Assessing Adrenal Fatigue
Stress permeates our everyday lives and there is hardly anyone who doesn’t suffer from stress on a regular basis. A large-scale study has shown that 44% of Britons consider themselves to feel stressed, with 28% of those people feeling consistently stressed out for over a year. Chronic stress not only affects your moods, but it also has a major impact on your health due to fluctuating levels of the stress hormone cortisol and can influence everything from your metabolism to your immune system. An increasing number of people find themselves feeling wired, tired, or a combination of the two, all of which are signs of adrenal fatigue due to stress. If this sounds familiar and you want to determine whether or not you may be in a state of adrenal fatigue, here is a description of the symptoms experienced in the different stages, how it affects the body, and some of the different methods for assessing your body’s cortisol levels.
The Effect of Elevated Cortisol Levels on the Body
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands which sit atop the kidneys. The body synthesizes cortisol from cholesterol and it is released in the body in response to stress. Levels in the body fluctuate throughout the day and are at the highest in the morning and the lowest during sleep, helping to wake you up in the morning and to let you rest at night. When you experience a stressful event, your body releases cortisol to help you act quickly and remove yourself from the threatening situation as quickly as possible. This response evolved in humans to help us escape immediate danger, but most of us rarely experience this sort of event. Instead, we find ourselves encountering dozens of low-level stressors in our daily lives, keeping our cortisol levels consistently elevated and giving you the characteristic symptom of feeling wired but tired all the time. If you have been suffering from chronic stress and feeling this way, you may be in this initial stage of adrenal fatigue where your cortisol levels are constantly elevated and your body believes it is under a constant threat, hindering important functions in the long term.
Elevated cortisol levels have many underlying effects on the body beyond your perceived energy levels. Cortisol’s purpose is to shut down unnecessary functions in the body so that you may put all of your energy into getting out of your stressful situation, but chronically flooding your body with stress hormones can have serious effects on your health. Cortisol suppresses your immune system and makes you more susceptible to illness. It prevents the release of inflammation-causing substances in the body that are designed to heal wounds and fight infections, thus slowing healing time when levels are too high. It slows the production of collagen and bone, and can exacerbate osteoporosis as a result. Your cognitive function may be impaired by cortisol exposure to the hippocampus over time making you experience brain fog and trouble concentrating or learning. Cortisol also raises blood sugar levels and can worsen insulin resistance over the long term, making you more susceptible to Type II diabetes. It affects thyroid hormone production, raises your blood pressure by contracting blood vessels, and disrupts your metabolism, leading to weight gain. Raised cortisol levels around the clock also disturb your sleep patterns and result in fatigue and insomnia. It also affects the reproductive system and can cause disruptions in ovulation and the menstrual cycle. When your body remains in a state of constant stress with elevated cortisol levels, it affects your entire body.
The Effect of Inadequate Cortisol Production on the Body
On the other hand, if you have been suffering from prolonged stress, your adrenal glands may reach a point where they can no longer keep producing such high levels of cortisol and the production levels suddenly drop very low. At this stage of adrenal fatigue, you will reach a point of exhaustion and feel tired all the time. You may feel irritable or depressed, have trouble concentrating, feel tired but sleep poorly, and be more prone to illness and take longer to recover. You may experience weight gain, systemic inflammation, low blood pressure, and hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Your cortisol levels may fluctuate and you may feel exhausted after a large meal, crave fatty or sugary foods, and be more susceptible to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Assessments for Adrenal Fatigue
Disordered cortisol production in the body can be a very serious condition and it’s important to be tested for cortisol levels by a doctor to rule out conditions such as Addison’s disease, which is the inadequate production of cortisol by the adrenal glands often due to autoimmunity, and Cushing’s syndrome, the overproduction of cortisol sometimes due to medications such as prednisone or tumour growth on the pituitary gland.
If you are feeling wired and/or tired due to chronic stress in your life, you may want to begin with a self-assessment for adrenal fatigue by filling out an in-depth symptom questionnaire and conducting an at-home iris contraction test. In a darkened room, after your eyes have had a minute to adjust, shine a light across (but not into) your eye from the side of your head about six inches away and hold it there for a few minutes. Your iris will contract, but if you have adrenal fatigue, it will not be able to hold and will dilate to rest the muscle for about 30 seconds before trying to contract again. You can also use this method on a monthly basis to assess yourself for signs of improvement. While this is a quick test you can do at home, it is not a diagnosis and could also be an indicator of other conditions so it’s important to have a more definitive test done if you suspect you have adrenal fatigue.
The most common types of tests for assessing cortisol levels in the body are through the blood and saliva. A blood cortisol level test will give you a reference point for where your cortisol levels are at the time of the test, but serves only as a brief snapshot. A saliva test, on the other hand, can be conducted at home where you may feel more relaxed and then sent to a lab for analysis. Saliva tests can be done in a series of several samples and can offer a wider picture of your fluctuating cortisol levels than a single result from a blood test. The downside of saliva tests is that they are greatly affected by your stress levels on that given day and your results can be altered by everything from your menstrual cycle to your caffeine and caloric intake that particular day. While both tests need to be analysed in context, they can still help you to determine in what stage of adrenal fatigue you might be and what the best course of treatment is for your particular case.
If you think you might be experiencing adrenal fatigue, Dr. Allie has the expertise needed to help you assess your symptoms and relieve the side effects of chronic stress. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.