When Adrenal Fatigue isn’t Gut Related

Adrenal Fatigue is a hot topic in the natural healing world and the two most popular doctors, Dr. Axe and Dr. Christianson, are pointing to the diet as a source of healing.  This is helpful for many many people, but in some cases the cause for major stress on the body isn’t gut related.  And no matter how intense we get with healthy eating, we won’t heal without getting to the source of the problem.

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Symptoms and Testing for Adrenal Fatigue

Symptoms and Testing for Adrenal Fatigue

I’m not a doctor; This post is not intended to diagnose.  I recommend seeking a competent health professional to guide you through healing.  

In the beginnings of adrenal fatigue my blood cortisol levels were high.  So high that my PCP sent me straight to an endocrinologist, who put me on a 3 month waiting list.  My PCP wouldn’t have thought to test for cortisol if I hadn’t asked him to.  We had exhausted all other possibilities and I had done some research online that prompted me to ask for the test.  Most doctors roll their eyes when I tell them I’ve been reading things online.  This one listened to me and ordered the test.

I couldn’t wait 3 months to see a specialist.  I wasn’t sure I’d be alive that long.  The fear lead me to search for a Functional MD.  The FMD could see me within a couple of weeks and let me know that a blood test wasn’t the most reliable way to test hormone levels.  She ordered a saliva test.  The kit was mailed to me by the processing company and I mailed it back with the frozen samples. This was fairly unpleasant because I had to fill a test tube with saliva every few hours during the testing day.  I have a thing about spitting….yuck.  The saliva test shows hormone levels as they fluctuate during the day.  Healthy adrenal glands produce the highest levels of cortisone in the morning, then taper off gradually through the day with it’s lowest levels at night for healthy sleeping.  Saliva tests can be eye-opening but it is just a snapshot of what’s going on that day.  Cortisol levels vary from day to day depending on stress and other factors.  Because I’ve done a few tests I’ve learned to estimate what’s going on with my cortisol levels by how I’m feeling.

My saliva test showed that the pattern of production (high morning, low evening) had become normal (this was after several weeks of an elimination diet and high doses of phosphatidylserine before bed) but my hormonal levels were too low across the board–cortisol, thyroid, sex hormones.  For me, too low feels much worse than too high.

When cortisol levels are off it affects other body systems like the thyroid gland, blood pressure and cardiovascular systems, immune system, digestive system and sex hormone levels.  That’s why there are so many symptoms associated with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and why some of them can be polar opposites–depending on which stage the illness is in.

I asked my FMD about following up with an endocrinologist and she said they are trained to treat Addison’s disease (loss of cortisol production), but would send me home without treatment at my current levels until I developed that disease.  I would develop Addison’s, she assured me, if left untreated.  Addison’s is treated with hormone replacement therapy for the rest of the patient’s life. Without hormone replacement Addison’s Disease is FATAL.  She also said, If I took action now  to reduce stress, change my diet, and nourish my body, I could prevent Addison’s and go on to live a vibrant life free from permanent hormone replacement therapy.

Some days I feel better than others.  Even though I don’t always look sick, I’m at risk of developing a fatal disease.   I know what to do, but it isn’t a quick fix.  I try not to mention it online (especially on Facebook) because I have 100 friends who sell the latest get healthy powder that is sure to fix me all up.  It’s exhausting explaining over and over again why I prefer to stick with what I know is already working at a fraction of their price. (Besides which of the friends should I support?) The healing can’t be rushed, because there are variables that I can’t control like someone dying, unexpected financial loss, or a wild bat flying into the house and giving me a fright.   Someone cutting me off in traffic and scaring me or navigating a new situation (like taking the kids to Sky Zone for the first time) all drain my cortisol levels.  Any emotional or physical stress (like going out in the extreme heat or the cold, getting too hungry, or conducting a choir performance) sets back my healing temporarily.

