You might have read or have heard about a seemingly new “buzzword” in the Western culture over the past few years- the adrenal glands. The adrenals are two thumb sized glands that sit on top of the kidneys and are a part of the endocrine system. They help modulate many actions in our bodies, including release cortisol and adrenaline related to stress response, as well as play a role in weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and immune function.
When the adrenals are not working to their highest abilities, a person is classified as having different levels (1-3) of adrenal dysfunction/adrenal fatigue. Mentally, adrenal dysfunction can show up as fatigue, brain fog, unrested in morning, energy plateau in early afternoon or all of the above. Physically, adrenal dysfunction can show up as inflammation, joint pain, muscle aches, and more.
Why Does Adrenal Dysfunction Occur?
Adrenal dysfunction occurs when the body is in a state of stress for months to years. The adrenals release cortisol when stress arises in day to day operations, illnesses, or ‘fight-or-flight’ scenarios. When the adrenals are constantly pushing the cortisol out at higher levels because the body is in a constant state of stress, they can get ‘burned out’. As the adrenals reach a tipping point of constant high level cortisol output, they throw in the towel and stop manufacturing the cortisol as needed for normal body function. This turns into decreased output and an overwhelming fatigue can start to become apparent in the body.
Testing for Adrenal Dysfuntion
If you have these symptoms, or know you’re ‘feeling off’, it’s good to get a salivary or urine hormone test panel ran to check four cortisol levels (a.m., noon, evening, bedtime), to see how your body is producing cortisol throughout the day. Your cortisol ‘bucket’ should start out robust in the morning, and as you go through the day it decreases until bedtime, where melatonin (the sleeping hormone) rises and cortisol decreases. While you sleep, the cortisol should replenish itself, so you are ready to go in the morning!
Stages of Adrenal Dysfunction & Treatment
After the test, I help my patients determine where they are at in ‘stages’ of adrenal fatigue. A diagnosis of sage 1 is where I have them go on adrenal adaptogens (nutrients and herbs) to get their adrenals functioning again. If they have stage 2, they typically do adaptogens and adrenal cortex (which mimics the cortisol adrenals should be producing) to give their body extra support while the adrenals are being healed. If they are more severe and at stage 3, depending on their current symptoms, I would typically order them a prescription medication called Cortef (aka: hydrocortisone). People get scared because they think hydrocortisone is a steroid that will decrease their immune function, but in truth it is given as very low, physiological dose – doses that are needed for our body to function normal, not higher than that.
Depending on where your adrenal dysfunction is, typically determines how long it will take to get your adrenals back to functioning baseline. I typically tell my patients to try a 3 month regimen of the above supporting supplementation. If their body is not at baseline and they are still fatigued, then I look at other causes of dysfunction.
As with all my patients, during the detailed health assessment I see if there could be other things off in the body causing the adrenals to be at a decreased function in the first place. High stress is usually a major cause, but there are also food sensitivities, toxins, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals and gut dysbiosis that could also be placing a strain on the adrenals.
Always look for the root cause. Listen to your body and be proactive with your health. After all, it’s your body, and you deserve to be healthy and happy!