Adrenal Exhaustion, Adrenal Fatigue and Weight Gain

Concept of weight loss

For many of us, weight loss is a challenge. Even if we’re doing everything right it can often seem almost impossible to shift some of the stubborn pounds that we are holding onto. What is that?

There are a lot of different reasons that we struggle with weight loss, but one important area is our hormones. We have many hormones in our body and they respond to different things. Those hormones and their responses can have a range of effects, most of which we don’t even notice at the time.

One specific area of interest is the connection between adrenal exhaustion, adrenal fatigue and weight gain.

Now adrenal exhaustion and adrenal fatigue are basically two names for the same thing. The term is connected to the way that the human body responds to stress. Essentially, when we experience stress, the HPA axis is activated (HPA stands for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal). This axis is a key component of the way that the body responds to stress and it may also influence other hormones as well.

One of the outcomes of this process is the production of a hormone called cortisol – the stress hormone.

All of this is a natural process and it is well-regulated.

However, we live in a society that has high amounts of stress and is extremely fast-paced. As a result, many of us are exposed to stress almost constantly. That is particularly true for people who lead very busy lives or who take little time for themselves.

This constant stress has the potential to disrupt the feedback cycles in our body. Specifically, the HPA axis isn’t able to keep up with the demand for cortisol, resulting in low cortisol levels (1). When this happens, a person can be said to have adrenal exhaustion or adrenal fatigue.

In many ways, the concept makes a lot of sense. After all, stress is extremely prevalent in modern society and it does seem to have many negative impacts on our health.

Implications of Adrenal Fatigue

Tired man

Adrenal fatigue is sometimes considered to be a syndrome, which means it is associated with a range of symptoms. Some of the symptoms that are quoted the most often include:

  • Not feeling rested when you wake up
  • Chronic tiredness
  • A low ability to handle stress
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low sex drive
  • Dizziness, especially when standing up
  • An overall feeling of weakness
  • Reduced ability to think clearly

It’s important to note that these symptoms are very general and they can be caused by a range of other factors as well.

In general, the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are bad for health. Additionally, they make it difficult for people to cope within society, which can lead to symptoms getting worse over time.

The Connection Between Adrenal Fatigue and Weight Gain

As I mentioned earlier, one potential issue is the way that adrenal fatigue and weight gain may be connected.

That connection isn’t directly connected to adrenal fatigue itself, but to many of the symptoms. For example, not getting enough sleep is associated with an increased risk of obesity (2,3,4). In fact, many of us find it much more difficult to keep weight off when we don’t sleep well.

One reason for this is that self-control can often seem harder when we are tired. This can mean we are more likely to make bad decisions about food if we haven’t had enough sleep.

At the same time, the metabolic impacts of not getting enough sleep may also contribute to weight gain (5). This actually relates to cortisol levels. Extremely high levels of cortisol can contribute to weight gain (6) and not getting enough sleep can lead to much higher levels of cortisol (7).

In general, adrenal fatigue is associated with high levels of stress and may mean that your body, and the hormones in it, aren’t functioning like normal. As you can imagine, the implications of that pattern for overall health and weight are pretty significant.

With the lack of research into adrenal fatigue, it isn’t surprising that there aren’t any studies connecting adrenal fatigue and weight gain. Yet, it is still clear that some of the symptoms may well contribute to weight gain.

Is Adrenal Fatigue Real?

Adrenal Glands

The concept of adrenal exhaustion or adrenal fatigue has become popular, but there is considerable debate about whether or not the condition is actually real.

In general, adrenal fatigue is an unproven diagnosis. While many people believe that it exists, there currently is not enough science to back the concept up. Additionally, many of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue can also occur as the result of other conditions.

For example, depression and sleep apnea can produce many of the same symptoms.

It’s also worth noting that some authors cite problems like depression and poor diet as potential causes of adrenal exhaustion (8). Yet, those problems are associated with many of the same symptoms as adrenal exhaustion itself. This reinforces the idea that adrenal exhaustion may not actually be occurring at all.

Realistically, there is little evidence that adrenal fatigue exists and many other conditions and lifestyle factors that can cause similar symptoms.

But, at the same time, we do know that the adrenal glands play a key role in balancing the hormone levels in the body (9). Likewise, cortisol is one of the hormones that the adrenal glands influence, and this is considered to be the stress hormone.

