Adrenal Function


You’ve probably heard the term ‘adrenal fatigue’ or HPA-axis dysfunction. But what does this mean? Can an organ really fatigue? Adrenal fatigue isn’t an accepted medical diagnosis, but a collection of symptoms. It has become widely known and falls under multiple names, such as:

        • Adrenal fatigue
        • HPA axis dysfunction
        • Adrenal dysfunction
        • Cortisol dysregulation

Symptoms of Adrenal Dysfunction include:

        • Low energy
        • Lethargy
        • Lack of motivation
        • Body aches
        • Nervousness or anxiety
        • Sleep disturbances
        • Digestive concerns
        • Feeling tired but wired


The adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys, produce many hormones for the body. Think of “Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll” when thinking of the adrenal glands function.

Adrenal Gland Function:

        • Regulate hormone production
        • Regulate fluid balance
        • Regulate stress response

This is the parasympathetic and sympathetic regulation of the nervous system and it touches every cell in the body.


Adrenal Glands and The Stress Response

When we think of our body’s stress response, it’s important to know that our bodies evolved to deal with acute, or short-term, stress, but not chronic stress. For example, when you’re hiking a trail in North Vancouver and see a bear, your fight or flight system is activated, you run away from the bear, and back to safety. Once you’re in a safe place your nervous system relaxes, and you should be back in the calm, rest and digest state – the parasympathetic state.

The way we live today is under chronic stress – we wake up to an alarm, hit snooze, don’t leave time for breakfast, rush out the door with the kids, drop them off then race to work, look for parking, pay $37, get to work, see 104 emails, have a meeting, skip lunch to continue working, get tired in the afternoon, drink coffee and eat a muffin, race after work to get the kids, forget you don’t have dinner planned, pick up fast food, get home and eat, help the kids with homework, clean the kitchen, watch TV, go to bed. As you can see that is a never-ending list of stressors – we’re not built for that. Under that type of living, we are all at risk for developing illnesses, adrenal dysfunction being one of them.


The most common causes of ‘Adrenal Fatigue’:

        • Long-term stress
        • A major stressful or traumatic event
        • Lack of control of life
        • Childhood trauma, abuse, instability
        • Physical stressors – illness, allergies
        • Over-training

Stages of ‘Adrenal Fatigue:’

        • High stress all the time – in the beginning, it feels manageable, and you still feel healthy
        • Still under high stress, hanging in there but starting to feel unwell
        • Crash and burn – this is burnout. This stage can look just like depression. Symptoms are as follows:
              • Lack of motivation
              • Lack of energy, lethargy
              • Sadness
              • Hypersomnia or insomnia
              • Low appetite with weight loss, or high appetite with weight gain
              • Dizziness, especially when changing positions, such as from laying to standing or sitting to standing
              • Brain fog
              • Salt or sweet cravings
              • Anxiety
              • Reduced stress tolerance
              • Easily startled
              • Noise, smell or light intolerance


Treatment of ‘Adrenal Fatigue’

When treating any condition, it’s important to get all of the necessary information, and we do so by lab testing. When we are testing cortisol, the stress hormone which is released from the adrenal glands, we use a saliva test. By using specialized testing, we can get a picture of the release of cortisol. We use saliva, and get 4 samples to be able to track the curve. Ideally, cortisol is high early in the morning with a slow decline throughout the day, leading to a low cortisol at night for bed time.

Under chronic stress and over time, the release of cortisol becomes affected, resulting in different symptoms, this is termed ‘Adrenal Fatigue.’

Stages and Symptoms

High Stress – Cortisol Excess

        • Anxiety
        • Insomnia
        • Trouble focusing
        • Sugar cravings
        • Fatigue
        • Irritability
        • Frequent illness
        • Heartburn
        • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
        • Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
        • Menstrual irregularities
        • Buffalo hump
        • Abdominal weight gain
        • Moon face (swollen face)
        • Jitters
        • Rapid pulse

The way we treat the adrenal glands is comprehensive. As naturopathic physicians, we always treat the whole person and implement the four pillars of health; so when treating the adrenal glands or stress response, we will also investigate other hormones and body systems. Depending on the stage of ‘Adrenal Fatigue’ we can implement diet and lifestyle changes, along with herbs, nutrients and, if necessary, prescriptions.

If you think you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue or are at risk of developing this condition due to your lifestyle, reach out – we’d love to help you.