Dr. Michael Stabile

By: Michael Stabile, MD, RWJ Family and Internal Medicine, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton

Concerned about your health? Experts from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton are ready to answer readers’ questions. Send your questions to askthedoc@rwjuhh.edu.

Q. I’m experiencing a number of symptoms I think may be related to stress. A friend recommended I see a doctor about adrenal fatigue. I’ve never heard of this. What is adrenal fatigue, and how do you know if your symptoms are serious and you should see a doctor?

A. For starters, it’s always a good idea to see your doctor whenever you are not feeling right or have concerns about your health, however mild your symptoms may be. Your doctor can determine a diagnosis as well as appropriate treatment.

Adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms such as body aches, nervousness, digestive problems and more. Although the term can be found in health and alternative medicine resources, it is not an accepted medical diagnosis. Instead, the medical term adrenal insufficiency is used to describe the inadequate production of essential hormones by the adrenal glands. This is most likely a result of an underlying disease.

Your friend may be right; adrenal insufficiency may be associated with prolonged stress. It can be experienced during or after chronic infections, but is usually due to an abnormality of the adrenal gland, called Addison’s Disease.

It’s the job of your adrenal glands to respond to stress. Whether you have an emotional crisis such as the death of a loved one, a physical crisis such as major surgery, or any type of severe repeated or constant stress in your life, your adrenals maintain homeostasis. During adrenal insufficiency, these glands do not function well enough to do their job.

Signs and symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include: feeling tired for no reason; trouble getting up in the morning, even when you go to bed at a reasonable hour; feeling rundown or overwhelmed; difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness; craving salty and sweet snacks; and feeling more awake, alert and energetic after 6 p.m. than you do all day.

In addition, people with adrenal insufficiency may look and act relatively normal and may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, but feel “off” and tired. They often have to rely on coffee, soda and other stimulants to be productive throughout the day.

I recommend seeing your doctor to discuss your concerns. Adrenal insufficiency can be diagnosed with blood and stimulation tests. He or she can also look for other problems that could be the underlying cause of fatigue such as depression, anemia and obstructive sleep apnea.

This content is intended to encourage a healthy lifestyle. For medical advice and treatment, see a physician.