There is the potential for the adrenal glands to become overloaded and not function correctly but as of yet, there is little research to support the concept.

The Case of Addison’s Disease

There is little evidence that adrenal fatigue itself exists. However, there is a health condition called Addison’s disease that does affect the adrenal glands. In fact, Addison’s disease is also known as primary adrenal insufficiency.

Addison’s disease is a recognized health condition and can be diagnosed. In this disease, the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient hormones. This can cause fatigue as well as some other symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue (10).

But, Addison’s disease is rare and most people who think they have adrenal fatigue probably don’t have it.

Does it Matter?

Shrugging businessman

Even though the evidence for adrenal fatigue is limited, a lot of people still argue that it exists. Here’s an interesting thing though.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether adrenal fatigue actually exists or not. Either way, many people do experience many of the symptoms associated with the syndrome. Those symptoms might actually be the result of adrenal fatigue or they might be the result of poor habits, another health condition, stress or just lifestyle in general.

After all, around 33% of all Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep at night (12). That lack of sleep can affect mood, cognition and increase the risk of metabolic issues (13,14) and can contribute to increased stress and cortisol levels (16).

That’s only one aspect of lifestyle.

Our eating habits and exercise habits also play key roles on our bodies and our hormones, as does external sources of stress that we experience.

So, in general, we are pretty stressed out and many of us don’t have especially healthy lifestyles. With that in mind, perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many people experience the symptoms of adrenal fatigue.

Approaches for Reducing Adrenal Fatigue

The basic concept of adrenal fatigue is that the body is basically in overdrive from the amount of stress you are experiencing. So, most of the treatments for adrenal fatigue involve addressing this stress. For example, some of the recommendations include:

Girl sleeping
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Keeping a consistent daily routine of sleeping and waking
  • Avoiding processed foods
  • Cutting out sources of stress where possible
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Giving up smoking, drugs and alcohol
  • Following an exercise program
  • Taking vitamins or supplements

In general, these are all approaches that help to promote good health anyway.

There are also many approaches for doing so. For example, the site James Clear offers a Beginners Guide to Overcoming Sleep Deprivation, which can be incredibly useful. 

These patterns supports the idea that it doesn’t really matter whether adrenal fatigue is real or not, or whether there is a connection between adrenal fatigue and weight gain. If you were to follow the above advice for reducing stress and treating adrenal fatigue, then you would probably end up losing weight anyway.

Beyond that, you would find yourself less stressed, which is healthy anyway.

It’s also worth noting that most of these approaches would make you feel better regardless of the underlying reason for your symptoms. This may be one reason why people are so convinced that adrenal exhaustion affected them.

However, there is one treatment approach for adrenal exhaustion that is more concerning. This is the idea of taking supplements specifically for adrenal fatigue, especially if those supplements are specifically designed to influence the activity of the adrenal glands.

First of all, taking supplements in general is always a bit risky. The supplement industry is largely unregulated. Because of this, you really don’t have any way of knowing what you are putting into your body.

Confused girl with pills

While vitamins and minerals are probably mostly harmless as supplements and may even do some good – taking supplements that affect hormone behavior is a different thing altogether. There is significant risk in trying to control the way your hormones behave.

One example of this is that your body can become dependent on the supplements to a degree. As a consequence, stopping the supplements may actually stop your adrenal glands from working when they are supposed to, which could be detrimental to your health (17).

If you really do think you need to manipulate your hormones in this way, talk to your doctor.

This is not something you should ever be trying independently, regardless of how confident you are about adrenal exhaustion. If nothing else, you need a doctor to be watching how the rest of your body and hormones respond to the supplements.

Indeed, as Precision Nutrition points out, some supplements can have dramatic negative impacts on hormones, which isn't good for health.

So, by all means, take approaches to reduce your stress and improve your health overall. Just avoid the use of supplements specifically for adrenal fatigue.

Final Thoughts

We live in a loud, fast-paced and stressful society. The idea that our environment could affect the way that our bodies function really isn’t too much of a stretch.

Personally, I don’t know whether adrenal fatigue really does occur or not. A lot of people strongly support the idea, but there isn’t much evidence one way or the other. Realistically though, it doesn’t matter whether adrenal fatigue is real.

The approaches for treating it, including decreasing stress and improving our diet, are things that we should all be doing for our health.

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​Have you heard of adrenal fatigue before? What are your thoughts?

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