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A Functional Medicine Guide to Adrenal Fatigue

A Functional Medicine Guide to Adrenal Fatigue

information Jan 25, 2022

By Jennifer Engels, MD

Do you frequently feel fatigued, crave salty or sugary foods, have trouble losing weight despite dieting and exercise, have little to no sex drive, and find your energy crashing in the afternoon? Regrettably, individuals suffering from symptoms like these often dismiss them, assuming they’re a normal part of aging. In reality, however, these might be warning signals indicating you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue.

A word about the adrenal glands

In exploring the causes and treatment of adrenal fatigue, a good starting point is to provide a brief description of the location and functioning of the adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys, kind of like a baseball cap on the top of your head. Their purpose is to regulate many of the hormonal functions taking place in your body, and one of their most important roles is controlling the release of cortisol, the stress hormone that’s essential for our survival.


In a much earlier age, when our prehistoric ancestors were pursued by predators wanting to devour them, the brain’s sympathetic nervous system switched their bodies into a fight-or-flight mode. In this state, the adrenal glands released increased amounts of cortisol. That response elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, enabling a faster reaction to imminent danger and increasing the odds of survival.

When the crisis passed, the cortisol level decreased, along with blood pressure and blood sugar levels. In short, a normal balance returned.

Thankfully today, we’re rarely chased by carnivores wanting to kill us, but our bodies continue to function in much the same way as they did thousands of years ago. As in prehistoric times, our adrenal glands respond to distress signals from the brain by releasing increased amounts of cortisol. This response helps us confront the situation at hand, after which our cortisol returns to its normal level once the stressful situation has passed.

So, what is adrenal fatigue?

I think this question can best be answered by a further description of cortisol levels. Under normal conditions in healthy individuals, cortisol levels tend to be higher in the morning to help us wake up and get into our day. As the day progresses, the cortisol level slowly goes down, while your level of melatonin (the sleep hormone) increases. In other words, these two hormones are inversely proportional to each other, as one decreases, normally the other increases.

Adrenal fatigue occurs when there is an ongoing imbalance between these two crucial hormones. Because of complex signals originating in the brain as it responds to high levels of stress – much as it responded thousands of years ago to the attack of predators – the level of cortisol produced by the adrenal glands is either high when it should be low, or low when it should be high, or always high or always low.

So, to summarize a complicated medical situation concisely, adrenal fatigue occurs because of the brain’s miscommunication with the adrenal glands, meaning that this disorder is not the fault of the adrenal glands themselves.

Symptoms and causes of adrenal fatigue

In addition to those mentioned at the beginning of this article, other likely symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:

  • A slow start in the morning
  • Afternoon fatigue, followed by a second burst of energy in the evening
  • Dizziness when standing too quickly
  • An inability to stay asleep
  • Blood sugar issues
  • Moodiness
  • Weak nails and brittle hair
  • Chronic inflammation

Some of the ongoing, chronic stressors that can lead to adrenal fatigue are:

  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Viruses and bacterial infections
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Food intolerances
  • Gut issues
  • Excessive exercise
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Emotional stress

Diagnosis and treatment at WeCare Frisco

Unfortunately, many practitioners of traditional medicine insist that adrenal fatigue is not a legitimate medical diagnosis. However, at WeCare Frisco, we strongly disagree.

Admittedly, there are many possible causes for these symptoms, and our diagnosis of your situation will involve an in-depth examination of your medical history, along with lab tests on your saliva and urine to check for inappropriately high levels of cortisol. We can graph your cortisol curve throughout the day to see if it is rising and falling at the appropriate times. Together, we can then construct a treatment plan that addresses lifestyle issues contributing to your stress levels, while also addressing any other illnesses that may have been caused by prolonged stress.

If you’re suffering from the symptoms I’ve described, functional medicine can provide relief from adrenal fatigue, and I urge you to contact us at WeCare Frisco to schedule your initial consultation.

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“I was absolutely fascinated,” Engels says, “by this new style of medicine that saw the patient as a whole biological system rather focusing on only one organ system at a time, such as Cardiology. This was a complete paradigm shift from conventional medicine and how I was trained.”