I could go on partial hormone replacement now, but if I do, my body will slowly begin to make less and less of it’s own hormones.  That will push me closer to Addison’s disease, the thing I’m desperately trying to avoid.  I’ve had well-meaning friends badger me over the phone to take hormone replacement so I could just be normal again.  It’s hard for me to explain why I’m hoping for a better way.  It’s extremely personal and most of the time I prefer not to talk about it, especially when I feel criticized for decisions I poured all of my research and tears into.

At church people who love me and have been praying for me ask if “I’m all better.”  I smile and tell them, “Today is a good day.” I know they are looking for a word of hope after the investment of their prayers. I feel a TON of hope, but I probably won’t be all better for years.  There are some mornings that just getting to church with my children all dressed and fed has me ashen and trembling.  I’ve had to give up worrying about being late, trying to be at early morning choir rehearsals, or coming to the extra services they have Sunday and Wednesday evenings.   Considering there were months that I couldn’t get out of bed without help or raise my own arms because they were too heavy.  I am a LOT better now.

Because I have an invisible disease, people misunderstand my absence from extra church services for a lack of faith and my absence from volunteering in positions of leadership as a lack of desire for service.  I want them to understand that I am fighting something real and   that I have to reserve my limited energy for being a mom and wife.  That’s my true calling from God.  I don’t love Jesus any less than I did when I was there every time the doors were open. Church is extremely important to me, but we won’t build His kingdom by sitting in a pew.

Ok, Symptoms.  Here’s the list in no particular order of wacky things that are part of my adrenal fatigue.  Some of them are related to each other, for example dehydration and low electrolyte levels cause dizziness, fatigue, and low blood pressure.

Low body temperature (as I start to crash the first sign is becoming extremely cold, shivering etc.)


Sudden development of new allergies (cherries, sweat, and dust mites are my new ones)

Dehydration (both low water and low electrolytes)


Black outs/fainting spells

Low blood pressure: (related to dehydration and a greater need for sodium)

False Low blood Sugar: My body freaks out when my blood sugar gets to 80 and gives me reactions that a diabetic would get at 60

Low Libido

Skin rashes: especially by the nose/cheeks and backs of elbows (related to allergies, thyroid, and low cortisol)

Dry skin and hair

Headaches, muscle pain, general inflammation

Brain Fog: (sometimes so bad that I can’t remember my children’s names or how to read music–I’m a music teacher)

Vision problems: Problems focusing or perceiving what I see (related to dehydration and brain fog)

Sensitive to noise, light, touch, crowds, scents etc.  I’m also very sensitive to people in emotional or physical pain.  I have to be careful what movies I watch and stay away from most news outlets.

Hair falling out, breaking off (related to thyroid)

Brittle nails

Indigestion: (sometimes swinging constipation and diarrhea or gas and bloating.) Interesting that my elimination diet showed no particular food sensitivities.  It is unpredictable what might cause a problem.

Startle easily: Sometimes I wake up suddenly gasping in fright (not from a bad dream–more worried that I overslept)

Poor circulation: cold hands and feet (related to low blood pressure)

Restless sleep: Tons of sleep movement and very short deep sleep sessions

Heavy Arms sometimes: My arms feel so heavy that it’s hard to lift them.  (Related to low blood pressure and low electrolytes)

Compromised Immune System: I get sick very easily.  It’s a big deal if I just sit beside someone who’s getting over a cold. I’ve learned the right blend of essential oils and supplements to stay healthy.  Any illness sets my healing back quite a bit.

Heat and Cold Intolerance

Weight Gain: Because of my vanity, this has been the hardest symptom to deal with emotionally.  I’ve always been careful with my food and exercise.  Since my illness became severe I gained 30 pounds without changing my eating habits.  At times I was gaining several pounds a week, which I’m sure was related to extended bed rest on top of low metabolism hormone production.  It could have easily been more weight gain if I had given up completely and just ate whatever I felt like eating.

How about you?  Have you or anyone you know suffered from Adrenal Fatigue?  What did you find to be helpful?

This is the 4th post in my series of adrenal fatigue.  You can find the others here.


Natural Help for Adrenal Fatigue

Natural Help for Adrenal Fatigue

This post is the 3rd in my series on Adrenal Fatigue and is a list of what works for me.  Here’s the disclaimer that I’m not a doctor and this post is not intended as medical advice or to treat any disease. This is simply a compilation of what has been helpful to me.

