Adrenal fatigue is not a validated medical diagnosis, but rather a theory that has gained traction among some health-care practitioners. Known also as adrenal exhaustion or insufficiency, adrenal fatigue refers to a condition in which high levels of sustained stress diminish the proper functioning of the adrenal glands. Progesterone is a sex hormone that depends on DHEA, a steroid secreted in the adrenal gland, and low levels may possibly be affected by or contribute to adrenal fatigue.
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The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands sit like two small caps on top of each of your kidneys. The primary function of the adrenals is the production of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which are released in higher levels during your body’s “fight or flight” response to stress and danger. These hormones are essential to survival, and low levels serve a vital protective purpose. However, when conditions of chronic stress and anxiety stimulate the sustained release of cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream, high levels can become damaging to health and contribute to serious problems, such as elevated blood pressure and increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Adrenal fatigue describes a theory that sustained levels of high stress exhaust the adrenal glands and result in suboptimal functioning. According to Dr. Michael Lam, an expert in adrenal fatigue, the condition is associated with symptoms of pronounced fatigue, flagging motivation, depressed mood, change in appetite, and generalized weakness.
In addition to manufacturing cortisol and adrenaline, the adrenal glands also house the crucial steroid DHEA, known chemically as dehydioepiandrosterone. DHEA plays several vital roles in health, including the metabolism of cholesterol to make the sex hormones progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. As you get older, levels of DHEA in the body naturally diminish, along with the production of sex hormones. Low progesterone affects post-menopausal women, as well as women who have undergone hysterectomy, but in reproductive populations symptoms include irregular menstruation or heavy menstrual bleeding, breast tenderness and mood swings.
Low Progesterone and Adrenal Fatigue
The relationship between adrenal fatigue and progesterone levels potentially runs in two directions. Adrenal fatigue can affect the amount of DHEA secreted in the adrenals, thereby reducing the body’s ability to metabolize sex hormones and produce normal progesterone levels. Conversely, reduced progesterone production in the ovaries can diminish the amount of cortisol and adrenaline manufactured in the adrenal glands.
For post-menopausal women or those who have undergone a hysterectomy, hormone replacement therapy can elevate progesterone levels and reduce symptoms of hormonal insufficiency. However, numerous data exist to suggest that this course should be pursued with caution, as hormone replacement therapy has been documented to increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and stroke. To address adrenal fatigue, Dr. Michael Lam advises a combined course of stress reduction and dietary modification to help restore normal adrenal functioning. For a complete overview of his lifestyle recommendations, please see his Adrenal Fatigue Center website.
According to Dr. Todd Nippoldt at the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms commonly associated with adrenal fatigue may be similar to other health conditions, such as depression or fibromyalgia. If you experience extreme levels of fatigue, weakness or sudden change in your appetite or libido, consult your doctor to discuss possible diagnoses and options for treatment and lifestyle modification.