Adrenal Fatigue & Hypoglycemia

Instructor: Leasha Roy

Leasha is licensed as a registered nurse and clinical nurse specialist. She has over 17 years of nursing experience in a variety of settings and roles including long-term care, acute care, critical care, education, and leadership.

Adrenal fatigue is a little known about condition that potentially affects millions of people. This lesson will define adrenal fatigue and discuss how it affects the body and how it is related to hypoglycemia.

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Tim recently lost his wife of 35 years and has been under a lot of stress. He feels overwhelmingly tired even after drinking several cups of coffee each morning. He also notices some hair loss, weight gain, and irritability. He mentions his symptoms to a close friend, who suggests he may have adrenal fatigue. Tim decides to learn more about this mysterious condition.

Adrenal fatigue is marked by several symptoms that are thought to be the result of a deficit in the functioning of the adrenal gland. Symptoms of this condition include:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Decreased libido
  • Muscle weakness and tension
  • Cravings for sugary or salty foods
  • Hair loss
  • Body aches
  • Difficulty sleeping

Many other medical conditions have similar symptoms, therefore adrenal fatigue is not a widely-accepted medical diagnosis. Each of the above symptoms can potentially be due to other medical conditions. Adrenal fatigue is also not assigned an International Classification of Disease (ICD) code, which would allow healthcare providers to bill insurance companies for payment of treatment of the disease. Additionally, there are no conclusive medical tests that can confirm adrenal fatigue; the diagnosis is made by ruling out other diseases.

Adrenal fatigue is thought to be caused by stress, whether it be mental, physical, or emotional. Situations such as infection, severe illness, or outside factors like work, family, or death of someone close can all contribute to the development of this condition. Adrenal fatigue should not be confused with Addison's disease, which is a severe form of adrenal insufficiency.

The Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys
adrenal glands

Now that we know a little more about adrenal fatigue, let's take a deeper look at the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are two small, triangular shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of each kidney. These glands' claim to fame is dealing with stress. The adrenal glands secrete several steroids and hormones that help the body respond appropriately to stressful situations. Here's a little more about these substances.

  • Hydrocortisone, or cortisol, helps regulate blood pressure, heart functions, and how the body converts food to energy.
  • Corticosterone helps regulate immune and inflammatory responses
  • Aldosterone helps regulate salt and water balance and control blood pressure
  • Sex hormones (released in small amounts) help in sex organ development during childhood and puberty, and libido
  • Epinephrine and norepinephrine help the body respond to stress by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure and channeling blood towards the muscles and brain

As you can see, the adrenal glands have some major duties within the body. Now that you know a little more about the adrenal glands, the symptoms of adrenal fatigue should make more sense. For instance, if the adrenal glands are not functioning at an optimal level and are unable to secrete as much hydrocortisone, then the body does not digest food as efficiently, leading to a decrease in energy. If sex hormones are not secreted in sufficient amounts, libido will be affected. Makes sense, right?

Adrenal Fatigue and Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia is condition marked by low blood sugar (glucose) levels. The normal blood sugar range is 70-110 mg/dL. Hypoglycemia occurs when the blood sugar levels are below 70 mg/dL.

In addition to the functions listed above, hydrocortisone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine also play a role in blood glucose regulation. Remember, hydrocortisone impacts how the body converts food to energy (glucose). Stress increases the need for glucose, but if the body is not metabolizing food efficiently, it cannot meet the higher energy demand, which results in hypoglycemia.

Hydrocortisone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are also released as a response to stress. These substances prompt the liver to convert stored glucose (called glycogen) into active glucose the body can use for energy. If the adrenal glands fail to secrete enough of these substances, hypoglycemia can result.

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