If you have symptoms like exhaustion, body aches, depression, irritability, dizziness, and poor concentration, a controversial condition called adrenal fatigue could be to blame.
Your adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped glands located on top of each kidney. They produce hormones that control your immune system and regulate metabolism and blood pressure. The adrenal glands also secrete cortisol (the stress hormone) and regulate the stress response (1).
Natural health practitioners believe that chronic stress taxes the adrenal glands, rendering them unable to keep up with a constant state of fight-or-flight (2). In 1998, chiropractor and naturopath James L. Wilson coined the term “adrenal fatigue” to describe the stress-induced condition (3).
“Oftentimes, we are exposed to chronic, long-lasting stressors that seem to keep us in fight-or-flight mode,” says Dr. Jeremy Wolf, a naturopathic doctor and LuckyVitamin’s lead health advisor. “If our adrenal glands are not able to keep up with the demand put on by the stressors, then adrenal fatigue could occur.”
There are no blood tests to confirm adrenal fatigue—proponents argue that standard blood work is too insensitive to detect small declines in adrenal function. Naturopaths take saliva or urine samples to check cortisol levels.
Without a definitive blood test, conventional medicine does not support adrenal fatigue as a medical diagnosis. A 2016 meta-analysis claimed that “adrenal fatigue does not exist” and highlighted several studies with inconsistent or unfounded claims (4).
Natural health practitioners disagree. Online support groups with thousands of members who have been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue (or who suspect they have the condition) are looking for answers and embracing strategies to feel better.
“Lifestyle modification, dietary changes, vitamins, supplements and herbs are an important part to addressing adrenal fatigue,” Dr. Wolf says.
Here are four strategies to help heal adrenal fatigue:
The foods you eat are believed to play an integral role in alleviating adrenal fatigue. “Poor food choices and eating habits can deprive the body of essential nutrients,” Dr. Wolf explains. “At the same time, it can also create stress and put a further burden on our adrenal glands.”
The recommended diet for adrenal fatigue includes a combination of fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates to avoid dips in blood sugar and provide energy throughout the day (5).
Your naturopath might recommend a combination of supplements to boost energy and ease exhaustion. “There are some really great herbs and other supplements that may help balance and promote adrenal health,” Dr. Wolf says. “These herbs are called adaptogens, and they help the body respond to daily influences or stressors.” Examples of adaptogenic herbs include eleuthero, holy basil and ashwagandha, he says.
Research shows that ginseng regulates the immune and hormonal responses to stress and controls hormones in the adrenal gland (8). Additional research found that ginkgo biloba had a similar effect on cortisol (9). Another study reveals that a botanical called Rhodiola rosea has been linked with lower levels of stress-induced fatigue (10).
Because chronic stress triggers adrenal fatigue, stress management is essential. “Day-to-day stress that continues to stockpile can have a devastating effect not only on your adrenals but also on your overall health,” Dr. Wolf says.
A 2017 study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience reported that practicing yoga and meditation had positive effects on stress resilience (11). “Mindfulness-based mediation is a great way of easing stress and may even have other benefits, such as helping to control anxiety, depression and pain,” Dr. Wolf says.
Both stress and adrenal function can take their toll on sleep. If you struggle with insomnia or feel exhausted throughout the day, establishing regular sleep and wake times can be helpful. Avoid staying up too late at night or waking up too early in the morning and steer clear of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol (14).
As the controversy about adrenal fatigue rages on, it’s important to remember that whether you believe the condition exists or not, these are all science-backed, common sense strategies for healthier living that are beneficial regardless of the status of your adrenal system.