Adrenal Fatigue: A Quack Disease for the New Millennium

Adrenal fatigue is the new fad for all the quack doctors and fitness trainers of the modern day. Just don’t ask anybody with medical training.

Why, you may ask? Well, when this first started cropping up as the Next Big Thing, I did a little checking around on Google, and the top results were from a doctor yes, but not in the way you might think. The results belonged to one Dr. James Wilson. More accurately, his website designed will all the standard Inner Circle Marketing cliches.

For obvious reasons this set off my bullshit alarms at once; if you Google search any real disease, you’ll find that actual, you know, information pops up, not some doctor using his MD as an appeal to authority while he tries to sell you things.

I didn’t give up, though. I went over to Pubmed, which is a repository of health and medical research that contains an index of virtually every medical-related publication. Again, if this were a valid thing you’d expect a good number of results.

The search string “adrenal fatigue” returned zero (0) matches.

By now I’m 95% convinced this is garbage. But, just to be fair and to prove to myself that it’s the case, I dig around a little more.

For those that don’t know, there are real conditions that affect the adrenal glands. These are Addison’s disease, also known as adrenal insufficiency, Cushing’s disease, and a mysterious term that caught my eye called “hypoadrenia”. Once you rule out Addison’s and Cushing’s (for the simple reason that these are easily-diagnosed ailments), hypoadrenia seemed like a possible candidate.

Again, not much luck on Pubmed but I did come across this tidbit that puts the matter in context:

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1044180

Tattersall, RB. Hypoadrenia or “a bit of Addison’s disease”. Med Hist. 1999 October; 43(4): 450–467.

This pretty much cemented my thoughts on the matter: adrenal fatigue is a catch-all term for any sort of vague symptomology, or perhaps even for those with other very real, but undiagnosed problems such as autoimmune disorders. My personal hunch is that its the former a lot more than the latter.

You can just look at the emotional veracity in which the adrenal fatigue “victims” defend their condition, using appeals to authority (“He’s a doctor”) and appeals to emotion (“I don’t have to justify this to you, I know what I feel”) in lieu of any real facts to see that this is a lot of hot air.

Further, the Wiki corroborates this as well:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypoadrenia

To quote:

“Hypoadrenia is a term for a hypothesised condition of the adrenal glands. The terms adrenal exhaustion or adrenal fatigue are often used (and connected to hypoadrenia) by complementary and alternative therapists, but are not formal medical terms.”

and

“Adrenal exhaustion” and “adrenal fatigue” are common diagnoses in alternative medicine, but are not recognized in conventional medicine. The mainstream medical view of hypoadrenia is that its alleged symptoms are vague and non-specific, and that day-to-day emotional stress is highly unlikely to lead to an “exhaustion” or imbalance of the adrenal glands.”

If anything, the phenomenon of adrenal fatigue is closer in description to Selye’s concept of general adaptation syndrome, and specifically the final stage wherein the organism has exhausted its adaptation ability in fighting a constant stress.

Here’s the thing: this is not a disease. This is a simple matter of stress, and is fixed the way you’d fix any stress: relax, eat well, and get some sleep.

The other big issue is who’s diagnosing you. If it’s not a licensed MD, then the advice is suspect. Naturopaths and even personal trainers that are better at marketing than understanding the body are diagnosing this. Seriously, you want a personal trainer diagnosing a potentially dangerous medical condition?

Does that even remotely sound right to you?

Considering the fact that there is no reliable data on adrenal fatigue or hypoadrenia, I’d be highly suspect of any MD that diagnosed you with such a condition. If they try to sell you expensive supplements on top of that, I’d just call it for what it is (a load of BS) and walk away.

This is of course assuming it’s not a form of hypochondria brought about by quacks that stand to make money from a disease they’ve told you you’ve got. Of all the explanations, this is the one that makes the most sense. Occam’s razor is usually not wrong when it comes to a situation that could be getting somebody rich.

Being stressed out is not a disease.

So you’ve got all the elements in play for a good scam: a potentially wide-spread yet undiagnosed disease; a means of keeping things vague by downplaying medical science; appealing to people’s belief that it’s the rogue scientist that dared to stand out who’s making all the advances (people watch too many movies); and a mechanism of making sure people won’t ask questions, which is critical when duping people, be it religion or fitness. If you have a way of keeping people from asking questions that could expose the weak links in your belief system, you can’t go wrong.