Keep in mind that depending on the severity of your situation healing can take anywhere from 3 months to 3 YEARS!  I was bedridden for 3 months at the height of my symptoms and am on my 2nd year of the healing journey.  Life is MUCH better than it was, but I still have relapses when I need bed rest. Be patient with yourself.  It will get better.

Before assuming you have adrenal fatigue, please rule out all other things. MANY autoimmune diseases have the same symptoms.  (MS, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Depression….)  And often mal-nutrition/vitamin deficiency of some kind is part of the issue.

I’m linking up to the products I personally use and they are not affiliate links.  The ones that don’t have prices by them are from a discount membership club.  You can get more info on that here.

1. Nightly bath with 1 cup epsom salts and 3 drops of lavender oil, or peace and calming blend of essential oils.  The point is to take in minerals through the skin and reduce stress, preparing the body for sleep.

2. Phosphatidylserine–900 mg 30 minutes before bed.  This reduces cortisol production at night and helps with brain fog.  If you learn to say it you’ll sound really smart, but it’s really just an important fatty acid.  Once your cortisol productions are in the normal pattern and brain fog symptoms are gone, reduce it to 300 mg a night.

3. Melatonin–3-10mg 30 minutes before bed.  This helps me fall asleep and develop the proper  nighttime hormone profile.  These are my favorite.

4. Micronized DHEA in the MORNING.  This restarts cortisol production in the morning and other important hormones. My doctor recommended 5mg, but I didn’t notice improvement until I went to 25mg.  I like these.  This is not a product to play around with.  I tested super low on my hormone levels overall so this has been helpful. The body can use DHEA to build hormones, but can also turn it all into cortisol if you are stressed (not good.)

5. Methylated B vitamins in the morning.  I take one in the morning and if I start to crash around 2-3pm another one then.  This stuff will make you a morning person.  Throw away the coffee.  Literally, because coffee is the enemy of adrenal glands.

6.  No stimulants: Coffee, concentrated green tea (in capsules–a cup of green tea is usually ok), 5 hour energy drinks, or other caffeinated beverages like Monster or Red Bull.   When I take caffeine even a small amount, I feel better for a few minutes and then crash hard.  Sometimes to the point of blacking out as my blood pressure drops even lower than before.

7. No Hard Exercise.  Especially High Intensity Interval Training or Drop Sets.

8. Gentle exercise EVERY DAY. Such as swimming, body weight strength training, walking, T-Tapp, Ballet Barre, or gentle yoga.  15-20 minutes is enough.  In the beginning, 5 minutes will be a challenge.  If you can get that much done call it a win.

8.  Massage!  If you can’t afford regular visits to the massage therapist, a chair massager is a good second option.  If you have a jetted tub for your nightly bath, use it. Body brushing is another good thing to add to your nightly routine.  This helps flush toxins from the skin and reduce stress.

9. Reduce the schedule.  There was a time I was working 4 jobs including teaching school, volunteering at church, and playing taxi for 6 kids to get to multiple activities a night.  Nope, nope, nope.  This is hard because you have an invisible disease.  Other people won’t understand why you can’t run the PTA and sew all the costumes for the school play.   You don’t have to explain it.  Some days I just need someone to tell me it was ok to say no.  So I’m telling you it’s ok.  Say “No” to the good so you can say “Yes” to the best.

10. Electrolytes. Adrenal glands use up electrolytes.  If you are in crisis you need even more than the average person.  This includes SALT.  Salt everything to taste and take an electrolyte drink every afternoon.   This one is my favorite.

11. Immune Support.  Adrenal Fatigue stresses the immune system and leaves you more susceptible to bacterial and virus infections.  Support the immune system with the proper use of essential oils (such as Armour in the bath or diffuser), zinc lozenges when exposed to a cold, vitamin c, and elderberry concentrate.  This product has been very helpful to me.

