How is adrenal fatigue diagnosed?
This will be the subject of our discussion today. You see, adrenal fatigue is not an accepted diagnosis in the medical field. It is a lay term that describes a collection of random symptoms such as fatigue, body aches, nervousness, digestive problems, and sleep disturbances.
Your adrenal glands are essential for life. The hormones that are produced by these glands helps with several body functions.
There is another term known as “adrenal insufficiency.” It refers to the low production of one or more hormones due to a surgery or an underlying medical condition.
Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:
- Aches in the body
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of body hair
- Hyperpigmentation (skin discoloration)
Doctors can always diagnose adrenal insufficiency by blood tests or stimulation tests that show low levels of adrenal hormones.
Proponents of adrenal fatigue diagnosis believe that it is a mild form of adrenal insufficiency triggered by stress. According to the theory, they claim that adrenal fatigue is caused by an inability of the adrenal glands to keep pace with high demands of flight-or-fight arousal. As the theory goes, existing blood tests are not so sensitive to detect a small decline in the function, but the human body is.
Experiencing symptoms that your doctor can't explain maybe somewhat frustrating. However, accepting a diagnosis not medically recognized may leave the main cause – like fibromyalgia or depression – undiagnosed.
How do doctors diagnose or test for adrenal fatigue?
Medical practitioners who do adrenal fatigue tests believe that low levels of cortisol are a hallmark of the disease.
But then, one should understand that cortisol levels, as well as other hormone levels, fluctuate at intervals. It is also important to note that there is always an interaction between hormones, so thyroid hormones are equally tested. Your thyroid gland is located in your neck and shaped like a butterfly. It regulates several bodily functions, metabolism, and growth.
Below are some tests which your doctor may order when you have symptoms that suggest adrenal fatigue, or any medical condition that may be associated with hormonal imbalance. You may need further testing if your doctor diagnosis adrenal fatigue based on the results from any of these tests.
Cortisol is produced by your adrenal glands. It is a steroid hormone. When you are stressed, your brain releases adrenocorticotropic hormones, which informs your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones in turn set your body up to cope with the stressful condition.
Tests can be done on your urine, saliva, or blood to detect cortisol levels.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone is produced by your pituitary gland, which is located in your brain. Your pituitary gland signals your thyroid to secrete thyroid hormones – triiodothyronine and thyroxine, which are greatly needed for the proper functioning of your body.
By testing for thyroid-stimulating hormone, your doctor can determine whether your thyroid gland is producing hormones in excess (hyperthyroidism) or producing too little of it (hypothyroidism).
Triiodothyronine mostly binds to protein. The triiodothyronine that fails to bind to protein is known as FT3. It circulates in the blood freely. With an FT3 test, your doctor can gain insight into pituitary or thyroid conditions when your thyroid-stimulating hormone is abnormal.
Free T4 (FT4)
There are two forms of T4 hormone – the bound form and the free form. Tests for FT4 indicates the levels of active T4 hormone circulating in your blood.
Just like T3 testing, the T4 test can give your doctor insight into pituitary and thyroid health. It is commonly applied as a follow-up test when one has abnormal TSH levels.
ACTH hormone test
ACTH is produced by the pituitary gland. It is responsible for the regulation of cortisol levels. With an ACTH test, your doctor can measure the levels of ACTH in your blood. Abnormal results will give an insight into the cause of lung, adrenal, or pituitary diseases.
DHEA sulfate-serum test
Your adrenal glands also release another hormone known as Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Using a DHEA-sulfate serum test, your doctor can determine whether you have DHEA deficiency. It is important to note that DHEA deficiency has been associated with low sex drive and poor mood. However, the influence of DHEA on mood has been questioned by a recent study.
Testing for adrenal fatigue at home
Because scientific studies have not established proof of adrenal fatigue, home testing is not recommended.
However, if you choose to test for adrenal fatigue at home, depending on your State’s guidelines, you may order for it online.
These tests include glucocorticoid or cortisol suppression or stimulation tests which are usually ordered by doctors to diagnose adrenal gland disorders. Other tests include DHEA tests, ACTH, and thyroid tests.
You may also do a neurotransmitter test. This will require your urine sample. However, researchers and scientists believe that the results are not reliable.
Is adrenal fatigue a myth?
Endocrinologists are involved in research and treatment of the diseases of hormones and glands. The Endocrine Society, the world’s largest organization of endocrinologists, states that adrenal fatigue is not a legitimate diagnosis.
Endocrinologists are concerned that people who have been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue may be discouraged from seeking further/confirmatory diagnosis. They also think that people who feel that their adrenal gland is fatigued may take cortisol, which could constitute a health hazard.
But then, some practitioners have proposed effective treatments, like the adrenal fatigue diet.
Understanding adrenal insufficiency
Endocrinologists opine that adrenal fatigue differs significantly from adrenal insufficiency, also referred to as Addison’s disease. People who have received an adrenal fatigue diagnosis do not share the same symptoms with Addison’s disease. They also do not meet Addison’s diagnostic criteria.
An important point to note is that there is a "subclinical" stage of the adrenal disease before the manifestation of the main adrenal insufficiency. Perhaps it is this pre-disease state that people consider when they diagnose or describe adrenal fatigue. But the fact is, addressing this stage as adrenal fatigue is medically inaccurate.
We have listed some of the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency above but as a reminder, they include:
- Aches in the body
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of body hair
- Weight loss
- Abnormal levels of potassium and sodium in the blood
- Skin discoloration
If it isn’t adrenal fatigue, what then is it?
If you believe that you have adrenal fatigue, then it may be possible that you have experienced chronic fatigue, pains, and aches in your body, and maybe some digestive or sleep issues.
These symptoms may also be caused by other conditions, so you must discuss them with your doctor. Such conditions include:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Clinical depression
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Sleep apnea
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Some holistic and naturopathic experts think that adrenal fatigue may be caused by chronic stress. However, due to the lack of scientific evidence, the diagnosis is not accepted in the medical community.
Medical experts insist on medical testing of the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal diseases.
If early tests fail to yield any explanation, consult your doctor and work with him or her until a diagnosis is arrived at. In the meantime, you can give your health a boost by following the adrenal fatigue diet, whether or not you have the condition itself.