Adrenal Burnout Syndrome
by Lawrence Wilson, MD
© Revised December 2007, LD Wilson Consultants, Inc.
An expert on adrenal health and hair analysis:
Thousands of people suffer from constant fatigue that is not relieved by rest and sleep. This is the main symptom of adrenal weakness or adrenal burnout syndrome. This article examines this extremely common syndrome – its causes, symptoms and the process of recovery of vibrant health by natural methods.
The adrenal glands are essential for life. They secrete a number of hormones that prepare our bodies to respond to stress. These include adrenalin, also called epinephrine, noradrenalin, also called norepinephrine, cortisol and cortisone.
The adrenal glands also produce aldosterone, estrogens, testosterone, progesterone, pregnenelone and DHEA. These hormones regulate many body activities. Of greatest importance for this article is that the adrenal hormones, particularly adrenalin and cortisol, activate the body’s fight-or-flight response.
This consists of increasing the amount of glucose or sugar in the blood, raising blood pressure, and promoting increased energy production. There are many other effects of the adrenal hormones, but we will focus on these effects for now.
Of great importance to our discussion is that the adrenal glands are innervated and stimulated by activity of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic or automatic nervous system of the body. This is the part of our nervous system that activates when we must respond to threats to our life.
A Definition of Adrenal Burnout
The adrenal glands may develop various types of problems. Before we define adrenal burnout, let us briefly discuss these rarer conditions.
Cushing’s disease. Severe overactivity or hyperfunction of the glands is called Cushing’s syndrome or Cushing’s disease. It is characterized by a ‘moon face’, obesity in the trunk, muscle weakness, poor wound healing, kidney stones and often psychological symptoms.
This condition is relatively rare and usually caused by a tumor of the adrenal glands that secretes cortisol or cortisone, two of the important adrenal hormones.
Addison’s disease. Extremely low adrenal activity is known as Addison’s disease. It is characterized by weakness, fatigue, low blood pressure, changes in skin color, dehydration, anorexia, nausea, decreased cold tolerance and dizziness. It is also a fairly rare condition, though I have met people who say they have Addison’s disease when they really are just in adrenal burnout, which is very different.
Addison’s disease is also caused at times by a tumor on the adrenal glands that shuts down the glands completely. It may also be caused by a severe shock to the system, as happened in the famous case of John F. Kennedy. JFK developed Addison’s disease when his small patrol boat was suddenly rammed by a Japanese destroyer on a dark night during World War II. Most of the crew was killed instantly. He survived, but the shock damaged his body severely.
Adrenal burnout syndrome. Adrenal burnout syndrome is basically a mild form of Addison’s disease. It is a low functioning or underactivity of the adrenal glands. It may also be termed adrenal insufficiency or adrenal exhaustion. It differs from Addison’s disease in several important ways:
1. In most cases, it can be corrected using natural methods. We do not like using cortisone therapy or any bio-identical hormone therapy for this condition. Most often it is not needed and just slows true recovery of the adrenal glands.
2. In most cases, the cause is not a single shock to the system, as with Addison’s disease. Instead, it is usually a slow decline in adrenal activity due to nutritional deficiencies and the accumulation of toxic metals and chemicals in the body. As these causes are removed, the adrenal glands easily recover.
3. Unlike Addison’s disease, adrenal insufficiency or burnout is very, very common today, especially among adults. However, few physicians are prepared to diagnose it.
Fatigue versus adrenal burnout. Adrenal burnout syndrome differs from simple fatigue in that burnout is not relieved by getting a few good nights sleep, as is the case with fatigue. This is the case because adrenal exhaustion is not just a sleep deficit, although that may be an aspect of the syndrome. Burnout is a deeper derangement of the body’s energy-producing system, of which fatigue is one symptom.
