Last week, Gywneth Paltrow announced that she was suffering from a condition known as adrenal fatigue . There’s just one thing: the condition, marked by fatigue, issues concentrating, and difficulty handling stress, isn’t actually a medical diagnosis.
Paltrow’s doctor, Alejandro Junger, M.D., told Well+Good that he made the diagnosis after Paltrow noticed that she felt “depleted” of energy, and had under-eye circles and brain fog. He ended up developing a “formula” that he gave to Paltrow, and the two have launched a supplement line, dubbed Goop Wellness, which includes a pill to help prevent or treat adrenal fatigue (hilariously called Why Am I So Effing Tired ).
Even so, the medical community doesn’t recognize adrenal fatigue as a real diagnosis. “There is no laboratory testing or definitive study that makes such a diagnosis or proves this hypothesis,” Jennifer Haythe, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF. However, like Paltrow and Junger, many people believe that adrenal fatigue is a thing. “It is generally a reference to the idea that somebody has been under chronic stress and their body is no longer keeping up with that,” Melinda R. Ring, M.D., executive director of Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, tells SELF. “That stress can be emotional, physical, or spiritual stress—all of those can similarly lead to this depletion state.”
Here’s the theory behind adrenal fatigue.
Your adrenal glands are located right above your kidneys and produce several hormones. For example, they respond to stress by producing cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, the hormones responsible for kicking your body into “fight-or-flight” mode. People who believe in adrenal fatigue think that after an initial stress response, the adrenal glands secrete too many stress hormones, followed by a phase where the adrenal glands can’t produce enough of these hormones, explains Haythe. “This is believed to cause a chronic imbalance in the adrenal hormones,” she says.
It’s not just feeling tired here and there: Those who believe in adrenal fatigue typically say that their fatigue is extreme and they suffer from it even after a great night sleep, Sherry Ross , M.D., women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. , tells SELF.
The Endocrine Society acknowledges that some people believe they have adrenal fatigue, noting that while it’s not a medical diagnosis, people who say they have it describe symptoms like tiredness, trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning, salt and sugar cravings , and needing stimulants like caffeine to get through the day. However, the organization points out that the symptoms are non-specific to this condition and says that “there are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms.”
If you do think you have adrenal fatigue symptoms, you should check with your doctor—it could be something else.
If you feel like you’re suffering from the symptoms that are associated with adrenal fatigue, Ross says that it’s a good idea to see a doctor. “Feeling tired is a common symptom associated with a long list of other medical conditions, including infections, stress, trauma, immune disorders, and depression,” she says, and it’s important to rule out any serious medical conditions.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can also indicate anemia , a red blood cell deficiency, a thyroid condition, or vitamin deficiency, Ring says—and those are things that your doctor can diagnose with a blood test or saliva swab.
Your adrenal glands can get out of whack, but these conditions are relatively rare. There is a medical diagnosis of ” adrenal insufficiency ” or “Addison’s syndrome,” in which a problem with either the adrenal gland or pituitary gland lead to a true under-secretion of adrenal hormones and can be life threatening, Haythe says. There’s also another rare condition called ” Cushing’s syndrome ,” which is when your body produces too much cortisol hormone. Adrenal insufficiency can produce symptoms that are similar to those that people say they experience with adrenal fatigue, but one main difference is that adrenal insufficiency isn’t brought on by stress—instead, it is caused by an autoimmune disease or can be the result of illnesses like cancer or because of certain medications. In addition, adrenal insufficiency and Cushing’s syndrome can be diagnosed by blood tests and treated with medication.
Proper treatment and recommendations can only be made after you’re given a medical diagnosis, so get yourself checked out if you think you have symptoms of adrenal fatigue. It’s unlikely your doctor will hand you that diagnosis, but they can help get to the root of the problem.
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