hyper vigilant, and mentally alert. Your body’s central nervous system has switched to fight or flight mode. The adrenal glands (about the size of a grape sits on top of your kidney) pump out adrenalin, cortisol, and other hormones that affect your heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, and immune system. Heart rate and blood pressure increase bringing more blood to your muscles and brain (to make split second decisions). Blood sugar rises to increase fuel for energy, and the blood clotting ability also increases to survive injuries. This is an important emergency function of the body to be used sparingly. When the adrenal glands activate hormones to meet a stress response daily or weekly, the adrenals become depleted  and your health is at risk.

Women wonder why they don’t recover as quickly as they used to. Their body becomes adapted to the stress in their lives and they are not as able to bounce back. The most common causes of stress are work pressure, financial, death of a love one, moving homes, changing jobs, illness, marital disruptions and concerns about children. Prolonged periods of high stress, imbalanced lifestyle (lack of sleep, too little exercise and poor nutrition), and frequent physical exhaustion stress the adrenals. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the amount of stress overextends the capacity of the body to compensate and recover from stress.

Han Selye, MD first described the general adaptation syndrome in the 1930’s. There are currently four stages of adrenal fatigue.

Stage One: Adrenal Stress

At this time, you may feel tired or wired and anxious or both. You may have trouble falling asleep; have a depressed immune system, experience headaches, aches and pains and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Stage Two: Adaptation

If your stress continues, your body may adapt to it like it is normal. Your body may not be noticing the elevation of hormones such as cortisol, insulin, nor-epinephrine and adrenalin. This is a false sense of security. During this period, the body needs cortisol to overcome stress, and production of cortisol is increased leading to obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.. Over time, the adrenals will be unable to meet the body’s ever increasing demand for cortisol and will become depleted.

Stage Three: Adrenal Exhaustion

As the stress continues unabated the first symptoms return with a vengeance. Other symptoms and illnesses begin to occur. The body loses its ability to cope and resist the stimuli it once handled with ease. You may develop allergies you never had before or get sick over and over again. Seemingly unrelated symptoms occur like increased fatigue, low libido, insomnia, PMS or menopausal symptoms, anxiety or irritability, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, weight gain, and more severe heartburn, brain fog or irritable bowel syndrome. Severe sex hormone imbalances (estrogen, progesterone, and androgens) are common and a precursor to adrenal failure. Total cortisol output is therefore reduced, and DHEA falls far below average. Hormones all have a relationship to each other and are often called “dancing hormones” as they react to the levels of other hormones and adjust to the needs of the body. When adrenal fatigue occurs in women, the signs and symptoms are often confused with PMS or menopausal symptoms. It is important for women to work with a physician who can help her sort out the hormone dilemma.

Stage Four: Physical Decline

Eventually your body’s ability to resist or adapt is compromised. New symptoms occur. The old symptoms increase in severity. Women are completely exhausted and may fall asleep easily but wake up during the night and have problems getting back to sleep. In this stage we see all sorts of chronic illnesses like depression, low blood sugar, GERD and colitis. If you have a genetic predisposition of any type of autoimmune disease or a severe disease the adrenal fatigue may trigger its onset at this time. These diseases can include rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, cancer or diabetes.

Cortisol works with insulin from the pancreas to provide adequate glucose to the cells for energy. More energy is required when the body is under stress from any source, and cortisol is the hormone that makes this happens. In adrenal fatigue, more cortisol is secreted during the early stages increasing the risk of diabetes. In later stages (when the adrenal glands become exhausted), cortisol output is reduced, and blood sugar balance becomes a problem.

Cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.  Its objective is to remove and prevent swelling and redness of nearly all tissues. As cortisol is diminished an increase in inflammation is the result. People with high cortisol levels are much weaker from an immunological point of view. Cortisol influences most cells that participate in the immune system reaction and suppresses white blood cells, natural killer cells, monocots and  macrophages putting women at increased risk of infections and other diseases. Cortisol contracts mid-size arteries. People with low cortisol (as in advance stages of adrenal fatigue) have low blood pressure. High cortisol tends to increase blood pressure that is moderated by calcium and magnesium. People with adrenal fatigue cannot tolerate stress and will then succumb to severe stress. As their stress increases, progressively higher levels of cortisol are required. When the cortisol level cannot rise in response to stress, it is impossible to maintain the body in optimum stress response and an increase in symptoms and a decline in overall health occurs. Your body is crying out for help and attention.

Adrenal fatigue should not be confused with another medical condition called Addison’s disease where the adrenal glands are not functioning. While Addison’s disease is often caused by auto-immune dysfunction, adrenal fatigue is caused by stress. Adrenal fatigue afflicts more people than Addison’s disease. It is not recognized and has become an epidemic of massive proportion. To truly diagnose adrenal fatigue, more sensitive specialized laboratory testing and meticulous review of the medical history is required.

What’s the solution?

  • Decrease your stress by setting boundaries, delegating and just saying “no”.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition eating 6 times a day, exercise and sleeping 8 hours a night.
  • Have an Adrenal Test. It is simple and does not require a blood draw.
  • Follow the specific recommendations of your health practitioner regarding vitamins and supplements with adaptogens to help strengthen your body.
  • Consider acupuncture to correct your adrenal fatigue.
  • Based on your symptoms, overall health and results of your adrenal test, your physician can determine the best approach to addressing your individual needs and support you in healthy lifestyle changes with lifestyle educators.
  • Get more pleasure from life. Have fun. Do things you love. Get out in nature. Most importantly take time for yourself. This is not pampering. This is good health.

Written by: Dr. Sharon Norling, MBA