Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and Diet

Adrenal fatigue is the idea that the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney and produce the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, among others, “exhaust,” thus impacting hormone production and causing fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is a popular concept in naturopathy and alternative medicine, which often associate the condition with excessive caffeine consumption. The only concern is that this condition may not actually exist, as there is no medical definition for “adrenal fatigue.” A systematic review of the medical literature published by the journal BMC Endocrine Disorders in 2016 determined, “There is no substantiation that ‘adrenal fatigue’ is an actual medical condition. Therefore, adrenal fatigue is still a myth.”

What Are The Adrenal Glands? The adrenal glands and the hormones they produce play a key role in overall health and energy levels. Adrenal glands have an outer cortex that produces steroid hormones which help regulate electrolyte balance and blood pressure. The inner part of the glands produces androgens that become sex hormones in other organs. Adrenal fatigue, also called hypoadrenia, should not be confused with adrenal dysfunction and diagnosable medical conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease, where there is a measurable underproduction of steroid hormones. Symptoms of Addison’s include abdominal pain, weight loss, and fatigue; treatment involves replacing the missing hormones.

More Myth than Diagnosis. An imbalance of any of these hormones can lead to serious conditions, but there’s no evidence that an imbalance is caused by “stress” or “exhaustion” to the adrenal glands. The key distinction is the ability to align symptoms with measureably reduced hormone production, such as in the case of adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease. When adrenal fatigue is “diagnosed” there is no such measurment. In fact, the term “adrenal fatigue” was coined by a naturopath and chiropractor named James Wilson. Advocates of adrenal fatigue postulate that life stresses cause a fight or flight response and release hormones, and that long-term stress leads to an overproduction and eventually a fatigue of the adrenals. Like other pseudoscience ideas, it’s based on scientific jargon that sounds like it could be describing the symptoms individuals think they have: Tired? Maybe your adrenal glands are exhausted from the stress you’re under!

Alleviate Symptoms. The unproven treatment for adrenal fatigue often involves reducing or eliminating caffeine, getting more rest at night, hydrating properly, reducing stressors, and eating a balanced diet. This overall advice can be very helpful because it is excellent practice for reducing stress and feeling less exhausted, though it has little to do with treating so-called adrenal fatigue.

—Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD

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