What is Adrenal Fatigue?

It seems that everyone knows someone who is struggling or has been affected by adrenal fatigue. It’s a commonly referred to syndrome that involves a variety symptoms, including chronic fatigue (regardless of hours of sleep), lack of energy, irritability, inability to focus, anxiety, muscle weakness and nerve pain. The feeling of always being fatigued or “burned out” remains constant (1).

Essentially, what occurs during adrenal fatigue is that the adrenal glands short circuit so to speak and can’t keep up with constantly changing demand to produce different hormones. Our bodies are designed for survival. In the event of a stressor, hormones are created so that the stressor can be counteracted. This is known as fight or flight. Heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict and processes such as digestion are slowed. After it’s over, all systems return to homeostasis: Breathing relaxes, digestion picks up again and mood is calmed. The biological response of fight or flight is designed to facilitate proper judgment during times of extreme stress, and once the stressor is deemed over, it should be turned off.

If fight or flight (or other stress responses) are activated frequently enough, they’ll require less and less stimulus to put them into effect, and eventually the stress hormones, such as cortisol remain elevated in anticipation. “Normal” becomes abnormal, but the shift is slow and gradual so the individual isn’t always aware it’s taking place. It’s easy to underscore anxiety as self-inflicted, but the reality is that the body’s response system has been damaged.

Adrenal fatigue isn’t often recognized by Western medicine partly because it isn’t discernible with clear symptoms, like a fever or rash, and also because slight variations in hormones aren’t yet detectable with testing. Over 50 different hormones are produced by our adrenal glands, and they’re responsible for thousands of processes (2). Hormones are categorized by what they do (for example, cortisol is primarily considered a stress hormone, while testosterone is a sex hormone), but we usually don’t know how much we’re producing nor how the amounts vary under different circumstances. Your body notices the difference, but science has yet to catch up. Adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease) is when the adrenal glands fail to produce primary hormones, and in these larger amounts detection through medical testing is possible.

Causes of Adrenal Fatigue

What causes it? Most cases are attributed to chronic emotional and physical stress, poor diet including inflammatory foods, lack of sleep and environmental toxins.

Prolonged stress or even a drastic shift in your normal routine can affect how your adrenal glands react. Examples include traumatic experiences such as moving, the death of a loved one, losing a job or keeping a stressful job. If it continues to disrupt your day to day life, then chances are it will affect your mental state and how your adrenal glands, and ultimately your hormones, perform. Anyone who suffers from the habitual anxiety that adrenal fatigue brings on definitely knows how other areas of their health and life are inevitably affected.

Chronic emotional stress damages your nerves by offsetting normal processes, and it leads to an increase in muscle tension (3). Shifts in breathing, heart problems, memory issues, poor digestion and metabolism changes can occur. Healing from adrenal fatigue brought on by stress can be a long process and one in which the treatment is different for everyone.

How to Heal from Adrenal Fatigue

A crucial first step is to determine and understand what triggers and/or stressors create the reaction. If it’s something that can be changed, then it’s important to start thinking about how that change can take place. Usually, however, it’s the result of years of separate stressors and trauma that are somehow tied together. Often, sufferers of adrenal fatigue lose sight of what specifically stresses them, or they’re unable to identify it. Here’s where a trusted outside perspective, like a friend, family member or health practitioner, can help (4).

Get Your Hormones in Check

One of the most overlooked ways to combat a stress hormone is with other hormones. Hormones associated with positivity include dopamine (which controls adrenaline), serotonin (aids in mood) and oxytocin (affects empathy and communication) (5). These hormones are often attainable through different methods of reward, exercise and interaction. Setting small goals, fostering strong and trustworthy relationships and exercising to increase blood circulation can help offset stress. Focusing on whatever small, positive changes can be made in one’s life can be the fundamental step toward healing.

The Impact of Food

Diet is a major contributor to adrenal fatigue. In recent years, this subject has received a lot of attention, especially in the paleo and primal communities. Foods that cause inflammation necessitate hormones to counter and decrease their impact. Sugar, salt, hydrogenated oils, unhealthy fats, alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, gluten and even dairy can lead to a stress response. The side effects of unhealthy eating (gaining weight, feeling weak, “brain fog”) worsen stress (6).

Often, sufferers find relief by overhauling their entire diet. It’s easier to eliminate these foods than try to regulate how much and what specific foods create the stress response. It’s important to focus on incorporating more nutrient dense foods like vegetables, fruits, good fats, properly raised animal products and to supplement vitamins and minerals that your diet is lacking. Omega-3s, vitamin C, D3 and B-vitamins have all been shown to help. Electrolytes such as potassium (vitamin K) and magnesium aid in regulating salt and sugar.

Sleep It Off

Lack of proper sleep has been shown to worsen adrenal fatigue by not giving the body enough time to regulate hormones and to repair. Feeling refreshed isn’t just about hours slept. One of the recently found reasons for sleep is to get rid of the toxins and stress from the day (7). People who train their bodies to get by on limited amounts of rest force themselves to create a stress response, and often it contributes to adrenal fatigue, as well other disorders. Melatonin, magnesium and vitamin D3 can help to promote better sleep. The amount of sleep each individual needs varies, but there should be more refreshed, calmer days than frazzled, rushed ones.

Lastly, environmental toxins should be avoided. This includes such things as BPAs in plastics and toxins in certain deodorants. They might not affect adrenal glands nearly as much as stress, but over time, these can lead to illness and can be somewhat hard to counteract.

Adrenal fatigue is a chronic syndrome and the awareness surrounding it is increasing. Always maintaining high levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones create a disruption in basic processes and additional health problems ensue. It can be easy to get, sometimes hard to determine you have, but thankfully, it’s not impossible to reverse. It’s important to maintain a healthy diet, avoid stress and try to remove those things that negatively affect one’s quality of life. Avoiding toxins, increasing supplements and exercise are all beneficial ways to manage this condition. As time goes on, and by strengthening methods of healing, most sufferers should be encouraged that relief is possible.


1. “Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison’s Disease.” Loechner, K., Stratakis, C. 2014.

2. “Adrenal Glands.” John Hopkins Staff. 2016.

3. “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic Staff. 2013.

4. “Stress Effects on the Body.” Tovian, S. 2016.

5. “Cortisol, Serotonin & Depression: All Stressed Out?” Cowen, P.J. 2002.

6. “Relationship Between Stress, Eating Behavior and Obesity.” Torres, S.J., Nowson, C.A. 2007.

7. “Sleep Initiated Fluid Flux Drives Metabolite Clearance From the Adult Brain.” Xie et al. 2013.