12.  Blood Sugar control. This is a tough one.  Getting too hungry will stress your body and cause more adrenal problems.  On the other hand adrenal fatigue makes it very easy to put on weight (like a pound a day!!!!!), since the thyroid does not function properly when adrenals are not functioning properly.  Eat enough but don’t over eat.  I know, easier said than done. Avoid simple/refined carbs but do eat healthy carbs such as: fruit and vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, oats, and sweet potatoes. Eat 5-6 SMALL meals a day (around 300 calories each) Make sure you have 15-20 g of protein at every meal. Use healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and butter. Avoid refined sugar and artificial sweeteners.  Stevia, real maple syrup and honey are ok when used sparingly. This product is very helpful to me with blood sugar control.

13.  Remove toxins from your home.  Stress causes adrenal fatigue and stress comes from many sources.  It could be fear, worry, improper diet, financial concerns, or the death of a loved one.  Environmental toxins are another huge source of stress for the body. Chlorine bleach, ammonia, triclosan, sulfates, dioxins, and other toxic cleaners need to go.  I use these products for laundry and cleaning.

14. Try a 21 day allergy elimination diet. Temporarily this will add more emotional stress as you get used to a new way of eating, but it removes all stimulating and difficult to digest foods for 21 days. This gives the body a chance to rest and heal and was extremely helpful to me.  After 21 days reintroduce one food at a time waiting 3 days in between to watch for reactions.  Since the adrenal glands and the immune system are so closely linked, one of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue is the development of new allergies.  It’s important to check for them as part of the healing process.

15.  Take a high quality multi-vitamin.  I use these because they are very easy for my body to absorb.  I noticed within the first week that I felt better and had more energy.

16.  Proper hydration.  Dehydration is a common symptom of adrenal fatigue and contributes to loss of energy, brain fog, vision disturbance and low blood pressure.  Keep a water bottle handy and have a way to measure what you’re drinking.  I keep 4 20 oz bottles in the fridge at the start of each day and try to space them out all day.

17.  Plan a rest day after any large event.  Taking the kids to the zoo?  Plan to do nothing the next day and let it be ok.  You are not a failure.

18. Gut Health.  This one is big and is a whole post on it’s own.  For my gut health I use probiotic tablets, kombucha, kefir, collagen, gelatin and bone broth.

19.  Light therapy. Get some fresh air and sunshine.  Let the sun hit your skin for around 15 minutes without sunscreen.  If you can’t get that, a full spectrum light is next best.

20.  Control inflammation. I use a blend of curumin and bioperine. I’ve used both of these brands here and here with good results.  For me this works better than prednisone for controlling my inflammation response.  My most recent adrenal symptom was an out of control reaction to dust mites that covered my whole body in a red itchy rash for months.  The curcumin/bioperine fixed it when nothing else would.

That’s a pretty long list.  It’s more overwhelming to read it than to do it.  I have a geriatric pill box to organize my supplements and make them easy to keep track of.  The other things are part of my routine now.  I don’t always do all of it every day, but when I feel myself crashing, I look back over this list and remind myself of what works.

Leave a comment and let me know how you are doing.

Finding Professional Help for Adrenal Fatigue: My Journey with Adrenal Fatigue Part 2

finding professional help for adrenal fatigue

I searched the Functional Medicine site for a doctor in my area.  I found 3.  Only one of them accepted my insurance and that made the decision easy.  They were able to fit me in the next week and I finally had hope.

The doctor had 3 specialties: family practice, OBGYN, and functional medicine.  Our first appointment took over an hour and she took a detailed history of my health.  After dealing with doctor after doctor who brushed my symptoms aside, the most comforting thing she said is, “Yes this is real.  You’re not crazy. I’ve seen it before and I can help.” She ordered a saliva test to more accurately test my hormone levels and put me on an elimination diet to rule out food allergies and allow my digestive system to rest.

