“Adrenal fatigue is a term that was invented outside the mainstream medical community to explain a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as fatigue, body aches, sleep disturbances and digestive problems,” says Dr. Nippoldt. In the March issue of Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource, he explains why the attention focused on adrenal fatigue — in books, articles and Web sites — is troubling.
The adrenal glands, just above the kidneys, provide a variety of hormones that help the body convert food into energy, respond to stress, and maintain the body’s balance of sodium, potassium and water to keep blood pressure normal.
When the adrenal glands aren’t working properly — a condition called adrenal insufficiency — patients experience profound fatigue and can’t maintain a normal blood pressure. Muscles weaken, and it’s difficult for the body to convert food to energy. Very sensitive blood tests are available to determine if the adrenal glands are working properly.
Proponents of adrenal fatigue claim that it’s caused by chronic stress. According to this unproven theory, stress prevents the adrenal glands from producing the hormones needed for a person to feel good. There also are claims that special tests, available for purchase, are needed to diagnose adrenal fatigue.
“By seeking unproven tests or treatments for adrenal fatigue, you could delay the diagnosis of a real, treatable condition or take something that would impair the adrenal glands,” says Dr. Nippoldt. Adrenal supplements, sold in stores or on the Internet, can suppress the amount of hormones produced by the adrenal glands.
Patients dealing with extreme fatigue or who suspect an adrenal problem should seek care from an internist or primary care physician, says Dr. Nippoldt. “A doctor can also look for other problems that could be the underlying cause of fatigue or muscle aching, such as depression, fibromyalgia and obstructive sleep apnea,” he advises.