The main function of the adrenal glands is to help you deal with and adapt to stressors, which could be anything from financial and relationship stress to a poor diet or underlying infection. They do so by releasing a variety of hormones that signal to the rest of your body that an “attack” is taking place. This function is vitally important to keeping us alive, for example, in primitive situations like running from a predator, our “fight or flight” response is what gave us the rush of adrenaline to be able to run, fight, or survive.
These days, the “fight or flight” response is no longer a once-and-awhile occurrence. Today, most of us are under a nearly constant stream of stress, ranging from environmental toxins, to 60 hour workweeks, to underlying infections and poor diet, to debt and finances.
Constant activation of the adrenal glands (the main producers of KEY hormones in the body such as cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, progesterone) means that their essential function becomes disrupted, leading to hormones being produced at the wrong times, in the wrong amounts, or a near failure to produce them whatsoever.
HORMONES RUN THE SHOW.
In case you didn’t know, your hormones are in control of everything from your weight, your mood, your hunger/fullness signals, to your energy, your sleep and more.
The hormones produced by the adrenal glands have a HUGE impact on how every tissue, cell, and organ system in the body functions - and if they aren’t functioning up to par… a whole lot can go wrong.
Here’s how your low adrenal function is contributing to a variety of symptoms such as allergies, insomnia, and anxiety.
Cortisol is a hormone that often gets a bad rap for driving fat storage, but it has many very important roles in the body. Cortisol has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and is one of the primary hormones released by the adrenal glands. The amount of cortisol in our bloodstream at any given time is responsible for monitoring and controlling the body’s inflammatory response - which means that the function of the adrenals is KEY in moderating our histamine response (i.e. allergic reaction) to different foods, dander, plants, etc. People suffering from adrenal fatigue may notice an increased amount of allergies, or existing allergies may seem to worsen, due to the inability of the adrenals to produce enough cortisol to counteract allergic responses. A vicious cycle occurs here, because increased histamine production means the adrenals have to work even harder to produce enough cortisol.
Adrenal fatigue has profound effects on our circadian rhythm (aka our sleep/wake cycle). This is because our circadian rhythm is controlled by our 24 hour cortisol rhythm (established by the adrenal glands). In an ideal rhythm, cortisol should peak in the morning (helping us wake up) and be lowest in the evening, allowing melatonin (the sleep hormone) to take over and allow us to fall asleep. The stress from adrenal fatigue causes a disruption in hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, producing them in higher quantities as night (causing us to feel wide awake at 9pm despite being exhausted all day). If this is you, avoid exercise late in the day, incorporate relaxing activities at night, and remove caffeine (I know, I know).
Another source of nighttime disruption caused by Adrenal Fatigue? low blood sugar. Waking around 3 am often indicates low blood sugar, low adrenal function, and low cortisol.
3. Hypoglycemia & weight gain
In the more advanced stages of AF, many people suffer from low cortisol levels - meaning an increased difficulty sustaining proper blood sugar levels. The result of low adrenal hormones like cortisol (which help to free up stored glucose in the liver in order to raise blood sugar) PLUS high amounts of insulin from stress, means that cells are unable to get the amount of glucose and nutrients they require. This leads to feelings of shakiness, tiredness, weakness, irritability, and have crazy sugar and carb cravings. So, the symptoms of classic hypoglycemia, such as irritability or nervousness when extended periods without food - are often the result of high stress levels and adrenal fatigue (preventing nutrients from getting into your cells), rather than hypoglycemia itself.
Many sufferers respond to this feeling of low blood sugar by consuming sugar and simple carbs in high amounts (to get the quick hit of energy). This causes blood sugar levels to spike (and become completely erratic) yet another stressor on the adrenals. This can result in unwanted weight gain, because insulin (fat storage hormone) transports all of that extra glucose (in the form of sugar and simple carbs you just ate) into fat cells. This is an evolutionary response that serves an incredible purpose - after a period of famine (low blood sugar) we are designed to overeat, while extra calories are available.
For this reason, hypoglycemics have a tendency to gain weight easily if they do not monitor their blood sugar levels closely. If this sounds like you, avoid low blood sugar dips by eating more fat with meals, eating more frequently, reducing stress, and healing the adrenals.
Did you know that adrenal hormones are intimately involved in your cognitive function and mood? Stress and high cortisol (in the beginning stages of Adrenal Fatigue) have been linked to anxiety and depression. Conversely, low cortisol has been linked to brain fog, depression and impaired memory. Adrenal Fatigue sufferers also often report feeling more frustrated and less tolerant, with an inability to handle everyday stressors. Do you ever go off the handle from something insignificant, like one too many dishes in the sink, or pieces of mail on the counter (me!!!)? This is a red flag. If you’re feeling unusually anxious or blue, your adrenals may need some lovin’.
Side note: did you know that caffeine actually helps increase levels of serotonin and dopamine? This means coffee = happiness. Literally. I only learned this a few weeks ago when I decided to cut out caffeine completely, and started feeling unusually sad and helpless for no reason whatsoever. Although it sucked, this is yet another reason to give up coffee and observe the TRUE under-functioning of your adrenals.
5. Joint pain
As you now know, cortisol is responsible for decreasing inflammatory responses within the body. When the adrenals are underfunctioning (as seen in Adrenal Fatigue) cortisol levels are often unable to keep levels on inflammation in check. This is why AF sufferers often report increased levels of joint pain, arthritis pain, or fibromyalgia. Unfortunately, conventional medicine often treats symptoms of arthritis and joint pain with corticosteroids (synthetic cortisol) which, although effective in the short term, halts the bodies natural production of cortisol, meaning that adrenal fatigue can become even worse.
6. Brutal menopause
The adrenal glands become the primary producer source of sex hormones in women, as soon as they hit the mid-life point (menopause) and their ovaries are no longer making estrogen and progesterone. This means, if the adrenal glands are under-functioning once you start menopause, the likelihood of proper sex-hormone production is slim to none. Inefficient (or imbalanced) levels of estrogen and progesterone is what leads to things like hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, hormone imbalance and more. If you are in the peri-menopause stage or are already suffering from intense menopausal symptoms, look into supporting the underlying causes of your symptoms, aka supporting adrenal function.
Another negative consequence of adrenal fatigue is decreased production of thyroid stimulating hormone. Thyroid hormone is responsible for many different processed in the body including metabolism, body temperature, energy levels, hair, skin, and more. This could be a key component of why so many people diagnosed with hypothyroidism DON’T respond to thyroid medication - because the root of the issue is not the thyroid, but the health of the adrenals. If you have been tested for hypothyroidism but are unresponsive to thyroid medication - it is highly likely that your adrenals are to blame, not your thyroid.
8. Bloating and acid reflux
One of the consequences of adrenal fatigue is a constant state of sympathetic stress (fight or flight). This means that during mealtimes, your energetic resources are being shuttled to things like increased heart rate, blood pressure, etc…NOT digestion. As I explain in this post, we must be in a parasympathetic state in order for our brains to signal for the proper breakdown of foods in the mouth, followed by the production of HCL and pancreatic enzymes further down south. So what happens when these functions are not signaled? A whole host of digestive problems ranging from burping to bloating to acid reflux, to diarrhea and constipation. All disease begins in the gut, but the gut can’t do it’s job if your nervous system is in a constant state of sensing danger.