Adrenal Fatigue: The Effects of Stress + Cortisol Imbalance

Unlike our ancestors, we live with constant, low-grade stress. Instead of occasional, acute demands followed by rest, we’re constantly over-worked, under-nourished, over-stimulated, exposed to environmental toxins and worry — without a regular oasis of calm. 

Every challenge to the mind and body creates a demand on the adrenal glands.

The list of challenges is endless:

  • lack of sleep
  • work demands
  • job security and/or financial pressures
  • personality conflictstiredwoman
  • yo-yo dieting
  • 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. 

The effects of adrenal dysfunction can be profound: fatigue and weakness, suppression of the immune system, muscle and bone loss, moodiness or depression, hormonal imbalance, skin problems, thyroid disease, autoimmune disorders (including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, adult onset Type 1 Diabetes, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis…), and dozens of other symptoms.

If this sounds like you, one of your main underlying problems may be adrenal fatigue. 

The basic task of your adrenal glands is to rush all your body’s resources into “fight or flight” mode by increasing production of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones. When healthy, your adrenals can instantly increase your heart rate and blood pressure, release your energy stores for immediate use, slow your digestion and other secondary functions, and sharpen your senses.

The destructive effect of high cortisol levels: 

What is cortisol? In its normal function, cortisol helps us meet our challenges by converting proteins into energy, releasing glycogen (sugar) and counteracting inflammation. For a short time, that’s fine. But at sustained high levels, cortisol gradually tears your body down.

Sustained high cortisol levels destroys healthy muscle and bone, slows down healing and normal cell regeneration, co-opts biochemicals needed to make other vital hormones, impairs digestion, metabolism and mental function, interferes with healthy endocrine function; and weakens your immune system.

And what happens after a constant demand for help? Your adrenal glands get tired.  Very, very tired.  Finally, the demand for cortisol exceeds supply… and you end up with low cortisol, low reserves and a maladaptive stress response.

Testing for Adrenal Fatigue

In our clinic, we start with a test that measures cortisol levels at several points in the day to track the adrenals’ day / night pattern (called the “diurnal rhythm”) using a panel of simple saliva tests. Ideally, cortisol is elevated in the morning to help you get going, lowers steadily throughout the day to sustain your energy, then declines further in the evening to support restful sleep. My tests also measure related hormones and the effects of stress on your system, including gluten intolerance.

Conventional medicine will detect only the extremes of adrenal insufficiency, when significant damage to the adrenals has already occurred (called Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease). Yet, within those extremes, you can feel miserable and  while your cortisol levels are deemed normal. This is known as a “sub-clinical” pattern, where you are not sick enough to require Western treatment, but you feel terrible!

This is exactly where a qualified practitioner of Chinese & Functional Medicine is your best resource to provide help – with a restoration plan.

By responding to early-stage symptoms of adrenal fatigue, we can reverse the developing dysfunction.

To learn more about adrenal fatigue and your options for recovery, call my office to set up an appointment.