What's causing your chronic fatigue?

Have you ever experienced unrelenting fatigue? You wake in the morning with it and drag yourself through the day. Do you suffer from non-specific aches and pains? Or have trouble concentrating more than a couple of minutes? Have you had testing done without any conclusive diagnosis?

Cortisol is one of our stress hormones. It’s produced in our adrenal glands and its function is to prepare us for fight or flight. It is controlled by a feedback loop which begins with an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. Chemical messengers trigger the adrenal glands to release adrenalin and cortisol in response to any stressor. Our cortisol levels should naturally peak in the morning to get us out of bed in the morning and slowly decline to their lowest point in the evening as we prepare to rest. Our body is designed to respond to acute bouts of physical stress by increasing the release of stress hormones and these trigger the release of glucose for energy, increase our heart rate and stop digestive processes. As I said, this is designed to be an acute response! Once the stress has passed, things should return to normal function, however, now that we all juggle modern life with increased computer screen time, poor diets, the constant exposure to environmental toxins etc, the stress response is not turned off.

Adrenal fatigue was a term coined in the 1990’s by a chiropractor, Dr James Wilson. He was treating patients who were experiencing the symptoms I just described, and this led to him developing the theory that long-term stress causes physiological changes to the adrenal glands including a reduction in their size and function.

This theory has never been able to be proved, in fact, scientists have found that people experiencing the symptoms of ‘adrenal fatigue’ often have normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol and their adrenal glands appear to be functioning normally.

So what is going on then? Well, instead of thinking that chronic fatigue is caused by reduced adrenal function, it could be more effective to view it as a symptom of an underlying cause which could be a chronic infection, increased exposure to environmental toxins, hormonal imbalance, poor metabolic function; just to name a few examples.

In fact, altered cortisol production may actually be a protective mechanism and the body may do it deliberately at certain times, as cortisol is anti-inflammatory and immune suppressing and this could be important at certain times.. However, the long term effects of increased cortisol production can have damaging effects though, including increased anxiety and depression, as well as reduced cognitive function. This occurs because of the effects it has on the brain, especially the Hippocampus, amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex.

So it’s not a good idea for increased cortisol to go unchecked or for treatment to focus only on the presenting symptoms. The underlying cause must be addressed, and this often involves a bit of detective work. Routine testing of blood often does not reveal any abnormalities. This is because most cortisol in the blood is in an inactive cortisone form and therefore testing may result in a low reading despite there being high levels of active cortisol in other areas of the body.

This is why naturopathic medicine is so good – a comprehensive case history can reveal important details about the cause of the symptoms and treatment can initially focus on relieving them, however, the goal is to address the underlying cause so that the body can return to normal function.

If you’d like to get to the underlying cause of your chronic fatigue, make an appointment for a Naturopathic consultation and let the detective work begin!


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