Initially the diet added more stress.  No nuts, eggs, dairy, pork, corn, cocoa, coffee, tea, shellfish, gluten, sugar, or citrus.  It was easier to to list off what I could eat:  chicken, salmon, vegetables and fruit, rice, oats, quinoa, honey and maple syrup.  The first few days were fine and then I just wanted anything that I couldn’t have. I followed it religiously and didn’t lose an ounce (so discouraging).   BUT I got out of bed for the first time in months.  I started having more time during the day that I could be up.  I spent only 20 hours in bed instead of 24, then 18, then 12…..then 8.  I walked to the end of the road and back.  It was a miracle.

In addition she had me take 900mg of Phosphatidylserine before bed with 10mg of melatonin.  This slowed the cortisol production at night so I could sleep.  Then she had me take 5mg of DHEA in the morning to help get things started again.  She warned me that too much DHEA could stress the adrenals creating too much cortisol again, so to keep the dose small and watch it carefully. In the afternoon I took methylated B vitamins to help with energy.  This protocol created the proper fluctuation of cortisol in my blood stream–an essential part of healing.

By the time the saliva test kit came in the mail I had been following her new protocol for several weeks.  The test came back with a normal swing of production, but LOW hormones across the board.  It showed the protocol was working but I still had work to do to get back to a healthy state.

It has been 18 months since I found help and I’m still not all the way healthy.  I’m 30 pounds overweight and tire really easy.  A stressful event, like conducting a concert or being cornered by a bat in my bedroom (true story), will have me back in bed for a couple of days to recover.   I’ve tried to restart a fitness program several times and each one ended up in adrenal strain and then illness.  A few months ago another pile up of stressful events created a new freak allergy in my body leaving me covered with itchy scabs for months. Each failure has taught me a new way to care for my body and I’m dusting off and trying again.  In part 3, I’m going to give the detailed steps of what has worked for me to help heal.


My Journey with Adrenal Fatigue part 1

my journey with adrenal fatigue

I feel the need to preface this post with a disclaimer:  I’m not a doctor.  This post is a journal of my personal experience and not meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition.

I have to go back a little bit to begin the story. I first had symptoms of adrenal distress when I was in high school.  I was fiercely competitive with my grades and music and was in an unhealthy dating relationship.  The stress interfered with my sleep and I had a lot of anxiety.  I remember carrying every book I owned to every class I had, because I was afraid I would forget something and be unprepared.  My bus arrived at 6:30am and I often didn’t come home until 5pm later because of after-school clubs.  Many times I ran home to grab food and go right back to perform in the show or pep band for a basketball game.  In spite of the anxiety I remember my High School years as some of the best of my life and had a wonderful core group of friends in my music classes that attended my church and youth group.

Looking back, I was probably mal-nourished.  I was a chubby child and between my 7th and 8th grade years of school I worked hard to lose 30 pounds.  At home, I worked out and ate a lot of whole grains, fruit and vegetables but not much fat or protein.  At school I ate peanut butter bars, Cheetos, ice cream cones and biscuits and gravy.  None of this was my mother’s fault.  She provided healthy balanced foods for me.  I made the choice to do other things.  I didn’t notice a problem with nourishment until I started having one baby after another.  The pregnancies quickly sapped the reserves I had.

As a young bride I had a lot of anxiety and some OCD symptoms.  While I know now that there’s no shame in seeking help from a Christian therapist at the time I couldn’t consider it.  I turned exclusively to the Lord for help.  I remember lying in bed as my husband worked late and fighting the urge to check the stove, check the doors and listen for intruders.  I started repeating Psalm 27, “ The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”   Eventually the OCD urges stopped as I learned to trust.

Ever since I was a teenager I’ve suffered from low blood pressure, low blood sugar and dizzy/black out spells. It runs in the family, so we didn’t think much of it.

Crash #1: My first real adrenal attack came when I was pregnant with my 3rd child.  I developed an allergy to saliva and sweat (even my own) which made exercise or breastfeeding a painful rashy experience.  I still did both.  During that pregnancy I had little energy, and caring for 2 toddlers in addition to the pregnancy was overwhelming.  I gained 60 pounds and fought depression.  I had 3 babies aged 3 and under and lived far away from my mother.  At the time, I had no idea that my adrenal system needed nourishment, and none of the many doctors I saw thought of it either. Their solutions were steroid creams and to stop having children.  I felt like my struggles were my fault and showed a lack of strength of character.  I went on to have 3 more babies :).

