Understanding Your Health

Adrenal Fatigue: Your Questions Answered

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

The term “adrenal fatigue” has received a lot of air time in recent years, especially in health and fitness circles. People cite adrenal fatigue for everything from low energy to brain fog.

While your adrenal glands play several key roles in keeping your body functioning optimally, according to Jessica Shill, M.D., an endocrinologist at Henry Ford Health System, they don’t tucker out — even under stressful conditions.   

FAQ: Adrenal Fatigue

Is the concept of adrenal fatigue all a big myth? Read on for Shill’s answers to frequently asked questions about this mystifying term:

Q: What is adrenal fatigue?

 A: People use the term adrenal fatigue to describe a group of symptoms — difficulty falling asleep or waking up, low energy, sugar and salt cravings and needing caffeine to get through the day — that occur as a result of long-term mental, emotional or physical stress.

Q: Is adrenal fatigue a real condition?

A: Adrenal fatigue is NOT a diagnosis that’s recognized by the medical community. There are no scientific facts to support the idea that long-term stress will drain the adrenal glands to the point where they’re not functional. Instead, when faced with more stress, the adrenals rise to the challenge and pump out more stress hormones. That chronic stress may have downstream effects, but it won’t affect the adrenals’ ability to function.

Q: What role do the adrenal glands play in the body?

A: Our adrenal glands are small, nickel-sized organs that sit above the kidneys. Their main role is to manage stress by producing hormones like the “stress hormone” cortisol. Proponents of adrenal fatigue theory say that when people deal with stress for long periods of time, their adrenal glands become overtaxed and can’t keep up with the body’s need for these hormones. That’s when adrenal fatigue sets in, but again, this is not a medically recognized condition.

Q: How can I best support my adrenal glands?

A: You don’t need to do anything special to keep your adrenals healthy. That said, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, getting plenty of exercise and avoiding tobacco[  and excessive drinking can help keep all the organs in your body humming.

Q: What is the difference between adrenal fatigue and adrenal insufficiency?

A: Unlike adrenal fatigue, adrenal insufficiency is a real condition recognized by the medical community. The autoimmune form of the condition occurs when your immune system incorrectly attacks the part of the adrenal glands that produce the stress hormones cortisol and aldosterone. The end result: You aren’t able to produce enough of these hormones. Another form of adrenal insufficiency occurs among people who have to take long courses of high-dose steroids to manage other health conditions.

Symptoms of both types of adrenal insufficiency include weakness, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, confusion and even death.

Q: How do doctors manage adrenal insufficiency?

A: Doctors can determine whether or not you have adrenal insufficiency with blood testing. If confirmed, your doctor will prescribe medication to replace the hormones your adrenals would normally make.

Q: What are the drawbacks of an “adrenal fatigue” diagnosis?

A: The concern is that patients who are told they have adrenal fatigue diagnosis will take supplements that may actually do more harm than good. They may even damage the adrenal glands. Since there’s no governing body that regulates the supplement industry, there’s no guarantee that a supplement contains the ingredients it claims, and may even cause harm. What’s worse, an adrenal fatigue diagnosis may prevent you from uncovering the real cause of your symptoms, including adrenal insufficiency.

Related Topic: 10 Unexpected Reasons for Your Fatigue

Adrenal Safety

Symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue are remarkably common. Conditions from thyroid disease to pregnancy can cause symptoms such as low energy, exhaustion and odd cravings. To get to the bottom of these symptoms, it’s important to reject adrenal fatigue as a final diagnosis.

“If you feel tired, weak, depressed and low on energy, it’s important to get a complete evaluation from your physician,” says Dr. Shill. “Anemia, sleep apnea, thyroid disease and depression all produce similar symptoms. In order to effectively treat your symptoms, we have to get to the bottom of your condition.”

Related Topic: 5 Surprising Things That Affect Your Thyroid Medication

Struggling with symptoms that don’t make sense? Visit your primary care doctor first to determine whether you need to see a specialist. To find a doctor at Henry Ford or make an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).


Dr. Jessica Shill is an endocrinologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – New Center One in midtown Detroit.