What Causes "Adrenal Fatigue" and Fatigue?
4 Myths of "Adrenal Fatigue"
5 Root Causes of Fatigue
Many people are self-diagnosing their fatigue as “adrenal fatigue.” Here is what they often seem to assume:
Fatigue is caused by weak adrenal glands.
Fatigue is a symptom of one or more of five root causes: nutrient deficiency, toxicity, inflection, emotional stress or physical misalignment anywhere from teeth to toes—as explained below.
“Adrenal fatigue” means adrenal glands are weak, adrenal insufficiency.
Most people who are chronically tired have overactive adrenals with high levels of stress hormones that adrenal glands produce: cortisol or adrenaline, according to Nora Gedgaudas in her book, Rethinking Fatigue: What Your Adrenals Are Really Telling You (2014). There may also be lower levels of other adrenal hormones like DHEA as cortisol steals the precursor of both, pregnenolone.
If stress stimulates adrenals too long then even the stress hormones become lower. When there is actual “adrenal fatigue” it shows up on a saliva test as low cortisol, for example. A person with adrenal exhaustion can barely stand and feels like a rag doll. When I had chronic fatigue with low cortisol I sometimes walked down the hall leaning against the wall dragging my shoulder.
Cortisol and herbal adaptogens can help manage low points, but much more needs to be done.
Supporting the adrenal glands as a treatment plan is usually unsuccessful as explained on the website of Dr Paul Cheney, who specializes in treating chronic fatigue.
Treating “adrenal fatigue” alone is treating a symptom.
Adrenal glands create energy.
Adrenal glands respond to stress whether it is normal stress like walking or emergency response levels like running or fighting. When in emergency response levels, adrenal glands mobilize stored energy that was created through digestion.
High stress levels can weaken digestion and energy production and then call upon adrenals and the stress response system to create energy, in a vicious cycle, explains the book Chronic Stress Crisis by William G. Timmins, N.D. Stress can suppress and unbalance the immune system, 80% of which is in the gut: the stomach and intestines. The strength of the immune system in the gut can be measured through secretory IgA, an antibody that plays a crucial role in protecting the mucosal lining of the gut. When IgA is low, pathogens like bacteria and fungus are not kept in check and can crowd out good bacteria and yeast that help digestion. Pathogens damage the intestines leading to “leaky gut” wherein undigested food can enter the blood and create allergic reactions. Pathogens also spew toxic waste products hat further burden the immune system.
Stress hormones levels produced by the adrenals (or thyroid) are actually the "3rd line of defense" against toxins, according to Dr. Henry Bieler in his book, Food is Your Best Medicine:
The first line of defense is the mucosal lining of the gut backed by the immune system.
If toxins pass this protective barrier the second line of defense is the liver that filters toxins. The liver also processes and stores nutrients so energy drops further as the liver becomes burdened.
The third line of defense is hormones that try to push out toxins when the liver needs help. Adrenal hormones help move toxins through the liver and bowel. Thyroid hormones help move toxins out through lymph and skin, explains Bieler.
Adrenal glands are the key hormone regulating energy.
Adrenals are last in the hormonal chain of command: the adrenals are signaled by the pituitary gland, which is signaled by the hypothalamus, which is signaled by the brain and “master hormone” of leptin produced by fat cells all over the body. (The thyroid is similarly directed by the pituitary gland.) . This chain of command is called the HPA axis: hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. The HPA axis creates stress hormones to fight or run away from danger. This is known as the fight or flight response.
While this stress response is important for survival, it can take on a life of its own through over-reacting or not turning-off and becoming a habit 24/7 even after the source of the stress is gone. Emotional stress can be driven by the human imagination or an unconscious feeling of insecurity.
An overactive HPA axis is part of an imbalanced brain and nervous system. This is commonly referred to as autonomic nervous system dysregulation, sympathetic overdrive, high cortisol, or hyperventilation syndrome, which is rapid breathing leading to less oxygen uptake.
