Adrenal Insufficiency vs Adrenal Fatigue

woman sitting on bed with hand to her head looking distressed

It’s normal to feel tired, have trouble falling asleep, or wake up too early in the morning. However, if these symptoms interfere with your quality of life, you may have a medical condition associated with your adrenal glands. Craving salty foods, needing caffeine to make it through the day, brain fog, and sleep issues are some of the symptoms thought by some to be caused by a condition known as adrenal fatigue.

Adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s Disease, can cause serious symptoms and, while it tends to be more widely accepted among the medical community than adrenal fatigue, is also related to adrenal gland dysfunction. Determining whether you are experiencing adrenal insufficiency versus adrenal fatigue should be done by a practitioner who is familiar with both conditions to ensure you get the best care available.

Adrenal Fatigue

Cortisol is an essential hormone produced by the adrenal glands that helps regulate metabolism, sleep and wake cycles, blood pressure, and mood. During periods of stress, adrenal glands release cortisol. It is hypothesized that continuous cortisol production due to chronic stress eventually fatigues the adrenal glands, resulting in their inability to produce enough hormones. Adrenal fatigue is considered mild, whereas adrenal insufficiency can be severe.

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:

  • Feeling tired upon wakening or increased energy in the evening
  • Poor mood regulation
  • Cognitive decline
  • Craving salty and sweet foods
  • Compromised immune system
  • Unintentional weight loss

Stress and other mental health conditions can cause similar symptoms, and many adults live high-stress lifestyles, so it is imperative to seek medical advice if you are concerned about your health to ensure a proper diagnosis.

Adrenal Insufficiency

Primary adrenal insufficiency, or Addison’s Disease, occurs from adrenal gland damage resulting in their inability to produce adequate cortisol levels. Secondary adrenal insufficiency, on the other hand, starts in the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland produces a hormone called ACTH that triggers the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. When the pituitary gland malfunctions and does not produce enough ACTH, the adrenal glands fail to make enough cortisol. Untreated adrenal insufficiency can become severe and life-threatening.

Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Dark skin patches (Addison’s Disease)
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Muscle aches, weakness, or fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal upset such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Hypoglycemia

Diagnosing Adrenal Gland Dysfunction

Diagnosing adrenal insufficiency is relatively straightforward compared to adrenal fatigue. Several laboratory tests are available to assist in diagnosing adrenal insufficiency that require anything from a simple blood draw to a tissue biopsy or 24-hour urine collection. Some physicians will examine the adrenal glands with ultrasounds or MRIs. Adrenal fatigue is usually diagnosed based on symptoms, as there are no laboratory tests currently available to confirm it.

Ask Our Team about the Differences between Adrenal Fatigue and Adrenal Insufficiency

Symptoms thought to be associated with adrenal fatigue can be concerning, exhausting, and make daily life difficult. Because many of these symptoms are nonspecific, however, it is easy to overlook and dismiss them as everyday-life stresses. However, if you have been enduring these symptoms for longer than you are comfortable with, it is time to see a doctor. A comprehensive exam ensuring you are not experiencing any other health conditions with a similar presentation will be important moving forward.

Once your doctor better understands your history and current health, determining whether you are dealing with adrenal insufficiency versus adrenal fatigue is the next step. Treatment is different between the two conditions, and if adrenal insufficiency is left untreated, it can become dangerous and may even lead to your body going into shock. You don’t have to endure any longer or go through this alone. Our staff cares about your physical and mental wellbeing and is here to support your health, so reach out to us today.