Adrenal fatigue

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 3, 2016
StartDiseasesAdrenal fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is a disease recognized by some doctors, although others argue that it is actually a diagnosis of symptoms related to other, unrelated health conditions. Doctors who believe adrenal fatigue exists claim that it is caused by a poorly functioning adrenal gland, causing a deficiency in hormones throughout the body. The result can be a pervasive feeling of exhaustion.


Definition & Facts

The adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that are secreted throughout the human body and that affect a wide range of bodily functions. Some of these hormones, especially cortisol, help the human body deal with stress.

According to doctors who have theorized about adrenal fatigue, stressed individuals with poorly-functioning adrenal glands will suffer a hormone imbalance that leads to chronic exhaustion. However, other doctors have disputed this theory.

In any case, adrenal fatigue is distinct from Addison's disease. While Addison's disease patients do have damaged adrenal glands, they also have symptoms that can be easily diagnosed.

Symptoms & Complaints

The most common complaint among those with adrenal fatigue patients is a persistent and pervasive sense of exhaustion. The exhaustion can manifest itself in difficulty getting out of bed even after a good night's sleep, chronic tiredness during the day, and difficulty thinking and difficulty concentrating.

It is important to note, however, that many doctors are skeptical that these symptoms are connected in any way to problems of the adrenal gland. For instance, fatigue can be a symptom of many illnesses, a side effect of many medications, or simply a result of a stress, a bad diet, or unusual sleeping patterns.

In that sense, adrenal fatigue is very different from Addison's disease, which has clearly defined causes. Addison's disease is typically caused by a compromised immune system, so is more likely than adrenal fatigue to be the cause of health problems in patients of cancer, HIV/AIDS, or tuberculosis. Distinguishing between adrenal fatigue and Addison's disease is easy because the latter has several physical symptoms, including dizziness, feelings of physical weakness, and - in women - an absence of menstruation (amenorrhea).


According to the doctors who have advanced adrenal fatigue theory, chronic stress brought on by the demands of modern life - particularly in the workplace - causes people to be in a continual fight-or-flight response. This means that the hormones in their bodies are continually imbalanced and that the adrenal glands are overtaxed by the need to produce more and more of the flight-or-fight hormones, especially cortisol. Given the stress on the adrenal glands caused by the need to produce cortisol, they are supposedly unable to produce other necessary hormones that help prevent tiredness and exhaustion.

However, many medical doctors are highly skeptical at best of adrenal fatigue theory. Instead, they believe that some cases that are diagnosed as adrenal fatigue are actually Addison's disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands caused by a weakened immune system. In the vast majority of cases of extreme fatigue, however, these doctors believe more simple explanations, not Addison's disease, are at play. Many doctors have suggested that the cause of extreme exhaustion that is sometimes diagnosed as adrenal fatigue is actually poor diet, bad sleeping habits, or other medical problems like diabetes or depression.

Diagnosis & Tests

While some alternative medical professionals may diagnose cases of adrenal fatigue based on symptoms of extreme exhaustion, lack of concentration, and trouble sleeping, the vast majority of medical doctors conduct a battery of tests on people who believe they are suffering from adrenal fatigue to identify other problems.

For instance, patients reporting extreme exhaustion often receive tests for two other disorders of the adrenal gland, Addison's disease (where the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones) and Cushing's syndrome (where the adrenal glands produce excessive cortisol). In these cases, doctors examine for physical symptoms of these disorders and conduct tests that confirm their suspicions about hormone levels.

Another common explanation for the symptoms attributed to adrenal fatigue can be disorders of the thyroid. Doctors have a battery of tests that can be performed to examine thyroid function and determine whether the thyroid is functioning properly. Sleep apnea is another potential cause for the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. To test for sleep apnea, doctors often ask patients to sleep overnight at a special unit where tests can be performed to assess whether they are suffering from this or another problem. Finally, doctors may check for depression and other mental disorders to determine whether that could be the cause of extreme exhaustion or fatigue.

Treatment & Therapy

Those who believe in adrenal fatigue have advocated for a variety of treatments to help patients address the problem. They urge patients to adopt a healthier diet and take a variety of nutritional supplements that ostensibly boost the function of the adrenal glands. Some also encourage the use of riskier remedies, such as supplements that use extracts of human hormonal glands.

Most medical doctors have severe reservations about the use of the latter type of supplement and strongly discourage their use. However, getting adequate rest is likely a healthy way to reduce stress and improve one's health. Dietary changes, as long as they are not extreme, are also recommended as a way to reduce stress, improve sleep, and prevent debilitating exhaustion.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Alternative medicine practitioners who have devised adrenal fatigue theory argue that one of the most important ways of preventing symptoms of exhaustion and fatigue is to reduce stress. While most doctors dispute the existence of adrenal fatigue, almost all of them would agree that living a more stress-free lifestyle - and adopting other lifestyle habits that reduce stress - is beneficial for virtually all patients.