What is adrenal fatigue? Is it real?

Tired woman lying face-down on a couch

You may have heard the term “adrenal fatigue” used to describe a stress-related hormonal condition whose sufferers experience chronic fatigue, low energy, digestive issues, brain fog, salt and sugar cravings and more.

But it’s not something you’ll hear doctors talking about much.

That’s because “adrenal fatigue” is not a medical diagnosis. It’s an invented term without real meaning, and it can stand in the way of patients getting the help they actually need.

I’ll explain.

Why you don’t hear doctors discuss ‘adrenal fatigue’ much

If you Google “adrenal fatigue,” you’ll find a lot of questionable content: vague (and incorrect) theories about stress draining your adrenal glands of necessary cortisol. Nebulous symptoms. Causes ranging from mold exposure to emotional trauma.

You’ll also often find someone selling something to make it all better.

As an endocrinologist with more than 20 years of experience, I have yet to find a pill that would relieve all of the symptoms associated with so-called “adrenal fatigue.” It sounds great to know that you can take a pill (or multiple pills) to treat your symptoms, but this is most likely just an effect of doing something, and you’d get just as much benefit from an unmarked sugar pill (“the placebo effect”).

Although these supposed “cures” are rarely harmful, their major effect may be to lighten a patient’s wallet.

The fact is that current medical science — and, notably, the Endocrine Society, an international organization for endocrine scientists and doctors — doesn’t recognize the condition of “adrenal fatigue,” a term coined in the late 1990s by a chiropractor and naturopath.

Symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue can be real

I don’t want to diminish the symptoms associated with what others call adrenal fatigue. Patients experiencing them can be miserable. It’s always worth trying to find the underlying cause of why you may be experiencing fatigue and low energy — you might have an actual adrenal or other hormonal problem such as adrenal insufficiency, for example, or a mental health condition such as depression — and we can run tests and perform exams to see if your body isn’t operating as it should.

But when bogus diagnoses crop up in popular culture, it’s often because people are frustrated and looking for simple, quick answers — and others have found a way to capitalize on that.

Beware of a “diagnosis” that’s not supported by the scientific medical community, and be suspicious of salespeople who claim to have the answers. Many times, we don’t have clear, easy medical answers. I know that if you’re not feeling the way you think you should, it’s nice to have an official stamp of a diagnosis.

But there’s not always a medical diagnosis for how we’re feeling.

When it comes to symptoms tied to “adrenal fatigue,” if we rule out more serious, legitimate conditions, often the best way to improve your health is through general wellness activities. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, time with loved ones and plentiful sleep can go a long way toward restoring your energy and well-being. They’re certainly better than a costly magic pill off the internet.

The first step in the journey to your best health begins with a primary care provider who cares

Get started today


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