What is adrenal fatigue and how do I know if I have it?
Adrenal fatigue is a controversial diagnosis that many Holistic and Functional Medicine practitioners have come to know and address. It is basically dysfunction of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. This VERY important hormonal regulation system is the MASTER of our hormones and thus, of our health.
Here’s a simplified image of this system:
Source: http://open.lib.umn.edu/intropsyc/chapter/10-2-stress-the-unseen-killer/ Accessed July 17, 2017.
In my mind, the system works like a large ship.
The captain of the ship is the Hypothalamus. He/She gives orders (in the form of releasing factors) to the Pituitary gland (the Skipper) located centrally in our brain. The Skipper (aka pituitary gland) is generally in charge of constantly checking in with the crew members to see if they are doing their tasks correctly.
He/She is constantly giving orders to the hands-on crew whether to slow down, speed up or change the direction of the ship, according to the Captain’s orders. The pituitary does this by releasing or inhibiting a hormone called adrenocorticothalamic hormone (ACTH).
ACTH acts on the adrenal glands to secrete various hormones (cortisol, sex steroids (testosterone and estrogen) and epinephrine/norepinephrine) that tell the muscles and nerves what to do (I’d consider these the crew as they are at the bottom of the totem pole of command. However, the crew also plays a crucial role in spotting things that are out of control (a storm or iceberg) and alerting the Skipper, who alerts the Captain.
Obviously, this is just a simplified version of what actually occurs in our bodies. But I think it’s extremely important for all of us to understand that we are constantly in a state of checks and balances in our bodies.
So how does this affect my body?
When our stress levels or our bodies are under attack (think acute or chronic illness) are high, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) are pumped out to provide instructions to every muscle and nerve in our body and a whole host of reactions occur. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll leave that for another blog post.)
But when we are chronically stressed emotionally or physically (chronic or acute illness), our adrenals are on HIGH demand most of the day and sometimes at night. This abnormal response eventually “burns” our adrenals out and they become tired or over-reactive, secreting too much cortisol and adrenaline than is healthy.
Once this occurs, daily activities become difficult. People suffering from this level of chronic adrenal under or over production are either excessively tired (under production) or excessively wired (overproduction).
Adrenal dysfunction is being seen more and more in our society as we become more disconnected from nature and communities and more focused on technology and the latest newsfeed.
People suffering from this dysfunction often have:
Many of them live on coffee and sugar to decrease their fatigue, not knowing that consumption of these products is actually contributing to their dysfunction.
It’s a vicious cycle that people have a hard time side-stepping.
So what can I do about it?
I’m here to tell you, while chronic stressors affect ALL of us, the dysfunction or dysregulation of the adrenals CAN IMPROVE!
And we are ALL at risk of developing Adrenal Fatigue (Dysfunction). In fact, I, myself, and many of my colleagues, have struggled with this condition over the years. We now work to educate and help people navigate treatment through lifestyle changes, herbs and nutritional support.
My dysfunction was so severe that I quit my stressful job as an Academic Physician and spent 4 months not working to recover. The full recovery process actually took over a year as I’ve only recently been feeling more energized (1.5 years later) and have started pushing myself more athletically.
In short, I had to learn how to treat myself and I now LOVE helping my patients detect and treat their Adrenal Dysfunction.
I’d be honored to help you if you feel like your adrenals are dysfunctional.
Dr. Maltz earned a Medical Degree and Master in Public Health from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, TX. She completed a combined Internal and Preventive Medicine Residency at UTMB in June, 2011. She then completed a 2-year Integrative Medicine Fellowship at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, CT, during which she simultaneously underwent an intensive 1000-hour curriculum created by The University of Arizona Integrative Medicine Program founded by Dr. Andrew Weil.