Crash #2: When my 5th child was still a baby, my husband lost his job.  The stress of those many months was huge, but the task of survival kept my body going. Not long after he found work, I was in a minor car accident. The air bag deployed and injured my spine, but the children were ok.  That huge flood of adrenaline during the accident following a long stressful period, wreaked havoc on my adrenal glands.  My blood pressure was 80/50 on a good day and I could hardly walk around or function. I started gaining a pound every few days even though I hadn’t changed my way of eating.  There were days I went to bed not certain that I would be alive by morning.  I went to several doctors seeking help.  They told me to be happy that I didn’t have high blood pressure and probably wrote hypochondriac on my chart. I finally found a doctor that also had a degree in nutrition. He did a complete nutrition blood panel and the results said I was fat but starving to death.  He put me on a high protein, low carb diet (of powdered food packets) with tons of vitamin and mineral supplements.  I got better and lost weight, but it was a hard program to stick to.  I eventually quit going and replaced his expensive powdered food packs with real food, this time making sure I had plenty of protein at every meal. In hindsight two of the things he prescribed were very helpful to nourishing the adrenals:  salt tablets and methylated B vitamins.  Though at the time I was still clueless that adrenal fatigue was a thing.

Crash #3: Two years ago, I was working at home and received word that one of my students committed suicide.  Just a few days before 2 of my children were diagnosed with medical learning disabilities that required thousands of dollars in therapy that insurance wouldn’t cover, and we discovered a major structural flaw in our home that would cost $24,000 to correct.  Any one of those things would have taken me out but all three together was a disaster.  My immune system was virtually non-existent.  It started with a recurrent bladder infection that I was prescribed stronger and stronger antibioics for over the course of a few months.  Then I became ill with all 3 types of flu–at the same time.  I lost 10 lbs.  Even though I was so ill, I celebrated that I finally reached my goal weight.  {That strikes me as emotionally unhealthy now that I look back on it.}  The weight loss wasn’t to last.  My body, convinced that I was dying, started putting on weight very quickly.  Within a few months I had gained 30 lbs!

Alarmed, I went to my doctor.  I had been studying about the adrenals at that time and asked for a cortisol level blood test.  He took the test, but told me to stop eating carbs and to be thankful I didn’t have high blood pressure.  Here’s the thing, I had been eating a high protein, low carb diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables since my 2nd adrenal crash.  I wasn’t gaining weight because of carbs and yet no medical person would take me seriously.   My blood test came back with crazy high cortisol levels, more than twice what they should have been for that time of day.  He gave me a referral to an endocrinologist who told me they could squeeze me in, in 5 months.  I said, I’m sorry but I might be dead by then and hung up.

The week of the blood test, I was teaching Bible School music.  It was enough stress that I was making a lot of extra cortisol.  As soon as the week was over, it was like my body suddenly stopped producing much at all.  My blood pressure was so low that I couldn’t walk without holding on to things. Even lying down I could feel myself blacking out at times.  It was hard for me to lift my own arms.  I was scared.  I was so tired that I didn’t care if I lived.

I spent hours online researching adrenal fatigue and looking for any medical person who might help.  My mom and her friend threatened to kidnap me and head to the Mayo clinic.  From what I had read on the official Mayo Clinic website they would treat me as clinically depressed and did not recognize adrenal fatigue as a thing.  I begged for more time to find a solution close to home.

There is lots of advice online for treating adrenal fatigue at home and most of it had conflicting advice in another area.  The one thing that became clear to me was, left untreated, it was life threatening and once bed bound it is too dangerous to self treat.  They also warned that once the disease had gotten this severe it could take 3 years to recover completely.  As I searched for a doctor to guide me through recovery I discovered  Functional Medicine.  These are MDs or DOs who have gone on to get additional training to look for the root cause of disease and not just treat symptoms.  This group of doctors has ample training in adrenal fatigue and could diagnose or rule it out.  I held my breath, daring to hope there was such a doctor in my area.

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