Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustion Adrenal fatigue and adrenal exhaustion, are practically an epidemic in our society today and is responsible for a vast number of debilitating symptoms, and yet most people are unaware that they have the condition. Adrenal fatigue, also sometimes referred to as adrenal insufficiency, develops when the adrenal glands no longer produce their hormones adequately and do not function optimally. The adrenal glands are two small glands about the size of a walnut sitting on top of your kidneys that play a very large role in your level of emotional and physical health. They are responsible for the production of a variety of hormones that are critical to many body functions and systems like maintaining blood sugar; managing stress and fatigue; converting carbs into energy, gluconeogenesis (turning protein and fat into glucose); regulating the immune system and inflammatory response; normalizing blood pressure; electrolyte balance; the distribution of stored fat; cardiovascular function; and regulating our fight or flight response system. Malfunctioning or depleted adrenal glands lead to excessive fatigue, exhaustion, cravings for sweets and caffeine, inability to handle stress, unstable blood sugar and a variety of other debilitating symptoms. The outer portion of the gland is called the adrenal cortex and this is where cortisol, aldosterone, DHEA and a small amount of sex hormones are produced. The inner portion of the gland is called the medulla and it produces norepinephrine and epinephrine, also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline. The most crucial stress hormone produced by the adrenals is cortisol, because it counteracts stress. It supports our need to cope with stress. When the adrenals are fatigued or exhausted they no longer produce enough cortisol. When there isn't sufficient cortisol in the body, then the individual is susceptible to auto-immune disorders, chronic pain syndromes, chronic fatigue, asthma, allergies and more. In an attempt to self-medicate the many symptoms that occur as a result of a malfunctioning adrenal gland, the individual often reaches for drugs and alcohol, or caffeine and sugar which only perpetuates the problem even further. DHEA is important because it defends the body against breakdown from chronic stress and is the precursor to estrogen and testosterone. It works in conjunction with cortisol to support stress; one assists by providing energy and generating some break down, while the other opposes. However, another important adrenal hormone that you don't hear too much about is aldosterone. It regulates the balance of sodium and potassium in the body, which in turn helps in controlling blood pressure, electrolytes and the distribution of fluids. It too can become depleted and contribute to adrenal fatigue. Low levels of aldosterone often accompany low levels of cortisol, but not always. The longer one goes without adrenals that function adequately the more symptoms that develop. Over time other organ systems begin to malfunction as well as they try to compensate for the weary adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue usually occurs in phases and the further you progress through the phases the more symptomatic you will be and the more serious the issue becomes. In the early phases of adrenal fatigue, you may respond quite well to a variety of natural treatments, but as it progresses the substances that would normally help in this situation actually perpetuate the problem. When adrenal fatigue progresses to the last phase, it is called adrenal exhaustion. At this point the adrenals are hardly functioning at all and the individual has a hard time staying ambulatory throughout the day and dealing with any stress seems like a monumental task. Their overall health at this point is severely compromised. This is a dangerous stage and requires the guidance of a skilled physician with expertise in advanced adrenal exhaustion. If not attended to adequately, advanced adrenal exhaustion can result in death. How Does Adrenal Fatigue Develop? - Causes of Adrenal Fatigue Stress hormones are needed when we are facing a dangerous, threatening or emergency situation, they provide us with extra strength, energy and alertness to deal effectively with the situation at hand. However, overstimulation of the stress hormones is what leads to adrenal fatigue. The primary system involved in the bodies stress response system is known as the HPA axis, which involves a complex interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. It is responsible for controlling essentially all the bodies hormones, nervous system activity, storage and expenditure of energy, as well as regulating the immune system, controlling reactions to stress and a variety of other body processes like digestion, mood, emotions and sexuality. When you're under stress, the hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotrophin releasing factor, or CRF, which then flows through your pituitary gland and stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH, which then stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This process makes you alert and gives you the energy needed to deal with the stressful event. In a normal circumstance, once the threat (the stressful event) passes then the hormones recede and the body returns to its non-stress state. However, in the fast paced, high stress life that most people live in these days and the diet they eat this cycle is ongoing. Overstimulation of the adrenal glands keeps the system releasing stress hormones on a regular basis. The body is in a constant state of fight or flight and eventually burns itself out. When cortisol is released too much and too frequently, then eventually the adrenals stop putting out cortisol out at the levels that are required for optimal functioning - adrenal fatigue occurs. Overstimulating could occur from a one time event where there is intense stress such the loss of a loved one or a medical crises, or it can be the result of chronic, ongoing stress in your daily life that eventually builds up and grates away at the adrenals slowly.