Is Adrenal Fatigue and Autoimmune Condition?
Every year, millions of people are diagnosed with one form of autoimmune disease or the other. And the number isn't decreasing anytime soon. Studies have shown that the prevalence of autoimmune diseases is higher in women (75%) than it is in men. A person is said to have an autoimmune disease when the immune system mistakes healthy body tissues for viruses or invading bacteria. Medical experts think that the immune system in women is stronger and more reactive than that in men, which explains why they have a higher susceptibility to autoimmune conditions. Classification of autoimmune conditions is based on the tissue attacked by the immune system. While these conditions may cause damage to the tissues, there is usually one major organ system that the autoimmune system responds to.
There are lots of autoimmune diseases. Each disease differs in its development and progression, usually resulting in widespread symptoms. I’d like to say that getting diagnosed with an autoimmune condition is by no means a death sentence. Of course, there is hope and a great deal at that. The symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary. How you manage your diagnosis determines your chances of reclaiming your health & life. You should understand that antibodies are usually present and there may be an occasional flare-up.
Your aim should be to stay in remission, and this can be possible if the cause is identified, and also by avoiding triggers as well as giving your immune system a boost. Because different organs of the body are affected by autoimmune conditions, the symptoms of each disease vary. Also, symptoms of autoimmune conditions usually mimic symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Both conditions are related no doubt, but it is important to understand their differences and similarities.
And so, in this article, we will discuss adrenal fatigue as an autoimmune condition. Does adrenal fatigue qualify to be listed as an autoimmune condition?
What makes the immune system to attack the human body?
Medical experts do not understand why the immune system misfires. However, the fact remains that some people are more susceptible to the autoimmune condition than others.
According to a study done in 2014, the rate at which women get autoimmune diseases compared to men is 2:1 – that is 6.4% of women vs 2.7% of men. It usually occurs between the ages of 15 to 44 (the childbearing age).
Some ethnic groups are more susceptible to autoimmune conditions than others. For instance, Hispanics and African-Americans are more susceptible to lupus as compared to Caucasians.
Some autoimmune conditions like lupus and multiple sclerosis have a genetic undertone. Members of the family may not have the same ailment, but they will be susceptible to autoimmune conditions.
Because of the increasing cases of autoimmune conditions, medical researchers believe that factors such as exposure to solvents and chemicals may play a role.
Another factor that constitutes a risk is the Western diet. Eating foods that are high in sugar and fats, as well as heavily processed foods is associated with inflammation, which might trigger an autoimmune response. This has not been proven scientifically though.
A 2015 study investigated the hygiene hypothesis theory. Because of antiseptics and vaccines, children do not have as much exposure to germs as before. The reduced exposure can increase their immune system’s reactivity to harmless substances.
Types of autoimmune diseases
Studies have shown that there are no less than 80 different autoimmune conditions. Below are the most common ones.
1. Type 1 diabetes
Your pancreas is responsible for the production of insulin, a hormone. Insulin regulates the levels of sugar in your blood. In type 1 diabetes patients, the immune system attacks the beta cells of the pancreas (which are responsible for insulin production). Elevated blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels, and vital organs like nerves, eyes, kidneys, and the heart.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis features an attack of the joints by the immune system. Symptoms include warmth, redness, stiffness, and soreness in the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis differs from osteoarthritis in that it affects even young people in their 30s. Osteoarthritis only affects old people.
3. Psoriatic arthritis
Your skin cells can shed. They do this when they've grown and are no longer needed. Psoriasis causes the multiplication of skin cells. These cells multiply faster than normal and form red patches on the skin.
At least 30 percent of psoriatic patients develop stiffness, swelling, and joint pain. This is known as psoriatic arthritis.
4. Multiple sclerosis
This condition destroys the myelin sheath. Myelin sheath is a coating that protects your nerve cells. When the myelin sheath is damaged, the transmission of signals between your spinal cord, brain, and the rest of your body will slow down.
5. Addison’s Disease
This condition affects the functioning of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are responsible for the production of aldosterone and cortisol, and androgens as well. Low production of cortisol affects the usage and storage of sugar and carbohydrates. Aldosterone deficiency results in loss of sodium and hyperkalemia (high blood levels of potassium).
Symptoms include weight loss, weakness, low blood sugar, and fatigue.
Overview of adrenal fatigue
Endocrinologists and other medical professionals believe that 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.
Symptoms of the condition include:
- Craving sugar and salt
- Difficulty getting sleep and waking up
- Nonspecific digestive problems
- Reliance on caffeine and other stimulants
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of hair
The symptoms listed above are generic but could indicate some kind of medical disorder. Most symptoms, however, could also be caused by a hectic and busy life, poor sleep habits, bad nutrition, addiction to caffeine, or high-stress levels.
Adrenal fatigue is attributed to the "overworking" of the adrenal glands. The glands are activated during stress conditions. According to proponents of the condition, prolonged stress causes fatigue of the adrenal glands and they become unable to cope with the body's demands.
Progression of an autoimmune condition may cause adrenal fatigue
Although we cannot point out the precise cause of an autoimmune condition, looking at the disease etiology, a lot of factors play a role. As we’ve mentioned earlier, some of the factors that trigger autoimmune conditions include infections, stress, and other environmental factors. And the role played by our adrenal glands is most overlooked.
Your adrenal glands lie on tops of your kidneys. They take charge of cortisol production. When you are emotionally or physically stressed, your hypothalamus will signal your anterior pituitary to secrete some hormones and trigger some hormone pathways, such as the adrenocorticotropic hormone pathway, which in turn signals the production of cortisol. After cortisol has been produced in sufficient amounts, it will in turn signal your hypothalamus to switch off the pathway. On the other hand, if it is not produced sufficiently, the cortisol-secreting pathway remains active, thus distorting the balance of upstream hormone ratios. This pressurizes the adrenal glands. Imbalance of cortisol and other hormones have been associated with increased incidences of autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
Cortisol is very important during stressful conditions, and in fact, suppresses the immune system via downregulation of immune response. You have an autoimmune disease when your immune system overreacts to a stimulus and begins attacking the body's tissues. The fact is, your body puts its immune system in check so that when it gets into overdrive, cortisol downregulates it and restores the balance. That’s the way your body works.
When your body is excessively stressed, your adrenal glands become strained, and so hormonal balance is altered.
Adrenal fatigue can trigger an immune disease. At the advanced stage of adrenal fatigue, the level of cortisol diminishes, and so cannot downregulate the overreactive immune system as efficiently as it should. This allows the immune response to flare, resulting in inflammation. Of course, this explains why people who are susceptible to autoimmune conditions have a weak adrenal function.
Also, if your body is susceptible to autoimmune reactivity, cortisol can lower its response and keep it manageable. On the other hand, if you have adrenal fatigue, your cortisol level will be so low that it will be unable to regulate your immune system and so has a high risk of losing self-tolerance. This is the perfect condition for an autoimmune disease to set in, manifest symptoms, and degenerate into worse conditions.
Adrenal fatigue syndrome may trigger autoimmune diseases. However, adrenal fatigue may also be an autoimmune condition itself. It is confusing on the surface, but considering the cortisol link, it seems to make sense. Cortisol causes downregulation of the immune system, and if your immune system is working at suboptimal levels, like when you have very low cortisol (typical of adrenal fatigue), then there is a likelihood of autoimmunity occurring.