Adrenal Fatigue – Or is it? Woman looking eye bags

Adrenal Fatigue – Or is it?

Fatigue is becoming an increasing problem in modern Australian society and chronic ongoing stress is a significant contributor to this symptom. Our bodies stress response system known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – may help to blunt the long-term effects that ongoing stress can have on the body.

Through a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions, the HPA axis controls the adaptation response to stress and regulates many physical processes, including digestion, the immune system, sexuality, mood, and energy storage and production. It’s no wonder then that anything that affects this finely tuned balance can have wide ranging symptoms including:

  • Fatigue
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Lack of resilience
  • Poor immunity
  • Low libido
  • Sugar/salt cravings
  • Weight gain

The use of the term adrenal fatigue to describe the protective response of the HPA axis to chronic stress and in particular excess cortisol, has little to do with the actual capability of the adrenal gland to produce cortisol or DHEAS.

In fact when stimulated by hormones such as ACTH, the adrenal gland responds appropriately.

So what does all this mean? Research is increasingly linking chronic stress either physical or emotional to dysfunctions of adrenal hormones but the cause seems to be related to the control mechanisms such as the hypothalamic (CRH) and pituitary hormones (ACTH) rather than the adrenal itself. This is why another term to describe adrenal fatigue has emerged: HPA axis dysfunction.

Interestingly many adaptogenic herbs and nutrients that were once thought to function primarily by supporting adrenal function have been shown to have mechanisms that affect the cortisol targets outside of the adrenals. Fortunately adaptogenic herbs such as withania, rhodiola and ginseng have ample studies showing benefits in coping with stress, improving mood and sleep and supporting mental clarity. Most importantly lifestyle interventions that support a healthy stress response and optimal HPA axis function including relaxation/mindfulness, a nutrient dense diet and adequate sleep are vital to overall health and well-being.

So whether the classic symptoms of chronic stress are termed adrenal fatigue or HPA axis dysfunction, one thing is clear, the management still hasn’t changed.