In 1998, Dr. James L. Wilson, D.C., N.D., coined the term "adrenal fatigue" to describe a collection of symptoms, including body aches, tiredness and sleep disturbance, that result from malfunctioning of the adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue, sometimes called adrenal exhaustion, is not a recognized medical diagnosis. Both The Endocrine Society and Mayo Clinic endocrinologist Todd Nippoldt, M.D., have dismissed the disorder's existence as a "myth." Other health-care professionals have recognized and treated this syndrome, and drawn a connection between adrenal function and increased abdominal fat.
The adrenals are two small, triangular glands that rest on top of the kidneys. Each has an inner section, the adrenal medulla, and an outer area, the adrenal cortex. Christiane Northrup, M.D., calls these tiny glands your body's "shock absorbers," because they produce the hormones adrenaline, cortisol and DHEA, which help you cope with everyday stresses. These hormones moderate your body's reactions to tense situations by controlling blood sugar, blood pressure, anti-inflammatory responses and fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism.
Causes of Adrenal Exhaustion
Some possible causes of adrenal fatigue include viral infections, prolonged use of antibiotics, poor diet, smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. Stress also plays a significant role. The human body has a physical response to stress, commonly known as "fight or flight." Under normal circumstances, the body recovers from stressful situations in due time -- when a threat or fear subsides, for example, your blood pressure returns to normal. But in today's fast-paced society, you may feel as if you're in a continuous state of fight or flight, even when there is no immediate threat. Your adrenal glands work overtime to release more stress hormones into your bloodstream, and may become "exhausted."
Adrenal Exhaustion and Abdominal Fat
When your adrenal glands malfunction, intense physical fatigue may result. You may wake up feeling tired and find you must have coffee or other caffeinated beverages just to get moving, and high-sugar snacks to make it through the day, says Dr. Northrup. Another common symptom is unexplained weight gain, especially in the abdomen. This happens because too much cortisol circulating in your bloodstream makes you feel as if you're constantly hungry even when you aren't, explains Pick. You over-fuel with high-calorie foods that your body doesn't need for energy, so it stores them as fat in your belly. Abdominal fat, in turn, puts you at greater risk for heart disease.
Restoring Adrenal Health
Some women experiencing adrenal exhaustion have had positive results with small, prescribed doses of hydro-cortisone, according to Dr. Northrup. But she also recommends a holistic approach to restoring adrenal health, including eating a whole foods diet that limits sugar and caffeine, exercising and taking a multivitamin. Pick advises making breakfast your biggest meal, incorporating healthy snacks throughout the day and eating a light dinner no later than 6 p.m. Both Northrup and Pick suggest a licorice root supplement to help support adrenal health. They also suggest that you get plenty of rest, prioritize your tasks and make more time for yourself.
- AdrenalFatigue.org: Are you experiencing adrenal fatigue?
- MayoClinic.com: Is there such a thing as adrenal fatigue?
- Christiane Northrup, M.D.: Adrenal Exhaustion
- "Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 21st edition"; Donald Venes, M.D., ed.; 2005