By appealing to the “flawed” nature of the medical science system and the inherent distrust of doctors and such professionals, you can make it easy to give your mystery disease, and thus yourself, great importance.

Human psychology is amazing, isn’t it?

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12 thoughts on “Adrenal Fatigue: A Quack Disease for the New Millennium”

  1. Great rant, here. Seriously, I totally agree with what you're saying. The last three paragraphs are the best. First time to your site, glad I came.

  2. Dude, I was about to drop 200 bucks on some worthless crap by James Wilson (not gonna call him a doctor in any sense of the word)…but this website sealed my suspisions. Thanks!

  3. You must be young and have had a good life so far. One day you might burn out. Then you will look back on this blog in a new light when there are no other answers left to explain your health demise.

    • One day zombies might eat my brain, but that doesn't mean it's smart to live my life as if that's likely to happen.

  4. I work with a doctor who treats this. It is real and if you look back in time doctors have been treating people for this for years. Why is it the thyroid,liver,heart etc can run down and not function well but when it comes to the adrenal gland you have to have addisons to have a problem. Diet,supps, hydrocortisone all help with low cortisol levels. If and when you do burn out you will know what I am talking about. Go find yourself a old D.O and learn something.

    • So let's see:

      1. You have an acknowledged financial interest in defending this position;

      2. You don't acknowledge any of the updated information and instead go with the vague "been treating it for years" argument, which, confusingly, was the whole point of writing this;

      3. You still think that cortisol levels are a proximate cause instead of a distal effect of central stress issues. I even said it in the article: if there's a real dysfunction at the adrenals, that ought to be measurable. Where's that data?

      For the record, I have burned out. I took steps to relax, to eat better, and to impose less physical stress — exactly what I outlined in the article. You make changes to the lifestyle, not the American approach of "find a pill to let me keep acting how I want to act".

      Adrenal fatigue is still scoring a zero.

      • I did not give "find a pill " as the only answer to the problem. If you look at the tests that are run for addisons morning cortisol is what is looked at. What financial interest have I achnowledged ? When you go to the doctor for anything it cost money, it is a business any way you look at it. Like I said before the thyroid, heart, liver every organ can function sub par why do you believe there is no grey area with the adrenals. I would be more than happy to point you in the right direction for information on this.

      • Where's the data, Jon? I'm not interested in reading blogs trying to sell something. Where are the primary sources that observe this in controlled settings?

        And why aren't you reading what I'm writing, instead of making a blind defense of your pet subject? I've already covered why I don't think you're *wrong*, but rather arguing from the wrong premise. Is it really that hard to just let go and try to look at the problem from a different angle instead of arguing for your team?

      • I dont have a team. I am not selling anything. I understand the angle you are coming from on this. The dysfunction at the adrenals is measurable, cortisol levels.You are spot on with lifestyle changes and how much they help but you cant live in a cave and shut out stress and dysfunction and at times you need help. There are people who have adrenal problems who will die without cortisol ie adrenal crisis. Medicine is not 100% science there is art to it. Using a tuning fork to help find stress fractures is not 100% science based but very common place in medcine. hydrocotisone is a safe med that has been used for years for this problem and has given people help when nothing else has worked.

    • First of all, the point of this article was not to discount that these symptoms happen, but rather to point out the quackery — meant to ultimately support supplement hucksterism — that underlies the concept of “adrenal fatigue”.

      Secondly, if you want a more informed discussion of the topic, I’d suggest reading Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. He accounts for all these symptoms, while explaining that there is no fatigue or exhaustion occurring.

      If you’d prefer more scholarly sources, then go to Pubmed and search for work on allostasis by Bruce McEwen. You’ll find the same answers.

      What you experience is an over-active stress-response which translates to feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, burn-out, whatever you want to call it. There may even be mitigating biological causes, but there is no “adrenal fatigue” and neither is it likely that a supplement regimen will be enough to restore you to normal function. That the syndrome is “all in your head” is not meant to discount it; pain is “all in your head” and it’s taken very seriously. The fact that various “non-diagnosed” stress symptoms have psychological causes is meant to provide a more accurate method of treatment.

      And don’t post fake troll comments that back yourself up before I’ve even approved your original six comments. It reflects badly.

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