Adrenal Fatigue, Adrenal Exhaustion: Is It "Real?"

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP
    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Dr. Balentine received his undergraduate degree from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He attended medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine graduating in1983. He completed his internship at St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia and his Emergency Medicine residency at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, where he served as chief resident.

What are the adrenal glands?

The term "adrenal fatigue" has appeared with increasing frequency in the media and lay press to describe a condition that implies some kind of weakness or dysfunction of the adrenal glands.

The two adrenal glands are located near the top of the kidneys on each side, and produce a number of different hormones that are essential for body function. In particular, the adrenal glands produce hormones that help control:

Cortisol (one of the adrenal hormones) is important for maintaining blood glucose levels and mediating the stress response (fight-or-flight).

What is adrenal fatigue?

According to proponents of the adrenal fatigue theory, adrenal fatigue causes tiredness and problems with concentration and thinking, and is due to the inability of the adrenal glands to function at a level appropriate to the stresses of daily life.

Proponents feel that these minor fluctuations cannot be detected by the usual blood tests to use to check the adrenal gland. But scientific or medical proof for the existence of adrenal fatigue is lacking. The symptoms of tiredness and poor concentration can be caused by a wide range of both emotional and physical conditions, and these symptoms are fairly nonspecific and occur in many people. In fact, these symptoms can be caused by poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, or stress, without any evidence that the adrenal glands are not functioning properly.

Addison's disease and adrenal problems

Insufficient production of hormones by the adrenal glands is the hallmark of a condition known as Addison's disease. This condition can be diagnosed by blood tests and causes specific symptoms along with fatigue, including:

If you are having troublesome symptoms, the best course of action is to discuss these with your healthcare professional. Self-diagnosis of adrenal fatigue or other medically unrecognized conditions and trying proposed remedies for an unrecognized diagnosis can worsen the situation, because the true cause of your symptoms may go unrecognized. Further, some of the advertised "remedies" for adrenal fatigue consist of dried and ground preparations of animal gland tissues that may suppress the proper function of the endocrine system and may even possibly be a vehicle to transmit slow virus diseases like mad cow disease.

Unproven therapies for unrecognized conditions always carry a risk, and this is no exception.

Medically reviewed by John A. Seibel, MD; Board Certified Internal Medicine with a subspecialty in Endocrinology & Metabolism

REFERENCE: Counseling Postmenopausal Women About Bioidentical Hormones.

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