If you ever want your doctor roll his eyes at you, just ask him about adrenal fatigue. Most physicians seem to feel about as much contempt for this concept as they do chiropractors. And you thought getting a fibromyaglia diagnosis was hard. Asking about adrenal fatigue is akin to telling your doctor that your symptoms are from an alien abduction. They dismiss it, almost like pseudo-science, and will even label it with quotation marks like this: “adrenal fatigue.” They claim that no scientific proof exists to support it as a medical condition. Rather, they will tell you that you simply have depression or, better still…fibromyalgia.
Thankfully, there are those in medicine and alternative therapies who are aware of this very real condition. Remember how long it took for them to believe fibro was a real disease? And yet you will still come cross doctors who dismiss it too, despite science. So, let’s take a look at this condition, see how it works, and what can be done about it.
Chronic Stress and Cortisol
Cortisol. We’ve all heard of it and know that it probably has something to do with stress and maybe even weight gain. It may also remind you of hydrocortisone cream. That’s because it’s the medicated version of cortisol. So why does cortisol have such a nasty stigma if it can also be used as a treatment? Well, it’s important to understand what exactly cortisol does first. We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” mechanism, right? Your adrenal glands are part of this mechanism and produce various hormones, including adrenaline and steroids like cortisol, in response to fear or stress. When it’s working properly, this healthy response takes priority over all metabolic functions, but it’s not made to last long.
Maybe you’ve heard something like this: it’s not stress itself that’s deadly, it’s actually the way you respond to stress that kills you. If you have not trained your mind and emotions to handle stressors in a healthy way, then your body will respond by releasing cortisol. Again, that’s not so bad if it happens every once in a while because that’s what your body is supposed to do in these exceptional circumstances. But what if you endure sustained stress? What does that look like? While this is by no means comprehensive, Psychology Today summed it up nicely: “Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.”
Constant Fighting and Flying
Most of us in Western societies experience constant stress. All of our technological advances haven’t freed our time. Rather, we have found new responsibilities with which to fill the void. Dr. Michele L. Neil-Sherwood, an osteopath with the Functional Medical Institute, explains that most of us are “over-worked, under-nourished, exposed to environmental toxins, worrying about others — with no let-up. Every challenge to the mind and body creates a demand on the adrenal glands. And the list of challenges is endless: lack of sleep, a demanding boss, the threat of losing your job, financial pressures, personality conflicts, yo-yo dieting, relationship turmoil, death or illness of a loved one, skipping meals, reliance on stimulants like caffeine and carbs, digestive problems, over-exercise, illness or infection, unresolved emotional issues from our past or present and more. The result is adrenal glands that are constantly on high alert.”
Is it any wonder that Dr. Neil-Sherwood has noticed that 99% of her patients suffer from impaired adrenal function? I dare say this is the case with most Americans. She adds, “Adrenal fatigue may be a factor in many related conditions, including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, premature menopause and others. It may also produce a host of other unpleasant symptoms, from acne to hair loss.”
It is imperative to note that impaired adrenal function includes more than adrenal fatigue or exhaustion. For example, adrenal insufficiency is also called Addison’s Disease. Alternatively, prolonged exposure to cortisol, often due to medications, can lead to Cushing Syndrome. Both of these, however, are extreme conditions. So far, conventional Western medicine only detects damage incurred by such conditions. In fact, you may even feel miserable, but your doctor will probably tell you that your cortisol is fine according to the test results. Regardless, it’s important to get a full physical to rule out these conditions and any other factors that result in your fatigue, weight gain, depression, and so forth.
If you’re unsatisfied with the results from your traditional physician, you may wish to consider an osteopath or another healthcare practitioner that works with alternative or complementary medicine. While some extreme cases may need personalized care, Dr. Neil-Sherwood adds that the majority of her patients find substantial improvement by practicing the following:
- Dietary changes to enrich your nutrition and reduce carbohydrates and stimulants, including high-quality nutritional supplements and essential fatty acids. There’s even an Adrenal Fatigue Diet.
- Stress reduction, including moderate exercise and taking more time for yourself. It’s helpful to make a list of your stressors, especially those that are constant.
- Take up a yoga practice. The focus of the breath can be a significant shift in the autonomic nervous system. Yoga helps us shift from a state of fight or flight into a state of rest and relax.
- Get a massage or some form of therapeutic body work: Hands on therapeutic soft tissue work aids not only the release of muscular tension and pent up stress but can also shift the fight or flight response to one of rest and relax.
- Get more rest. Your body needs time to heal.