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Introduction to Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms that results when the adrenal glands function, but below their optimal level. It is clinically and physiologically distinct from Addison’s Disease, which is the extreme of adrenal hypofunction. Whereas Addison’s Disease is primarily caused by damage to the adrenal glands from autoimmune or tubercular processes and has an incidence of approximately one in 23,000, adrenal fatigue is most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress and is estimated to affect the majority of people at some time in their lives. It can be mild and transient, but millions of people are currently struggling with a cycle of diminished adrenal function and stress that is difficult to escape and has considerable negative consequences for their quality of life and overall health.

As the name suggests, the paramount symptom of this syndrome is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep. This fatigue has a distinctive pattern that sets it apart from fatigue caused by other health syndromes or lifestyle factors. Its pattern primarily reflects the depressed daily fluctuations of cortisol that result from the reduced capacity of the adrenal glands to produce adrenal hormones. In adrenal fatigue, cortisol, which is normally highest at around 8 AM, is low in the morning and people have a hard time waking or getting up. Without stimulants, they generally do not really feel awake until after 10 AM and experience another low from mid to late afternoon. After 6 PM, their energy may rally and last until around 9 PM. If they stay awake, they may get a second wind from around 11 PM to 1 AM.

However, with each increment of reduction in adrenal function, they become increasingly fatigued and every organ and system in the body is more profoundly affected. Changes may occur in carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, blood sugar balance, energy production, fluid and electrolyte balance, cardiovascular function, sleep patterns, mood, menstrual and menopausal symptoms, and even sex drive. Many other alterations can take place at the biochemical and cellular levels in response to, and to compensate for, the decrease in adrenal hormones that occurs with adrenal fatigue.

This syndrome has largely gone unrecognized by the healthcare industry with the result that people experiencing it generally find little help when they seek medical advice. Instead, they drive themselves with coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day – meanwhile digging themselves deeper into the vicious cycle. Many find themselves unable to keep up with the pace of their lives and incapable of maintaining their jobs or activities. This is particularly unfortunate since a focused program of lifestyle modifications, body-mind practices, specific nutrients and supplementation can rehabilitate adrenal function and greatly enhance stress hardiness to return these people to fully functional lives.

Dr. James L. Wilson coined the term ‘adrenal fatigue’ to encompass this collection of signs and symptoms within a meaningful context that makes it both reliably recognizable and more straightforward to deal with effectively. Dr. Wilson’s book, Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, contains a wealth of case studies and information about the therapeutic approaches to adrenal fatigue, as well as an explanation of its physiological components and the impact of stress on health. To learn more about adrenal fatigue on this website, see our Adrenal Fatigue Q&A for answers to the most commonly asked questions about adrenal fatigue. You can also go to Dr. Wilson’s Program for Adrenal Fatigue to find physician-tested supplement protocols Dr. Wilson has developed for adrenal fatigue and other related health issues. For further information, visit adrenalfatigue.org, a website created by Dr. Wilson for people experiencing adrenal fatigue.



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