Charlene had already seen a few different doctors before she came to see me.
“My naturopath thinks I have adrenal fatigue,” she told me, “but my family doctor says it’s an autoimmune condition.”
Understandably, she wanted more clarity. But actually, both of her practitioners were right: Charlene had adrenal fatigue and autoimmunity.
This is not uncommon, and it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds.
In fact, understanding the connection between adrenal function and autoimmunity can make all the difference when it comes to healing.
Today, I’ll help you better understand what’s going on in your body when these two conditions collide, and what you can do about it. Let’s dive in.
The connection is what matters
I often have women who come to see me after taking the conventional route and getting nowhere. Sometimes, these women come to me with an autoimmune diagnosis, looking for more natural solutions than the medications suggested by their healthcare provider.
Others come with symptoms that sound like autoimmune, but testing hasn’t revealed antibodies for any specific autoimmune condition. They’re looking for solutions too – and they’d also like a definitive answer.
Unfortunately, the issue is complex and sometimes there are no solid answers. But autoimmune diagnosis or not, these women all have something in common: they’re suffering from uncomfortable symptoms and they need relief!
When faced with unexplained symptoms, it’s easy to focus on the label. We’ve been trained to think that if we have a diagnosis, we can figure out how to manage the disease. But here’s the problem with that way of thinking: naming a disease doesn’t help us discover what caused it.
And without knowing the root cause of any condition, autoimmune or otherwise, it’s hard to find real solutions. Traditional treatments may reduce symptoms, but it won’t prevent flares or new symptoms from showing up.
That’s why I think it’s more important to understand the underlying issues, and the connections that autoimmune disease has to adrenal function.
Adrenal fatigue can lead to autoimmunity. Autoimmunity can lead to adrenal fatigue. It’s a never-ending loop and determining which comes first is like asking about the chicken and the egg.
And here’s the thing I want women to understand: It doesn’t matter which came first.
All you need to know is that the two are connected – and the solution to healing and managing both is the same. You have to find the source of the problem and address that through natural solutions rather than masking symptoms with medications or resigning yourself to just living with them.
Let’s take a look at the connection between adrenal fatigue and autoimmunity. Then I’ll give you some suggestions for supporting your body naturally to manage (and heal) both.
What is adrenal fatigue?
In brief, adrenal fatigue is what happens when your adrenal glands (which produce and release several important hormones, including those related to your stress response) can’t function as they should.
When this happens, your body can have too much or too little cortisol in the blood, and that can create a host of symptoms including exhaustion, inability to tolerate stress, insomnia, metabolic issues, frequent infection, and much more.
Adrenal fatigue is a controversial term, and many conventional practitioners will insist it doesn’t exist. Truthfully, adrenal fatigue may be a misnomer.
It’s not really about “wearing out” your adrenals (though that can happen), but about dysfunction of any kind. Ideally, we’d catch adrenal fatigue in the early stages to avoid a major crash.
Unfortunately, conventional medicine is trained to deal with disease. Unless testing shows clinical highs or lows, all too often women are told everything is “normal” and sent on their way with nothing more than a prescription for managing symptoms– when the symptoms are actually trying to tell them something. (BUT if the problem is Addisons or Cushings syndrome this does require medical attention. Fortunately, most often this is not the case ).
Even slight imbalances can create big problems. And if ignored, the problems and the symptoms can worsen.
What is autoimmunity?
Most people know what their immune system does, at least at a basic level. We understand that a strong immune system allows our bodies to fight off any bacteria or viruses that come calling.
Autoimmune disease is what can happen when the immune system thinks that healthy tissues are these unknown visitors, and tries to slam the door shut so they can’t get in.
There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases identified to date, and each primarily attacks a different system in your body. Once specific antibodies have developed in your body, they’ll typically always be present. But that doesn’t mean they have to be active!
There are plenty of things you have control over that can help you live a healthy life despite having an autoimmune diagnosis. Every person reacts differently, and you have a lot more power than you might think.
The Connection Between Autoimmunity and Adrenal Fatigue
The symptoms of autoimmune diseases and adrenal fatigue are often remarkably similar. Though the two conditions are different, they can also overlap. That’s why it’s important to understand how each develops and what you can do to protect yourself against either.
Both autoimmune disease and adrenal fatigue have three main stages. As you move from one to the next, symptoms become progressively worse, and if either condition is left unattended for too long, you can find yourself with more and more problems.
As I said earlier, conventional medicine often relies on “abnormal” test results to diagnose autoimmune issues or adrenal dysfunction. Since those abnormal tests typically show up when the problem is already severe, that’s far too late to start paying attention!
Healing in the early stages of both adrenal fatigue and autoimmune disease is so much easier than waiting for the final stage. When you catch a problem as it develops, you can get healthy more quickly and often avoid becoming totally incapacitated.
There’s no one clear cause of adrenal fatigue or a cause of autoimmunity.
