Is Adrenal Fatigue Real?

While adrenal fatigue is not an accepted medical diagnosis, that doesn't mean you're not feeling the effects of chronic stress.

April 11, 2022

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Photo by: torwai/Getty Images

torwai/Getty Images

You’re tired, stressed, gaining weight and feeling like crap. Search the internet and you will quickly find you can self-diagnose yourself with adrenal fatigue; you may even find a health care provider of some sort to corroborate this condition. Thanks to social media influencers and other self-proclaimed "experts" online, adrenal fatigue is trending, but is this seemingly horrible diagnosis isn’t all it appears to be. Here’s the science behind adrenal function and the answer to the question “Is adrenal fatigue real?”.

Adrenal Function, Explained

Located above the kidneys, the adrenal glands are a hormone producing powerhouse. Responsible for creating cortisol, adrenaline and more, these glands trigger the reactions that help immune and cardiovascular function and the body’s response to stress.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands involved in metabolism and anti-inflammatory processes. It also helps the body adapt to stressful situations and regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol raises and lowers in a 24-hour cycle, with levels typically highest in the morning and lowering as the day goes on. When you are stressed, the brain signals the release of more cortisol to help physiologically manage the situation.

Is It Adrenal Fatigue?

The theory of adrenal fatigue suggests that chronic exposure to stress tires out the adrenal glands and limits their function, but there are several scientific holes in this concept. For starters, a peer-reviewed analysis of nearly 60 studies concluded that adrenal fatigue is a myth. Adrenal fatigue is not a condition recognized by any endocrinology societies.

Qualified medical pros are also advocating for debunking this popular myth. A recent podcast by Drs. Karl and Spencer Nadolsky also discusses how many of the so-called “symptoms of adrenal fatigue (such as weight gain)” completely contradict what would happen if your adrenal glands weren’t functioning properly. The doctors also point out that many of the alleged methods used to test for adrenal fatigue are misguided. They also caution against the use of supplements and other remedies often recommended by unqualified medical professionals in treating “adrenal fatigue.”

If you’re concerned about your adrenal function, seek advice from a qualified endocrinologist.

So If It’s Not Adrenal Fatigue, Then What?

Just because adrenal fatigue isn't an accepted medical diagnosis, doesn't mean you're not feeling the effects of chronic stress. We suggest taking a look at your lifestyle. Lack of sleep, abuse of stimulants like caffeine by day and depressants like alcohol by night, along with poor diet and lack of physical activity are likely the culprit, not a theory made up by unqualified people on the internet.

If you are concerned about your adrenal function, there are several well-studied conditions involving true adrenal disorders, known as adrenal insufficiency. These conditions are much more serious than feeling run down and in some cases are life threatening. Weight loss and lowered blood pressure are common symptoms of adrenal glands malfunctioning, which does not align with the weight gain and elevated blood pressure complaints of those suffering from so-called adrenal fatigue. As always, check with your doctor to better evaluate your symptoms.

Bottom Line: While adrenal fatigue is a myth, it's important to address chronic stress.

While adrenal diseases do exist, the concept that your adrenal glands are “fatigued” from overuse is a myth. If you're feeling symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, sleeplessness and others associated with chronic stress, take a look at your lifestyle to see if you can make practical steps to improve your energy levels and lower your stress levels with the help of a medical professional, if necessary.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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