In­ner en­ergy



Are you con­stantly feel­ing ex­hausted but strug­gle to sleep well? Are you un­able to lose your baby weight be­cause you’re al­ways crav­ing high fat foods, carbs and sugar? Do you feel de­pleted of­ten? Are your stresses long-term and in­tense? Do you ex­pe­ri­ence an “af­ter­noon slump”? Con­grat­u­la­tions, you must be a new par­ent!

No, se­ri­ously. The ques­tions above are based on a ques­tion­naire in natur­opath and chi­ro­prac­tor James Wil­son’s 1998 book Adrenal Fa­tigue, and an­swer­ing “yes” to enough of them apparently puts you in line for this fancy new dis­or­der.

The idea that your adrenal glands can “tire out” from overuse has be­come a pop­u­lar one. Let’s in­ves­ti­gate...


Your adrenal glands are small glands that sit on top of the kid­neys. They com­mu­ni­cate with the brain to pro­duce sev­eral hor­mones, in­clud­ing the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol, ep­i­neph­rine (adren­a­line) and nor­ep­i­neph­rine. The stress hor­mones are ac­tive in the “fight or flight” re­sponse hu­mans and other an­i­mals have when en­coun­ter­ing dan­ger (or, in our mod­ern lives, stress). “You need cor­ti­sol dur­ing pe­ri­ods of bi­o­log­i­cal stress, not nec­es­sar­ily psy­cho­log­i­cal stress,” ex­plains Prof David Se­gal, a spe­cial­ist pae­di­atric en­docri­nol­o­gist based at the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand and the Don­ald Gordon Hospi­tal. “Cor­ti­sol con­trols your blood sugar and blood pres­sure lev­els. Un­der stress it makes your adren­a­line and no­ra­drenaline work bet­ter, so that you can re­act ap­pro­pri­ately.” For in­stance, if you were ap­proach­ing a road haz­ard and your pupils did not di­late, your heart rate did not in­crease, your re­ac­tions did not speed up, you might not be able to act fast enough to avoid the accident.

Re­cently the idea has de­vel­oped that peo­ple un­der con­stant longterm stress, such as worka­holics or al­co­holics or drug ad­dicts or even sin­gle par­ents, are peo­ple who have pushed their adrenal glands to the very brink of de­struc­tion. “Ac­cord­ing to the the­ory of adrenal fa­tigue,” says the US En­docrine So­ci­ety on its pub­lic-ed­u­ca­tion web­site hor­, “when peo­ple are faced with longterm stress, their adrenal glands can­not keep up with the body’s need for these hor­mones. When this hap­pens, symp­toms of ‘adrenal fa­tigue’ may ap­pear.”


The prob­lem is there is no ev­i­dence that this is how the hu­man body works. Sci­en­tists can find no ev­i­dence that your body stops pro­duc­ing the cor­ti­sol and other hor­mones and chem­i­cals it must pro­duce when you are un­der stress.

The symp­toms Wil­son listed in his ques­tion­naire are, as the En­docrine So­ci­ety says, “com­mon and non-spe­cific, mean­ing they can be found in many dis­eases. They also can oc­cur as part of a nor­mal, busy life. “’Adrenal fa­tigue’ is not a real med­i­cal con­di­tion,” the So­ci­ety con­tin­ues. “There are no sci­en­tific facts to sup­port the the­ory that long-term men­tal, emo­tional, or phys­i­cal stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many com­mon symp­toms.” Gen­uine adrenal in­suf­fi­ciency is a med­i­cal con­di­tion with symp­toms that are an “or­der of mag­ni­tude worse than so-called adrenal fa­tigue,” says Prof Se­gal.

“Adrenal in­suf­fi­ciency is a real med­i­cal con­di­tion that oc­curs when our adrenal glands can­not pro­duce enough hor­mones. Adrenal in­suf­fi­ciency is caused by dam­age to the adrenal glands or a prob­lem with the pi­tu­itary gland—a pea­sized gland in the brain that tells the adrenals to pro­duce cor­ti­sol,” writes the En­docrine So­ci­ety. Symp­toms in­clude weight loss, de­hy­dra­tion, dizzi­ness, low blood pres­sure, con­fu­sion, nau­sea, vom­it­ing, di­ar­rhoea and stom­ach ache.

“Adrenal in­suf­fi­ciency is di­ag­nosed by means of com­plex lab­o­ra­tory in­ves­ti­ga­tions and pro­to­cols,” says Prof Se­gal. “Im­por­tantly, when you give these peo­ple cor­ti­sol re­place­ment med­i­ca­tion their symp­toms dis­ap­pear.”

“Test­ing should only be per­formed af­ter a con­sult with an en­docri­nol­o­gist or physi­cian fa­mil­iar with how these tests are per­formed and why. Do not try to self­di­ag­nose adrenal in­suf­fi­ciency. Ran­dom test­ing of cor­ti­sol lev­els, sali­vary cor­ti­sol lev­els or urine col­lec­tions are use­less,” cau­tions Prof Se­gal.

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