They’re about the size of walnuts, your two adrenal glands. Picture them there, resting comfortably, one on top of each kidney. If you reach around your back with your hands open, your thumbs will be about where your adrenal glands are perched.
There are two parts to your adrenals: inner (medulla) and outer (cortex).
• The medulla responds to emergency signals from your brain, releasing epinephrine (adrenaline) that puts your whole body into emergency super-high gear. When you read about a 90-year-old woman beating back a mugger with her umbrella, you can be sure she has an enviable pair of adrenals.
• The cortex responds to long-term stress, producing DHEA (a pre-hormone that makes other hormones), cortisol, and some of your sex hormones, progesterone and testosterone.
When nutritionally oriented doctors talk about adrenal fatigue, they’re referring to the depletion of DHEA and cortisol, a condition virtually always caused by long-term stress. When life’s pressures become insurmountable–job, money, relationships–and you feel “fried,” that’s adrenal fatigue. It’s the afternoon crash when you reach for some coffee or sugar to keep you going.
One problem patients face when dealing with adrenal fatigue is that it’s not an actual disease and so, like low blood sugar (also not a disease), a lot of conventional doctors question its existence altogether. But were they to measure your pathetic cortisol levels and see how they plummet as the day progresses, they’d be convinced.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue Fatigue, mainly, especially in the afternoon when your adrenal glands start running out of steam. (Before assuming you have adrenal fatigue, however, your doctor should rule out other causes of fatigue, like anemia or an underactive thyroid.) Other symptoms of adrenal fatigue include lightheadedness, especially when you stand up too quickly, and craving salt, sugar, and caffeine. But mainly it’s fatigue.
Testing for adrenal fatigue is easy You order a small kit and collect samples of saliva four times throughout a single day. The test is generally covered by your health insurance, but if you go that route, your doctor has to order it through her office. If you have adrenal fatigue, you’ll see low levels of cortisol, low levels of DHEA, or both.
If you can reduce the relentless stress that’s depleting your adrenals, the glands will heal themselves. However, about a third of women with adrenal fatigue need to also boost their stress-buffering serotonin (this is described in my book The Triple Whammy Cure). Take this online quiz to see if you’re among the Triple Whammy set.
Otherwise, treatment can usually be managed without medication. A good adrenal restorative, like Adreset, contains the herbs and nutrients your adrenals crave. If your DHEA is low, you can add this as well, but every couple months you should re-measure your DHEA so you don’t overshoot the amount you need. The main symptom of too much DHEA is mild acne, which disappears within a couple weeks after you stop the DHEA.
Some people also need temporary low doses of cortisol to jump-start their adrenals. Cortisol, however, is available only by prescription.
It’s not your imagination that you’re exhausted at 3 in the afternoon. And yes, you can successfully treat it yourself.