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Adrenal Fatigue: A Possible Element of ME/CFS?

By Jody Smith

ME/CFS is not the only condition that the medical community can’t seem to reach a consensus about. Adrenal fatigue is another topic that raises conflicting opinions from different quarters. Is it a valid diagnosis? Is it not? Is this the paradigm of how the adrenals work? Is that paradigm closer to the truth? The debate goes on.

But let the argument continue in medical circles. In the meantime sick people are trying to find ways of getting well. The following paradigm for adrenal function and fatigue is one that has brought some healing for many that are ill.

Whether you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency, many symptoms associated with ME/CFS are also symptoms of adrenal glands that aren’t functioning properly. Exhaustion of the adrenals can result in low production levels of cortisol and DHEA. And this may be a factor for some who have ME/CFS.

Your adrenal glands produce more than 50 hormones. The adrenals regulate the body’s hormonal stress response. Their arsenal includes adrenaline for instant stress responses, as well as cortisol and DHEA for short-term and long-term stress responses. Depleted adrenals are low in some hormones, especially cortisol.

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid. Glucocorticoids metabolize food, regulate blood sugar and stress response. They control the inflammatory response of your immune system.

Mineralocorticoids include aldosterone. Mineralocorticoids control blood pressure and blood volume, as they also regulate potassium, sodium and water.

Adrenaline speeds up your heart and regulates the flow of blood to brain and muscles. It causes glycogen to be converted to glucose in the liver.

According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, as many as 80% of American adults may suffer from some degree of adrenal fatigue at some point in their lives.

Mercola goes on to say that if you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue your exhaustion and weakness may be worse in the morning and into the afternoon. You may have trouble getting up in the morning and what sleep you do get does not refresh.

If you have adrenal fatigue, headaches, joint pain and a sore throat are common symptoms. You may also experience dizziness, dehydration or low blood pressure. Maybe you have difficulty in maintaining or gaining weight.

Unrefreshing sleep, post-exertional malaise as well as impaired cognitive processes are all too common. You may become lightheaded when rising, or while standing. Maybe you’re unable to handle stress like you used to.

And your memory? Forget about it.

Your immune system may be suppressed, and allergies may increase or appear for the first time. Autoimmune disorders may emerge or worsen. Noticeable muscle weakness may afflict you. Bone density, which is not noticeable but is nevertheless dangerous, may be diminishing.

You may be depressed. Perhaps your sex drive has taken a nose dive. Increased or new menopause or PMS symptoms may have cropped up.

You could be living with a strong need for caffeine to keep going, and suffering wild ups and/or downs from abnormal blood sugar levels. You may crave fat, salt or sugar like your life depended on it.

Mercola describes a common pattern experienced by the person with adrenal fatigue. They may enjoy (if that’s not too strong a word) an increase in energy around 6 p.m., and a dip at 9 or 10 p.m. A rebound of energy may hit at around 11 p.m. which lasts till about 1 a.m. Sleep may or may not come through the night.

Many may find themselves experiencing a reversal of normal day/ night cycles, finally falling asleep as dawn begins to peep. These may also find themselves sleeping through the day and awakening at dusk.

Mercola says that the commonly-used ACTH test will merely show extremely high or low hormone levels. Instead, he recommends a salivary cortisol test which can be purchased without prescription and can be performed at home.

Dr. Sarah Myhill has said that levels of cortisol and DHEA can be measured with an adrenal stress profile (ASP) test. The ASP test involves samples of saliva. If inadequate levels of DHEA are found, a supplement can be purchased over the counter in the United States.

Cortisol is trickier to evaluate because its level will go up and down through the day. Cortisol tends to be higher in the morning and lower later in the day. It will rise and fall according to stressors as the day wears on. Chronic stressors can be mental, emotional, physical or financial pressures. They can be physical strain, dietary issues, or lack of sleep. They can be anything that causes you to feel powerless or in danger.

If the ASP test shows high cortisol and low DHEA this indicates that the body is not able to produce enough DHEA, and is the initial indicator of adrenal exhaustion. This can be normal. For a while. But if the stressors causing this scenario continue indefinitely the adrenals will be hard pressed to return to proper functioning.

If the ASP test shows low cortisol and low DHEA, this could indicate that exhausted adrenals are unable to keep up with production of either hormone. If levels are extremely low, the adrenals may be vulnerable to Addison’s disease which is complete adrenal failure. If Addison’s is not treated, it is fatal.

If the ASP test shows low cortisol and normal or low-normal DHEA, this may be encouraging since it may indicate that adrenals are beginning to recuperate.

If you are experiencing any or all of the symptoms mentioned above, your adrenal glands could be impaired, and might benefit from support. Adrenal support may not cure your ME/CFS but it may make you a little less sick and a little more well.

Sources:

Adrenal Depletion: The Most Commonly Missed Cause of Fatigue
http://www.prohealth.com/fibromyalgia/library/showArticle.cfm?libid=16769&B1

Common Hormonal Problems in CFS – Adrenal
http://drmyhill.co.uk/wiki/Common_Hormonal_Problems_in_CFS_-_Adrenal

Adrenal Fatigue in Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Is It Real?
http://chronicfatigue.about.com/b/2010/11/13/adrenal-fatigue-in-fibromyalgia-chronic-fatigue-syndrome-is-it-real.htm

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