Are your chronically low levels of energy due to adrenal fatigue or chronic fatigue?
How can you tell the difference between adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue?
Aren’t they the same condition?
Think of adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue as two separate but overlapping circles – like the ones found in a Venn diagram. Chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue may be two separate conditions. But because they share so many similar symptoms, there’s a lot of overlap. And it’s really easy to get confused.
Let’s dispell the cloud cover surrounding these conditions so you can see them as they are – two separate medical conditions.
My doctor said adrenal fatigue wasn’t real
If you’ve been dealing with chronically low energy levels, don’t expect your family doctor to diagnose you with adrenal fatigue. As far as the conventional medical community is concerned, adrenal fatigue is not a real condition.
The condition known as adrenal fatigue describes a state where your adrenal glands stop producing cortisol. One of the main symptoms of low cortisol is fatigue. It was hypothesized that when the body is exposed to a long term or very intense level of stress, the adrenal glands fatigue. The fatiguing of the adrenal glands results in lowered cortisol production.
This sounds like a perfectly reasonable explanation. And I’m sure that’s why so many of you and your practitioner(s) have diagnosed adrenal fatigue. But when you look at the research, there’s not much to support the theory of fatiguing adrenals. This is why your family doctor won’t get behind the adrenal fatigue diagnosis.
There’s no scientific evidence to support the existence of adrenal fatigue.
The truth behind adrenal fatigue
I think it’s best if we leave the condition known as adrenal fatigue behind us. The theory served us when we didn’t have a thorough understanding of how the human body responded to stress. Now that we have more information, we need to stop using this outdated theory.
A more up to date theory on how the human body processes and deals with stress is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. HPA axis dysfunction or maladaptation is the modern-day equivalent to adrenal fatigue. Instead of suggesting that the adrenal glands fatigue, thus decreasing cortisol production, HPA axis dysfunction links the stress response to your brain, not your adrenals.
It is your brain that both perceives and interprets stress from your environment. If you narrowly avoid getting in a car accident, it’s your brain that perceives the scene as stressful. In response, your brain signals to your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones improve your reaction time. Which makes you more likely to avoid any other car accidents in the immediate future.
In short term stress – like a near miss on the freeway – the HPA axis does its job. And it does its job very well. But when the stress becomes chronic, the HPA axis struggles. Your HPA axis adapted to deal with short, intense bouts of stress (like lions, tigers, and bears). The chronic long-term stress so common today is not what your HPA axis is ideal at managing.
As you know now, your HPA axis releases cortisol and adrenaline in response to stress. But what would happen if you were exposed to a chronic gut infection? One that wouldn’t go away with antibiotics or any medication.
Well, your body would respond with a stress response – adrenaline and cortisol. These two hormones signal to your body that it is under attack (stress) and help it to mount an immune defense. But should this continue over many months, you can start to see how stressful it becomes to constantly mount an immune defense. This results in your brain down-regulating the HPA axis. Which decreases cortisol and adrenaline – sometimes to levels that are far too low. This is when you experience the adrenal fatigue symptoms – no energy, sick all the time, getting dizzy when you stand up, etc.
The truth behind adrenal fatigue is that it has little to do with your adrenal glands. And nearly everything to do with your brain. Adrenal fatigue is a brain problem, not an adrenal problem.
But what about chronic fatigue? How does CFS relate to your adrenal glands and the HPA axis?
The truth behind chronic fatigue syndrome
The truth about chronic fatigue is that researchers don’t know what causes it. There are a number of hypothesis floating around but none have completely solved the chronic fatigue puzzle. Some of the more common hypothesis as to what causes chronic fatigue syndrome include:
Notice how each of the above (except for genetics) results in a chronic state of inflammation and/or stress. Without question, any of the above will negatively affect your HPA axis. Over the long term, this could result in adrenal fatigue. Here is where chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue start to overlap.
I’ve come to believe that chronic fatigue syndrome has multiple causes. The root cause of chronic fatigue in you is probably not the root cause in your friend. You’ll both experience a decrease in mitochondrial function. Which will create a similar pattern of symptoms in both of you. Fatigue is, of course, the most common complaint.
The difference between chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue
Chronic fatigue syndrome can cause adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue does not cause chronic fatigue. This is the biggest difference between the two conditions.
Adrenal fatigue will often be a part of chronic fatigue. In order to overcome chronic fatigue syndrome, you need a well-functioning HPA axis. If you have adrenal fatigue, no matter the cause of your CFS, you won’t improve your energy. To reclaim your energy, you need to identify and treat the root cause of your CFS and ensure your HPA axis is functioning optimally.
Treatment: do you address adrenal fatigue or chronic fatigue first?
The most important step is differentiating adrenal fatigue from chronic fatigue. Even though the main symptom – fatigue – is the same in both conditions, the treatments for each are quite different.
While there is no lab test for chronic fatigue, there are lab tests for adrenal fatigue. Just be sure to remember that a lot of you suffering from CFS will have adrenal fatigue occurring concurrently.
Adrenal fatigue results from the chronic infection, inflammation, trauma, etc. found in CFS. In this case, adrenal fatigue is a symptom. It needs to be addressed after properly identifying the root cause of CFS.
In general, I recommend identifying and treating the root cause of CFS before addressing adrenal fatigue. If a mold or mycotoxin infection is found to be the cause of your chronic fatigue, you need to address it before working on your HPA axis/adrenal fatigue.
Now, there’s a caveat to this treatment hierarchy. After a chronic infection like mold, your HPA axis can be incredibly low or under-functioning. In these cases, you’ll find that whenever you try to treat the mold – or whatever else may be causing your CFS – you end up feeling significantly worse.
Should this be happening to you, you should focus on the initial stages of your treatment on your HPA axis/adrenal fatigue. Take a couple of months to focus on your nutrition and the best supplements for adrenal fatigue before treating your CFS.
Once you’ve improved your adrenal fatigue, you should be better positioned to focus your attention and treatment on the root cause of CFS.
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Ok, Now you know the difference between adrenal fatigue and chronic fatigue!
It’s time to hear from you!
What differences did you experience between the two conditions?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!