Detecting Adrenal Burnout
The right questions, however, would often be enough to assess the condition fairly accurately. These would include “How many hours of sleep are you getting?” “Do you use caffeine or other stimulants?” and “What other symptoms are you having?”. Let us examine how this can often identify adrenal burnout, even without other testing.
Signs and symptoms. A simple and quite reliable way to assess adrenal burnout in a general sense is with signs and symptoms. A common sign, for example, is a low blood pressure in the absence of other obvious causes.
Usually, the person will also often feel fatigued, even though one sleeps well. If one is not sleeping, the problem may simply be a sleep deficit. One may not feel tired, however, if you drink coffee, other caffeinated beverages or use other stimulants.
Another common symptom is depression. Others include joint pain, cravings for sweets, pain in the low back area and perhaps excessive thirst or craving for sweet and salty foods. Together these symptoms can help one decide if one needs further testing.
Hair mineral analysis. We have been using hair mineral analysis to help assess the condition of the adrenal glands for almost 30 years. We have done over 15,000 of them and are very satisfied with our results using this method.
Indicators for adrenal insufficiency on the hair mineral test, provided the sample is not washed at the laboratory, include:
1. A sodium/potassium ratio less than about 2:1.
2. A sodium/magnesium ratio of 1:1 or less.
3. A copper level of 10 mg% (100 parts per million) or more.
The hair mineral test also tells us how to correct the condition and is a very cost-effective and non-invasive test. In a few instances, high amounts of toxic metals in the body or other imbalances can distort the readings. In these cases, we begin a nutritional balancing program based on what is revealed on the test. The true condition of the adrenals will be revealed on a retest in several months in almost all cases. For this reason, we do not require any other type of testing besides the hair analysis and a complete list of all physical and mental symptoms.
Blood, urine and saliva hormone testing. Many holistic doctors today are testing the levels of adrenal hormones in the blood, urine or saliva. This is definitely a step in the right direction. However, we do not use these tests, as a rule, for the following reasons:
1. Not needed. We find the hair mineral test, when understood properly, provides plenty of information about adrenal activity.
2. Cost. Hormone tests are usually several hundred dollars. This is prohibitive for many people, especially compared to the hair mineral test.
3. Staging not needed. Hormone tests can assess how impaired the adrenals are, as does the hair analysis. However, we find that correction is not as dependent on the degree of adrenal weakness as much as it depends on how well one follows our directions for recovery.
Causes of Adrenal Burnout
Excessive stress, an important cause of burnout, can be from many sources. Chemical toxicity and nutritional depletion are among the physical causes. Mental, emotional or spiritual stress may be a major factor. Financial, family or other stress may also contribute to burnout.
Any excessive stress can deplete the adrenals, especially when weakened by poor nutrition. Working too much or emotional stress are two common causes. Excessive stimulation, especially for children, is another cause. Fast-paced, high-stress, fear-based lifestyles are a sure prescription for adrenal burnout.
Other stressors in cities are noise and electromagnetic pollution. Cell phones, microwave towers and appliances like televisions, microwave ovens and computers give off strong electrical fields.
Nutritional Deficiencies are a common cause. When under stress, the need for nutrients is much greater. Carbohydrates, when excessive in the diet, stress the adrenals. Diets low in protein may also create deficiencies. Inadequate or poor quality water affects oxygenation of the tissues.
Most diets are low in nutrients required by the adrenals. These include B-complex vitamins, vitamins A, C and E, manganese, zinc, chromium, selenium and other trace elements. The reasons for this begin with how food is grown. Most food is grown on depleted soils. Processing and refining further deplete nutrients.
Habits such as eating in the car or while on the run further diminish the value derived from food. Also, allergic reactions to foods such as wheat and dairy products can damage the intestines and reduce the absorption of nutrients.
Toxic metals and chemicals often play a large role in adrenal burnout. Everyone is exposed to thousands of chemicals in the air, the water and the food. Other sources are dental materials and skin contact with chemicals. Over-the-counter and prescribed medications add to the body’s toxic load. Most people do not realize that antibiotics and many other drugs accumulate to some extent in the liver and other organs.
