If this one gland isn’t working right it can make you fat, tired, libido-less, constipated and susceptible to infection. This is just a partial list of the possible symptoms caused by adrenal dysfunction. Cortisol and adrenaline are hormones made by the adrenal glands in response to stress. You know the effects of adrenaline very well. Heart pounding, palm sweating and dry mouth are all things adrenaline does. These stress hormones get us ready for a fight or to run for our lives, by channeling the body’s resources to the most vital organs, and temporarily shutting down some of the other systems. What we often don’t realize is that many different kinds of stress can cause our adrenal glands to kick in, not just an emergency situation. With so much stress in our lives, it is easy for the adrenal glands to become overactive. When that happens the adrenal glands make too much cortisol. This overactive adrenal activity is the first part of adrenal fatigue. If the hyperactivity of the adrenals continues long enough, the production of cortisol will collapse. Testing is critical to correct diagnosis and successful treatment of adrenal fatigue.
There are two ways adrenal dysfunction can make you fat. The first way is that high cortisol interferes with thyroid hormones, slowing the metabolism, causing your body to make more fat. The other way is that high cortisol blocks cellular response to insulin levels. This means that the pancreas will make more insulin. High insulin turns blood sugar into fat. I wrote all about that here.
Adrenal Fatigue Can Makes You TIRED!
As I stated above, the thyroid hormones are affected by overactive adrenal glands. When there aren’t enough active thyroid hormones you become tired. Unfortunately, this is often misdiagnosed because the standard thyroid tests look normal. However, there is a special thyroid test called reverse T3 that can be used to determine whether or not the hormones are being interfered with. As previously mentioned, high cortisol leads to high insulin. High insulin causes low blood sugar and that makes you tired.
Adrenal Fatigue Can Make You LIBIDO-LESS!
Not only does high cortisol take away your energy, it will also lead to a hormone disaster! The excess cortisol depresses the detoxification functions of the liver. When the liver isn’t working right, all the hormones are negatively affected. In order for the adrenals to sustain prolonged overactivity they need more “fuel”. DHEA is one of the fuels the adrenal glands use. DHEA is also needed to make all the other hormones in the body. Testosterone, Estrogen and Progesterone all need DHEA before they can be produced. Often DHEA levels are depleted by adrenal glands that are overactive. Without enough DHEA to go around it is difficult for the body to make enough of the hormones that it needs, including those hormones needed for a healthy sex drive.
Adrenal Fatigue Can Make You CONSTIPATED!
Constipation happens due to the effects already mentioned on the liver and the thyroid. In addition, high cortisol suppresses the ability of the cells that line the intestines to regenerate, so when the lining of the intestines is damaged by constipation, it not able to heal fast enough to keep up with the damage. When the damage to the lining of the intestine gets bad enough it can cause a real mess called Leaky Gut Syndrome.
Adrenal Fatigue Can Make You Get SICK!
Your body’s ability to make cells that fight infection is inhibited when cortisol levels are too high. The thymus makes Natural Killer cells (I love that name!). These NK cells are like special forces in the blood looking for bad guys. Less NK cells, and less active NK cells, means more sickness. When the adrenal glands are not working right they suppress both the activity of NK cells and the production of new NK cells. Remember how the lining of the intestines is hurt by dysfunctional adrenals? Well the sick intestinal lining’s ability to make immunoglobulin IgA is diminished. IgA is the body’s first line of defense to all virus, bacterial and fungal infections. If there is low IgA, a person will have less immunity to every bug that comes along.
A HYPER-Adrenal Case
The following graph represents the results of a common cortisol test for one of my patients. The green area is where the results should be if the adrenals are working properly. When the adrenal glands are healthy, the cortisol levels are high in the morning and gradually decrease as the day goes along. The blue line represents the results for this patient. The reason we did this test was that my patient was suffering from afternoon fatigue. From the results it’s pretty obvious that the high cortisol could be the problem. It wasn’t more than about 2 weeks of treatment before the patient reported that she was feeling much better.
We tested the patient again to re-evaluate how the adrenal glands were functioning and here is the follow up test:
At this point, we had to adjust the treatment plan so that her adrenal levels would not continue to decline. If we had not retested and made adjustments, she could have ended up with hypo-adrenal function.
A HYPO-Adrenal Case
This next case was very complicated. My patient had diabetes, high cholesterol, low functioning thyroid, heavy metal toxicity, GERD, severe fatigue, high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction, and was overweight. He was on medications for all of those symptoms. He told me that he felt like he was slowly losing his health and was afraid that there was no hope. We needed to test much more than the adrenal function, but for this article I want to highlight his adrenal function. His initial adrenal test looked like this:
This is what a severe case of adrenal fatigue looks like. If we could have tested this patient earlier the pattern would have been that of a hyper-adrenal case. Over time the adrenals become exhausted and they can’t make enough cortisol. This was just part of what was not working right with this patient. None of the many the drugs he was taking did anything for these very sick adrenal glands. After three months of treatment, my patient reported that he was feeling much better. He had more energy, and he was working out regularly. All his updated lab tests showed significant improvement, including his adrenal test.
This patient’s path to full health and strength is going to take some time, but odds are great that if he sticks to the treatment plan he will make a full recovery. These kinds of serious cases don’t begin overnight. It was years of one problem leading to another. The medications did nothing to stop the continued progression of declining health.
Objective testing is so important as these cases shows. Without proper testing the doctor and the patient really don’t know anything. Often treatment needs to be adjusted as a patient heals. If there is no objective testing, knowing what to change is impossible.
Adrenal Function is Important!
The main thing I want to communicate is that properly functioning adrenal glands are really important, and if they are not working right the range of problems they can cause is large. Everything is interconnected.
Adrenal dysfunction is very common and rarely diagnosed and even more rarely diagnosed correctly. If you get the typical medical treatment for symptoms, you will go home with one or more drugs that will do nothing for the underlying cause. If you see a doctor that doesn’t properly test the function of the adrenal gland, getting the right treatment is nearly impossible.
Preventing adrenal problems involves some pretty simple things. Proper sleep, exercise, nutrition and not getting stressed out. Simple eh? I didn’t say it was easy, but it is really that simple.
Diagnosis and treatment of adrenal dysfunction is a speciality of a functional medicine doctor. Knowing which tests are needed and what treatment will work takes specialized training. I have had the honor of helping many people who were suffering from adrenal dysfunction, and I’d love to help you or your loved one. Even if you don’t live near enough to see me I often can help.