Feeling exhausted and stressed out? Could adrenal fatigue be to blame?

Many people think our 24/7, over-caffeinated modern lifestyle wears out our adrenal glands, and swear adrenal extracts can help reverse the effects. Read on to find out why they’re probably wrong.

Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys. They’re divided into two parts: outer glands (adrenal cortex) and inner glands (adrenal medulla).

The adrenal cortex releases several hormones that affect metabolism and gender characteristics directly into the bloodstream.

The hormone cortisol helps control the way your body uses fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It also reduces inflammatory reactions. Another hormone, called aldosterone, regulates sodium and potassium in the blood and helps maintain blood volume and pressure.

What do the inner glands do?

The adrenal medulla secretes hormones that help you deal with physical and emotional stress. Adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is known as the “fight or flight” hormone. It makes the heart beat faster, increases blood flow to the brain and muscles, and helps the body make sugar quickly to use for fuel.

Noradrenaline, or norepinephrine, squeezes your blood vessels. This helps increase and maintain your blood pressure in stressful situations.

Damage and disease are the main causes for adrenal glands not working properly. For example, Addison’s disease occurs when damage to the adrenal glands causes them to produce less cortisol and aldosterone than you need.

However, some also identify the chronic stress of modern life as the culprit for poorly functioning adrenal glands.

The theory is that constant overstimulation of the adrenal medulla causes it to become fatigued (a condition referred to as “adrenal exhaustion”). This prevents it from working at full capacity. Some suggest using adrenal extracts as a therapy.

Advocates also claim that the extracts can help boost the immune system and supply other necessary hormones. There is no evidence to support their use.

The glands of animals like cows and pigs are gathered from slaughterhouses and made into adrenal extracts. Extracts are made either from the whole gland or just the outer parts. The main active ingredient in the extract is the hormone hydrocortisone.

In the early twentieth century, adrenal extracts were used for a variety of purposes, and were mostly available as an injection. Along with Addison’s disease, they were used to treat:

  • surgical shock
  • burns
  • morning sickness
  • allergies
  • asthma

As other medications were developed, they mostly fell out of use.

Today, adrenal extract is available only in pill form. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) barred imported adrenal extract in 1989. In 1996, it recalled injectable extracts.

It also issued public warnings against the use of adrenal extract after discovering that more than 80 people developed infections from contaminated products.

The FDA regulates dietary supplements differently than they do drugs. The FDA does not review these products for safety and efficacy before they are marketed. They receive reports of adverse reactions and can take supplements off the market if found unsafe or sold with misleading claims.

Supporters say adrenal extracts boost energy and memory, and provide natural stress relief.

However, there is simply no scientific basis for “adrenal exhaustion” as a diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many physicians will tell you that adrenal fatigue does not exist. Similarly, there’s no research to back up claims that adrenal extracts can help reset adrenal function.

Taking adrenal extracts could have some unintended consequences. Taking adrenal supplements that you don’t need can make your adrenal glands stop working. If that happens, it can take your glands months to start working correctly again after you stop taking the supplements.

The FDA doesn’t oversee vitamins and nutritional supplements, so there’s no guarantee that the label on adrenal extracts will match the contents.

While it’s frustrating to have unexplained symptoms, taking unproven remedies may leave you feeling worse. A doctor can determine if you have a condition affecting your adrenal glands and prescribe appropriate medication.

If you are having symptoms of chronic exhaustion, see a doctor to rule out other probable causes. Don’t try to diagnose yourself.