With autoimmune disease, there are known environmental and genetic factors at play, and once healthy cells have been identified as invaders by the immune system, more antibodies may be produced. Adrenal fatigue is often a result of chronic stress, both physical and emotional.
Adrenal function is critical for diminishing the inflammatory process that happens during autoimmune reactions. When the immune system attacks healthy tissue, inflammation results.
Cortisol, produced by the adrenals, is your body’s strongest weapon against inflammation. When autoimmune disease is present, cortisol levels are too low to combat the reaction in the tissues under attack.
Related article: How Adrenal Fatigue & Cortisol Affect the Immune System
Cortisol also has an impact on the white blood cells that cause inflammation and balance out immune reactions. It helps prevent the overproduction of chemicals secreted by these white blood cells to produce inflammation.
That’s why it’s so important to have healthy adrenal function to reduce damage that out of control inflammation can cause.
If your adrenals aren’t functioning well, they won’t be able to produce the necessary cortisol to counteract the autoimmune reactions. This is especially true in the later stages of adrenal fatigue when cortisol production is extremely low.
With normal cortisol levels, even if you have a genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease, the immune response is manageable. But when adrenal dysfunction is also present, immune response can run rampant.
This connection is why I say it doesn’t matter which comes first – one clearly impacts the other, regardless of the order in which they arrived. But conventional medicine often misses this link entirely.
Natural solutions for supporting your adrenals and managing autoimmunity
Conventional medicine often turns to prescriptions as a first line of defense against autoimmune disease. Patients exhibiting signs of adrenal fatigue are also given medication to manage their symptoms.
While there may well be short term benefits for both, the problem with this approach is that when the medication is stopped, symptoms return quickly. But long-term use of any prescription comes with considerable risks.
Steroids, in particular, can decrease immune system function leaving you open to more common conditions such as colds, flu, and yeast infections. Long term use of steroids can also adversely impact the adrenal system.
That’s why natural support for the adrenal system is so important, as is removing any triggers for autoimmune flare-ups. Lifestyle modifications, along with some gentle supplemental support, can help keep both adrenal fatigue and autoimmune flares at bay.
Here are 5 key steps to start your healing process
1. Gentle exercise
Exercise can naturally increase cortisol levels, which can help decrease symptoms of autoimmune disease. But it’s a balancing act, since too much exercise can burden the adrenal system, especially if you are already suffering from adrenal fatigue.
Start slowly and carefully monitor how you feel. A long walk, gentle stretches, a leisurely bike ride, or yoga are great ways to get started.
2. Stress relief and sleep
Since stress has a major impact on both adrenal fatigue and autoimmunity, finding ways to reduce the stressors your body experiences is important. This includes both physical and emotional stress since your body perceives and responds to any kind of stress in the same ways.
Lack of sleep is one of the biggest physical stressors your body can experience since so much restorative work happens as you sleep. Just setting a regular sleep schedule – and sticking to it – can make a big difference!
3. Eat for adrenal health
It’s not just about what you eat – when and how you eat also matter! For instance, eating as you drive to your next meeting may mean eating too fast and making less healthy choices than if you eat your meals sitting at a table.
Getting the proper nutrients is essential to adrenal health. That means avoiding processed foods and choosing fresh, whole foods (organic if you can) as often as possible. Alcohol and caffeine can place considerable strain on your system. It’s best to consume those in small quantities.
If you are already struggling with symptoms, eliminating them entirely can help you heal faster.
To identify food sensitivities, an elimination diet that removes common triggers (including gluten, sugar, dairy, nuts and corn) can be a useful source of information. Adding things back slowly, one at a time, can help you notice which foods your body has a negative reaction to.
Eat your largest meal mid-day instead of late in the evening. If you can, stop eating three hours before bedtime to allow for proper digestion. Be sure each meal and snack contain healthy fat, complex carbs, and protein.
4. Supplemental support
Ideally, food would provide all the nutrients you need. But in our modern world, that simply doesn’t happen most of the time.
I recommend that everyone take a high-quality multivitamin and mineral complex daily. Targeted supplementation to address any deficiencies can also be important. Work with your healthcare provider to determine what’s right for you.
Adrenal dysfunction can deplete vitamin B6, Vitamin C, and panthothenic acid. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese and zinc are all important to proper adrenal functioning as well. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help manage the chronic inflammation that results from autoimmune disease.
5. Boost gut health
We have learned so much in recent years about the importance of a balanced gut. When the bacteria in your gut is out of balance (known as dysbiosis) it can be exceedingly difficult to keep the rest of your body healthy.
The gut microbiome has a big impact on proper immune response. Many of the steps I’ve already talked about help keep the gut healthy. Supporting your system with both prebiotics and probiotics can also keep your gut balanced.
Address root causes and live your best life
Adrenal fatigue and autoimmune diseases can make life feel incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
An autoimmune diagnosis isn’t a life sentence, it’s an opportunity for change. When you take advantage of the opportunity to understand and identify triggers, you can make the necessary changes to feel great again!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD