The other day, a patient with adrenal fatigue came to see me with a bottle of CoQ10 capsules in her hand. CoQ10 is a compound that has powerful antioxidant properties and has been shown to help with energy and reducing the risk of certain conditions like heart disease. She showed me the bottle, which was half empty, and explained that a friend of hers had given it to her, claiming she’d used it to cure her adrenal fatigue!
My patient was totally confused, because she had started taking this supplement, and didn’t feel any difference. She also said that when she’d mentioned the whole situation to her family doctor, her family doctor said that adrenal fatigue wasn’t even real.
She had no idea what to believe, and trying to search for these questions online left her with more questions than answers. To clear some of this up right off the bat, there are many supplements that can help with adrenal fatigue, but there is no magic nutrient that will do the whole job on its own! And, as I will get to in more detail, adrenal fatigue is “real”. But my larger point is that there are so many myths out there about adrenal health, and it can make it really confusing for women who are trying to get better!
I want to help to bring more clarity to these areas by dispelling some of the most pervasive myths about adrenal fatigue, so that you can focus on truly understanding what’s going on in your body, and healing holistically.
Myth #1: Adrenal fatigue isn’t a “real” condition
I’ve talked about this before, but it always bears repeating! The question of whether or not adrenal fatigue is “real” comes up all the time, even among women who are actively working on restoring their adrenal health. This is usually because they’ve heard it questioned by the media, their doctor, or even their friends or family. But in my functional medicine practice, I see and treat adrenal fatigue all the time, and I help women get back to their healthiest selves with the help of my adrenal fatigue protocols.
So why is it such a challenge to put this question to rest once and for all? I think there are a few factors. First of all, conventional medicine continues not to recognize adrenal fatigue as a real problem. This is in part because of a name that is not necessarily precise, and in part because conventional medicine generally struggles with conditions that aren’t black and white.
In between the conventional medical diagnoses of Addison’s disease (adrenal insufficiency) and Cushing’s syndrome (hypercortisolism) is a wide spectrum of stress-induced adrenal dysfunction that deserves a whole lot of overdue recognition.
I don’t think that any physician would argue that stress influences hormonal and overall health! But most of the time, the field of conventional medicine is simply unequipped to really dig into a complex, highly individualized history and treatment plan for a spectrum or “grey area” condition like adrenal fatigue.
Like so many of the conditions we see in functional medicine, adrenal fatigue is different for everybody. There are different causes, different symptoms, different levels of severity, and different lab results– since the fluctuation of hormones related to adrenal function can be complex.
Here’s the bottom line: just about all of the women I work with have some degree of adrenal fatigue or dysfunction, and that’s real! When women are experiencing symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, depressed mood, brain fog, weight loss resistance, or any number of other persistent and “unexplained” concerns, there is usually something going on with adrenal function.
It can also be helpful to look at adrenal fatigue as one aspect of what’s going on. For example, a woman may be diagnosed with hypothyroidism, but her health may not be improving as she would hope with thyroid medication. In cases like this, there’s often an adrenal component too, because adrenal function influences all of our hormones! So, restoring adrenal function can be an important step when it comes to healing from other conditions, too. We want to look at the whole person, and remember that everything is connected within our bodies!
Myth #2: Adrenal fatigue only occurs within an extremely high stress lifestyle
This is an important one! Adrenal fatigue is always talked about as a stress-induced condition– and it is. But when you hear the word “stress”, what do you think of? When I ask this question, many people conjure up images of things like running around with a briefcase in a high pressure corporate world, or fighting fires, or dealing with a personal tragedy. And believe me, I also know how much stress most “normal” women are under between balancing family responsibilities, work, and their own health and lives. All of this is stress, and I totally get it!
But something else I think we need to understand is that stress, for the body, actually encompasses so much more than this kind of stress (what we call “perceived stress”, or what you can think of as emotional, mental, or psychological stress).
For our bodies, stress also includes things like inflammatory foods, processed foods, lack of sleep, excessive exercise, low grade infections, exposure to toxins in cleaning products or personal care products, viruses, time spent on social media, the use of certain prescription medications… the list goes on and on. The truth is, your endocrine system and adrenal glands really don’t distinguish between fighting fires, sending a nerve wracking email, and eating a cheeseburger: it’s all stress, and it all contributes to adrenal fatigue.
I’m not saying this to alarm anybody, because I know this can make it seem like stress is totally unavoidable, and of course, that’s true to a point! (And don’t worry, a little bit of stress is normal and okay). But I think that one place where many women can get stuck along their adrenal recovery journeys is by focusing exclusively on perceived stress, and not making enough changes when it comes to diet and lifestyle stressors.
For most women, adrenal fatigue has been brought on by a combination of different factors. Sometimes, perceived stress or a stressful day-to-day life is the most prominent, but this is not always the case. So always keep in mind that adrenal fatigue can really affect anybody, and that stressors really are all around us (but many of them are controllable!).
Myth #3: Adrenal fatigue will resolve itself over time
The idea that adrenal fatigue will just go away on its own probably comes from the same place as the idea that adrenal fatigue only pops up when a person has an extraordinarily stressful life, and it’s a concept that needs to be approached with the same degree of big-picture thinking.
I saw a patient not too long ago who had adrenal fatigue that was likely brought on in large part by (or exacerbated by) this big promotion she’d had at work. There was a time when she had really loved her job, but when she was launched into a management role, she suddenly found herself dreading getting up at 5:30 every morning, racing to the office, and leading high pressure meetings and projects until long after the sun went down. She no longer had time for the parts of her work that she loved, and she felt completely out of sorts. She described herself as feeling anxious all the time, and she was becoming more and more run down and tired. She was guzzling coffee all day long, constantly craving sugar, and she told me that her digestion was totally out of whack.
Recognizing that this job was just not right for her, she ended up stepping down after her first year, and returning to a role that had always made her feel happy and fulfilled. But– and this is when she came to see me– she still wasn’t feeling like herself. She still woke up exhausted, she still felt bloated and irritable throughout the day, she still felt run down. She had even taken a week-long, relaxing, beach vacation, but that hadn’t done the trick either!
So, what was going on? Well, let me just start by saying that she definitely did the right thing by walking away from a job that was making her feel that awful! Reducing day-to-day stress and making time to take care of yourself and unwind is an absolutely essential part of healing from adrenal fatigue and maintaining balance.
The thing is, this patient had been working her high-stress job for a year, and in that time, she had also been drinking a ton of coffee, sleeping for no more than 5 or 6 hours a night, checking her email around the clock, eating fast food lunches on the road, and often relying on sugary foods to keep going. All of that stress took a toll on her body, leading to adrenal fatigue, which meant overall hormonal dysfunction, which also led to gut dysbiosis, new food sensitivities, and some immune system dysfunction.
So, while removing herself from the most stressful situation in her life was a huge first step, I explained to her that she would next have to focus on modifying her other lifestyle factors, and repairing and restoring her hormonal function, adrenal health, gut health, and immune system function. I hope that doesn’t sound intimidating, because it really is possible to do this, and it’s possible to do it naturally! The important thing is understanding that adrenal fatigue, especially if it has progressed into a later stage, won’t go away on its own, even if the high stress situation goes away.
You can read more about how to treat adrenal fatigue naturally in my article here.
Myth #4: Adrenal fatigue is all about cortisol
If you’ve read or heard anything about adrenal fatigue, I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”. The adrenal glands produce and release cortisol in response to stress (and in a natural cycle throughout the day). When there is adrenal dysfunction, cortisol production and levels go out of whack. Depending on what stage of adrenal fatigue you’re in, this might mean high cortisol levels, low cortisol levels, or fluctuating cortisol levels.
But adrenal fatigue is about a lot more than cortisol! Here’s the thing. When the demand for cortisol is consistently high, something happens to the rest of our hormones, too. Remember, the adrenal glands are responsible for more hormones than just cortisol (more than 50!), and hormones have to work together in harmony. So, when cortisol demand is too high for too long, we divert resources away from producing other hormones– namely, DHEA, which then leads to the production of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone.
When I’m looking at test results related to adrenal fatigue, I’m looking at much more than whether cortisol levels are high, low, or “normal”. Actually, one of the most important things to look at in order to understand what’s going on with a woman’s adrenal function and overall health is the ratio between cortisol and DHEA. Balancing cortisol and DHEA is so crucial, and it’s not talked about nearly enough when we talk about adrenal fatigue.
We also want to look at levels of other hormones, and patterns of hormone fluctuation throughout the day. Remember, adrenal fatigue is not a black and white condition: hormonal balance is complex, which is why it’s important to work with a practitioner who is experienced in this area, and everything in the body is connected.
Now that these myths have been cleared up, hopefully you have a better understanding of what is going on with your body and your hormones, and where to start focusing your attention. I have seen so many women restore their adrenal health and enhance their well-being naturally, and it’s possible for you, too!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD