There are few things worse than feeling run down and exhausted all the time. And while stress or short periods of poor sleep definitely happen from time to time, if the exhaustion is chronic it may be pointing to something bigger. Adrenal fatigue is a condition naturopathic doctors often point to when patients show these symptoms, and recommending adaptogens for adrenal fatigue is relatively common practice.
But is adrenal fatigue a real diagnosis? Here’s what you need to know about the condition, what western medicine has to say about it, and how adaptogens may be able to help with symptoms.
What is adrenal fatigue?
In naturopathic medicine, adrenal fatigue is a condition characterized by extreme exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, and a feeling of being run down, often caused by long-term stress or overworking.
The term “adrenal fatigue” was first coined by Dr. James Wilson, an American naturopathic doctor. His popular book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome is based on the premise that the human body can experience what he calls “adrenal exhaustion.” He defines adrenal fatigue as an imbalance in the body’s response to stress, resulting in an over-exhaustion of the adrenal glands and their reduced production of cortisol. He theorizes that this can lead to intense physical and mental exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, and a feeling of being overwhelmed or run down.
But is adrenal fatigue real?
Interestingly, in western medicine, adrenal fatigue is not considered an acceptable diagnosis. The Endocrine Society, a global community of 18,000 endocrinologists, firmly denies that adrenal fatigue is a real disease. Their issue with the diagnosis stems from what they describe as a flawed understanding of how the adrenal system works.
Medical research shows that when put under stress, the adrenals work harder and create more cortisol, not less. There is also no evidence that day-to-day stress can ‘exhaust’ the adrenals’ capability to produce cortisol. Based on this, long term stress actually leads to chronically high levels of cortisol, not the low levels of cortisol naturopaths describe as ‘adrenal fatigue’.
That said, leading endocrinologists do acknowledge that the symptoms people describe as ‘adrenal fatigue’ are real, and should be treated as such. Endocrine Society President, Lynnette Nieman, MD, explains:
“Although current medical science recognizes no such condition, physicians need to take the complaints and symptoms of these patients seriously. Our role is to be good active listeners to determine if there is a true medical disorder lurking among the complaints. It is very important to take the person seriously, not to brush them off and say there is no [such thing as] adrenal fatigue. These people are suffering from something, so we need to take the suffering seriously.”
So whether you refer to it as ‘adrenal fatigue’, ‘burnout’, or ‘stress-related exhaustion’, if you’re feeling more run down than usual, it’s definitely worth investigating.
Adaptogens for adrenal fatigue
Adaptogens are a unique class of herbal remedies that can help the body deal with both physical and emotional stress. They work by regulating hormones produced by the adrenal system, which helps your body cope with stressor and restores balance to the whole system. Although they aren’t magic solutions, there is research which suggests that adaptogens’ ability to support the adrenal system could lead to an increase in resilience to physical, mental, and emotional stress. Ashwagandha, rhodiola, and holy basil are particularly popular adaptogens for adrenal fatigue or burnout. All three have been found to reduce stress, improve energy and provide antioxidant support.
Ashwagandha is an Indian herb that has been used for centuries to help restore energy, reduce fatigue, and improve overall well-being. Studies have shown it can also boost the body’s ability to fight off stress and improve sleep quality.
Rhodiola is another popular adaptogen that has been widely studied due to its anti-fatigue effects. It has been found to reduce stress, improve mood and cognitive performance, as well as increase energy levels.
Holy basil has traditionally been used to reduce inflammation and protect the immune system from diseases caused by oxidative stress. New research even suggests Holy basil may have anti-cancer properties when consumed regularly.
How to add adaptogens to your routine
Adaptogens come in many forms, from tinctures and teas to capsules and powders. Tinctures are liquid extracts with a high concentration of active ingredients, which makes them a very efficient way to get your daily dose. The strength of the concentration does often lead to a bitter, medicinal taste, so they’re often best consumed mixed into smoothies to help mask the taste.
Adaptogenic teas are usually milder. They’re generally designed to be consumed daily for extended periods of time, making them a great way to enhance your daily routine. Some of our favourite adaptogen teas, like these from The New New Age, are made with intentionally selected ingredients that all work together to target specific health concerns.
Finally, you can find many adaptogen products in powder form that can be added to shakes, smoothies, and even soup for an extra health boost.
Other ways to reduce adrenal fatigue symptoms
It should come as no surprise that taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to reduce chronic exhaustion or adrenal fatigue symptoms. Getting adequate rest, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy, nutritious diet can help bring balance back to your system and keep you functioning optimally.
As we should all know by now, getting 8-9 hours of good quality sleep per night can help regulate hormones that affect stress levels while regular exercise helps us manage our emotions better. And eating nutrient-dense foods provides fuel for our bodies to more effectively manage cortisol production, so making sure you are eating properly can really go a long ways towards improving symptoms.
When to see a doctor about adrenal fatigue.
Taking adaptogens for adrenal fatigue is a start, but if you are really struggling to keep up with the demands of life or are feeling an overall sense of exhaustion, it may be time to consult a doctor or therapist. Your doctor may ask about your lifestyle, diet and stress levels, and can perform blood tests to rule out any more serious endocrine disorders. Understanding the root cause of the adrenal fatigue is crucial in order to successfully treat it. Don’t wait too long – seeking medical advice when symptoms first appear will allow for earlier management so that you can start feeling better sooner.
A holistic approach to treating the root cause of your stress is always best so you can plan for long-term success in creating a healthy body and mind.