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Adrenal fatigue: How chronic stress can affect us and what to do about it

Written by Simon Mills

Overwork and chronic stress can lead many people to having adrenal fatigue as their stress hormones are overused and depleted. This article highlights how it works and how herbal medicines can help.

Introduction

We see many patients who are distressingly lacking in energy, though perhaps not completely in chronic fatigue, ME, or fibromyalgia territory. The term ‘adrenal fatigue’ was coined in 1998 by a naturopath James Wilson, as a “group of related signs and symptoms that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level,” this usually associated with intense stress and often following chronic infections. However unlike the defined and rare ‘adrenal insufficiency’ (such as Addison’s disease) blood tests do not pick up any reduction in adrenal hormones; to counter this those promoting the adrenal fatigue concept say that this is because these tests aren’t sensitive enough. Their view is that the body does respond to diminished adrenal function with symptoms such as low energy, brain fog, volatile mood and depression, general aches and pains, food cravings, nervousness, overuse of caffeine and stimulants, sleep disturbances, compromised immunity and/or digestive problems.

The concept has drawn much criticism in conventional medical circles, including on comprehensive methodological grounds (1), although there is a comparable and defined syndrome linked to severe illness ‘Critical Illness-Related Corticosteroid Insufficiency (CIRCI)’ (see below). Given that ‘adrenal fatigue’ symptoms do arise especially after chronic stress or infection, then it may be better to review what we see and suggest different narratives to help understand the syndrome. Two interpretations will be chosen here: the first is a different biomedical take, the second emerging from many centuries of experience. We can then look at distinctive herbal approaches which have emerged through the different traditions and in particular at the concept of the ‘adaptogen’.

We may conclude that the adrenal fatigue description is inadequate to describe some real and pressing problems, but that there are other more constructive ways to do so.

We will start with an introduction to the adrenal glands.

I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the UK and served on Government and House of Lords committees. I have written standard textbooks used by herbal practitioners around the world, including with Professor Kerry Bone from Australia.

I was involved in academic work for many years, co-founding the University of Exeter pioneering Centre for Complementary Health Studies in 1987 (where we built a complementary research and postgraduate teaching programme from scratch), then at Peninsula the first integrated health course at a UK medical school, and the first Masters degree in herbal medicine in the USA, at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.

I am particularly fascinated by the insights we can distill from the millions of intelligent people who over many centuries needed plants to survive. Mostly I want to learn and share the old skills, to experience healing plants as characters, that can help us fend off ill health. My passion for offering people tools to look after themselves and their families has led me to work with the founders of the College of Medicine on pioneering national self care and social prescribing projects. I am now the College Self Care Lead and also Herbal Strategist at Pukka Herbs

Simon Mills

I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the UK and served on Government and House of Lords committees. I have written standard textbooks used by herbal practitioners around the world, including with Professor Kerry Bone from Australia.

I was involved in academic work for many years, co-founding the University of Exeter pioneering Centre for Complementary Health Studies in 1987 (where we built a complementary research and postgraduate teaching programme from scratch), then at Peninsula the first integrated health course at a UK medical school, and the first Masters degree in herbal medicine in the USA, at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.

I am particularly fascinated by the insights we can distill from the millions of intelligent people who over many centuries needed plants to survive. Mostly I want to learn and share the old skills, to experience healing plants as characters, that can help us fend off ill health. My passion for offering people tools to look after themselves and their families has led me to work with the founders of the College of Medicine on pioneering national self care and social prescribing projects. I am now the College Self Care Lead and also Herbal Strategist at Pukka Herbs

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