Do We *Really* Need to Worry About Adrenal Fatigue?

Have you ever heard of the term “adrenal fatigue”? Or, have you been told by a health care provider that you have “adrenal fatigue” and that they have just the right treatment, supplement, or diet to help you overcome it? If the answer is YES, you might want to read more so you know exactly what you’re buying into before you sign up for their program, product, or diet.

After seeing this term literally EVERYWHERE in mainstream health and wellness media, I decided I had to dig a little deeper. Before we go into the science (or lack thereof) of "Adrenal Fatigue", let’s go over the basic functions of the adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands are two small organs located on top of each kidney. The outer part of the gland, the adrenal cortex, produces cortisol. Cortisol helps regulate metabolism, control blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, regulate memory formulation, and mitigate your body’s response to stress. The adrenal cortex also produces aldosterone, which helps control blood pressure. The inner part of the gland, the adrenal medulla, produces the hormone adrenaline, which helps your body react to stress.

So, what is “Adrenal Fatigue”?

"Adrenal Fatigue" is a term used to describe an alleged condition caused by chronic exposure to stressful situations. Theoretically, when you’re chronically stressed, your adrenal glands are overworked, and this causes fatigue in the mind and body.

How do you get tested for “Adrenal Fatigue”?

There is no “standard” test for adrenal fatigue, and it is usually “diagnosed” (I use that term loosely) through a questionnaire. In some situations, cortisol levels will be tested, as cortisol levels will be higher if you are under emotional, physical, or mental stress. Chronically high stress (and therefore cortisol) levels can have a negative impact on your health, but there is no evidence to suggest this lab test is an indicator that your adrenal glands are malfunctioning or "fatigued".

In fact, I would infer that having high cortisol levels is evidence that your body is actually responding to stress as it should be! And, unless you have a diagnosable medical condition (such as Cushing’s Syndrome or a tumor), your body does a good job of regulating cortisol levels on it’s own with the help of some simple self-care practices.

What concludes an “Adrenal Fatigue” diagnosis?

An “Adrenal Fatigue” diagnosis is essentially a “Burnout” diagnosis. It concludes that you are experiencing emotional and physical exhaustion triggered by stressful situations associated with excessive working. It also implies that this fatigue cannot be explained by any other hormonal, metabolic, or inflammatory disorders.

The bottom line is, there has been no conclusive research to suggest that Adrenal Fatigue actually exists as a true medical diagnosis. Adrenal Fatigue is in fact, a myth.

When I read this, my first thought was: "Well, what’s the harm? If there is a silly diagnosis that points out to people that their lives are too stressful, maybe it will prompt them to make more time for rest, relaxation, meditation, and creativity. And yes, maybe it will. But unfortunately that’s not what I’m seeing in my practice.

What I see is another false diagnosis that has been hijacked by diet culture. When I searched for cures and solutions to the alleged "Adrenal Fatigue" diagnosis, I found a plethora of "experts" pushing arbitrary low-sugar, low-carb, elimination diets.

Here's the problem with that. Fatigue is something I would bet 100% of the population feels at some point everyday. And I don’t believe that 100% of the population needs to be on a low-sugar, low-carb elimination diet. And I don't believe anyone should be on an elimination diet without the assistance of a professional.  These diets are quite rigid and completely unrealistic to follow. Prescribing a rigid diet as a solution to a stressful lifestyle is just handing someone a very convenient (short term) coping mechanism that could potentially make matters worse down the road.

The fact is, the stress that dieting puts on both your physical and mental state, will only add to the stress you're experiencing in your everyday life, not mitigate it. This “solution” is like telling someone with a broken leg to start running in order to heal. The more you try to "heal" your "Adrenal Fatigue" by dieting, the more stress you put on your body. 

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that high levels of stress in any form can negatively impact our health. But, I think “Adrenal Fatigue” is an oversimplification of a much larger issue, and quite frankly, an easy way to hook people into another diet or “lifestyle” change that is going to keep them going round-and-round the diet rollercoaster. Before you willingly accept the vague “Adrenal Fatigue” diagnosis, look at the bigger picture. Are there other lifestyle and habit changes you can make to mitigate stress in your life? I’ve compiled a list of ten simple ways you can fight fatigue, without eliminating food from your diet.

How to Fight Fatigue (Without Following an Elimination Diet)

  • Sleep 7-9 hours every night (if you tried a diet before this, let’s talk).
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day
  • Take rest days in-between intense workouts
  • Start an art practice
  • Take breaks throughout the day
  • Find time every week to unplug from technology
  • Eat consistent meals and snacks throughout the day to regulate metabolism
  • Don’t dismiss your social life, make time for friends and family.
  • Engage in moderate physical activity that you find enjoyable
  • Play with puppies (ok, this might not work for everyone…)

I know these simple and moderate guidelines are not always deemed “sexy” in our extremest black and white culture. But I can almost guarantee if you start biting off a little bit of this stuff at a time, it has a cumulative effect that will eventually lead you to feeling happier, healthier, and more energized. No diets, shakes, or supplements required!

Will you give it a shot? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!