The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes muscles and the mind, which are overactive and thereby suppress the opposite parasympathetic nervous system that supports sleep, digestion, detoxification, immunity, repair and growth.
Weak digestion and organs, in turn, create further physical and psychological stress that feeds a vicious cycle.
Let’s look at the five root causes fatigue and a few examples of how each affects hormones, including two more hormones that are keys to energy metabolism: insulin and leptin.
Fatigue can be created by any nutritional deficiencies.
Allergic foods can crash energy quickly or stimulate stress hormones to create a high feeling.
Levels of carbohydrates (that always break down to sugar) that are higher than a person can utilize get stored as fat, and sometimes too much is stored and low blood sugar results. This fat storing is done by the hormone insulin secreted by the pancreas. When blood sugar is too low, the adrenal glands can be activated as a stress response to mobilize stored energy.
The timing and number of meals and snacks also affects the hormone leptin that is produced by fat cells to tell the hypothalamus gland if there is enough fat in the body so it can burn fat for energy, according to the book Mastering Leptin. Leptin helps regulate fat burning, blood sugar, production of the sleep hormone melatonin and growth hormone produced in our sleep. Too many snacks and meals at the wrong times can unbalance leptin and ability to burn fat and lose weight, among other problems.
Sun light is also a nutrient, producing vitamin D and and cellular ATP. Light also regulates bodily systems through the timing of circadian or sleep rhythms that regulate the nervous system and hormones. The eye is not just a camera but a clock, says Dr Jack Kruse.
Chemicals, metals, and radiation can damage cells, including digestion. When cell membranes are damaged they may not receive hormonal signals or nutrients as well. Insulin resistance is when cells cannot receive insulin’s delivery of sugar. Leptin resistance occurs when the cells of the hypothalamus do not hear leptin saying there is fat to burn so the hypothalamus continues to store fat. These forms of resistance may be caused by environmental toxins or toxic foods that create damage and inflammation.
Light pollution at night and blue light rays in particular from artificial lights throw-off the circadian rhythms and can actually destroys nutrients like the fatty acid, DHA, necessary to absorb energy from light, explains Jack Kruse.
Candida fungus, parasites, bacterial overgrowth, etc. can damage tissue and produce toxins as explained above.
Emotional stress can be real or imagined and result in feeling unsafe in the world, unable to protect oneself, defensive or untrusting.
In addition to creating the fight or flight response, emotional stress can create the freeze response of trapped emotions that are conscious. This can lead to tense muscles that pull on bones unevenly from side to side to create postural spinal misalignment or a clenched jaw. This is why emotions and misalignment can be dealt with together, as the success of yoga has demonstrated.
Is about bones, teeth and muscle. Misalignment can be seen in posture and crooked teeth, and is involved in obstructive sleep apnea and other cases of insomnia.
Misaligned bones of the cranium and spine can pinch nerves to create pain, or more subtly impinge communication to organs and bones leading to weak functioning.
Misalignment can trigger a stress response by the body to be in sympathetic overdrive. This seems especially true of the cranial bones like the sphenoid, which is behind the eyes, explains Dr Jerry Tennant. Adjusting the sphenoid can help balance the nervous system by helping to align both cranium and spine that it lies between. But what few body workers realize is that the sphenoid is often misaligned because its neighbor, the maxilla or upper palate of the mouth, is underdeveloped and not giving it room to position properly. The maxilla must be expanded for other cranial adjustments to full hold long term.
There is a small but growing field of orthopedic orthodontics that realizes how the jaws determine posture and nervous system health. An underdeveloped palate and lower jaw is the cause of crowding teeth. More importantly for health, it can lead to an airway that is too small leading to obstructive sleep apnea and inefficient posture. One of the signs of a small airway is a forward head position that can trigger a chain reaction of unhealthy curves all the way down the spine. See “Is it Dental or Mental,” by Raymond Silkman. These can drain energy and stress the nervous system contributing to sympathetic nervous system dominance—the fight or flight pattern.
“Adrenal fatigue” is really about brain balance in relation to these 5 root causes.