“Adrenal exhaustion” and “adrenal fatigue” are popular diagnoses from alternative medicine practitioners but are not recognized by conventional physicians. Those who make them – including nutritionists, chiropractors, massage therapists and health food store clerks – base them on non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, lack of energy, depression, weight problems, insomnia, cravings for salt and sugar, dependence on caffeine or other stimulants to get through the day. These can occur with many health problems as well as in the absence of illness. Blood and saliva tests used to support the diagnosis of adrenal fatigue are not validated scientifically; the results are meaningless.
Keep in mind that some or all of your symptoms might indicate a real medical condition, which could be missed if you accept the diagnosis of a “disease” that doesn’t exist.
Conceivably, very severe stress (resulting from a prolonged illness, for example) could disturb adrenal function, but there is no physiological basis for the notion that everyday stress can ever “exhaust” those glands.
The adrenals sit atop the kidneys and secrete a variety of hormones, including adrenaline, male sex hormones, and cortisol, which mediates stress responses.
Note that adrenal insufficiency is a real medical condition, resulting from prolonged use of corticosteroid medications, from autoimmune damage to the adrenals, or from a problem with the pituitary gland in the brain. Symptoms can include dehydration, confusion, weight loss, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, low blood pressure and sometimes stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Adrenal insufficiency can be diagnosed with blood tests; and the condition is addressed by replacement of the affected hormones.
The treatments recommended for “adrenal fatigue” usually are innocuous – rest, stress reduction, a healthy diet, and vitamin/mineral supplements. Others, however, can be harmful. I urge you to avoid taking adrenal glandular products and any supplements that contain adrenal glandular tissue. At best, these are unnecessary; at worst, they can disrupt the body’s delicate hormonal balance. The Endocrine Society, which represents physicians who treat, and researchers who study endocrine disorders, warns that taking these unnecessary adrenal hormone supplements and then stopping them suddenly can put you at risk of developing life-threatening illness, requiring emergency treatment.
If you’re under stress and feel that you need a lift, I recommend experimenting with cordyceps and adaptogenic herbs, such as eleuthero. In addition, try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga or biofeedback to help manage the effects of stress.
Andrew Weil, M.D.