Is there such a thing as adrenal fatigue?

Answer From Ann Kearns, M.D., Ph.D.

Adrenal fatigue isn't an official medical diagnosis. It's a general term used to describe a group of symptoms that aren't specific. Examples of those symptoms include tiredness, weakness, sleep problems, and cravings for sugar and salt.

The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. These glands make a variety of important hormones. When the adrenal glands don't make enough hormones, the medical term for that condition is adrenal insufficiency. It may happen due to another medical condition. Or it could be the result of surgery or other medical treatment, such as radiation or certain medicines.

Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:

  • Feeling very tired.
  • Body aches.
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Loss of body hair.
  • A change in skin color, also called hyperpigmentation.
  • Craving salt.
  • Depression.

Adrenal insufficiency can be diagnosed with tests that check the level of adrenal hormones in the body. Imaging exams such as a CT scan or an MRI may be useful too.

Some people claim that adrenal fatigue is a mild form of adrenal insufficiency caused by chronic stress. The idea is that the adrenal glands can't keep up with the demands of the ongoing fight-or-flight state in the body that chronic stress causes. Existing blood tests, according to this theory, aren't sensitive enough to detect a small drop in adrenal function., but that drop triggers the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. However, there is no evidence to support this theory.

Dealing with symptoms that last can be frustrating, especially if your healthcare team can't explain them. But accepting that symptoms are caused by a vague label, such as adrenal fatigue, could cause the true source of a problem to go without a diagnosis or treatment. And that can take a serious toll on your body over time.

If you have symptoms that don't go away, talk to your healthcare team about possible causes. Discuss tests that might be useful, as well as lifestyle changes and treatment that could help you feel better.


Ann Kearns, M.D., Ph.D.

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April 10, 2024 See more Expert Answers

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