Toxins may also be generated within the body due to impaired digestion. When food is not properly digested, it either ferments or rots in the intestines, producing many harmful substances that are absorbed into the body. A healthy body has the ability to eliminate many toxins on a daily basis. However, as adrenal weakness develops the body’s ability to eliminate all toxins decreases. This produces a vicious cycle in which weaker adrenals impairs the elimination of all poisons, which then further weakens the adrenals.
Chronic infections play a critical role in some cases of adrenal exhaustion. Chronic infections may originate in infected teeth or gums, though they can be located anywhere in the body. They contribute greatly to the toxic load of the body. Infections also cause inflammation and stress that must be countered using the adrenal hormones such as cortisol and cortisone.
Stimulants damage the adrenal glands. They whip the adrenals. Caffeine, sugar and alcohol are among the most common stimulants.
Less obvious but no less important stimulants may include anger, rage, arguing, hatred, loud music, fearful news and even movies full of suspense or violence.
Other activities that may act as stimulants and must not be overlooked include vigorous exercise, sexual preoccupations, recreational drug use or other thrills. These often provide a temporary “high”, which is caused in part by the secretion of high amounts of adrenal hormones. However, over time, this weakens the adrenals and can eventually lead to adrenal depletion and insufficiency.
Stimulant use, however, can also be a result of adrenal burnout. While stimulants can cause or contribute to adrenal weakness, some who use stimulants do so because they are in adrenal burnout already.
Stimulants are attractive to one in burnout to provide temporary energy. This is an important appeal of the drug culture, both legal and recreational. It is also the appeal of loud music, sexual addiction, and even anger. These activities or attitudes can provide enough adrenal stimulation to allow a person to feel better temporarily. This is an important reason why giving up one’s addictions can be difficult. When one gives them up, one must face the fact that one is exhausted, depressed and often just feels awful due to adrenal burnout. It is safe to say that most people addicted to stimulants or other drugs including cigarettes, cocaine, marijuana, and others has some degree of adrenal insufficiency.
Unhealthy responses to stress are another cause of adrenal burnout. These include habits of worrying, or becoming angry or afraid. Don’t worry, be happy is a great prescription for adrenal burnout. This applies particularly to high strung, nervous individuals and those with very active minds, as they are especially prone to adrenal burnout.
Congenitally Weak adrenals. Many children today are born with weak adrenals due to their parents’ nutritional deficiencies. This is not a genetic problem. Instead, it is due to the nutritional imbalances of the mother, in particular. These are passed through the placenta to the unborn child. For example, if the mother is zinc-deficient, as most are, the baby is born low in zinc and often high in copper, cadmium or other minerals that substitute for zinc to a degree.
Fortunately, this means the problem can be corrected, though it is better to prevent it, of course. By age three or four, these children are in burnout. They are often sick, depressed and have difficulty in school. Some of these children react to the situation by becoming hyperactive, compulsive, obsessive or by developing various other behavior problems.
On their hair mineral analyses, these children are often in a state of burnout at this early age, a relatively new phenomenon, in my experience. By gently rebuilding their body chemistry, however, their behavioral and other disorders generally vanish in a few months to a few years.
Symptoms of Adrenal Burnout
In addition to fatigue, weakness and often depression, symptoms often include a craving for sweets, low blood pressure and low blood sugar. Low energy impairs every system of the body. Thus, secondary symptoms can range from impaired digestion, aches and pains to chronic or recurring infections.
Emotional and mental symptoms. Often, emotional and psychological symptoms are present or even predominant. Depression is very common. Apathy, despair and even suicidal tendencies are also quite common.
Emotional instability, mood swings, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and irritability are also common symptoms associated with adrenal burnout syndrome. The world can look evil, one loses faith in people, and a hopeless attitude is not uncommon.
Compulsiveness and obsessive-compulsive tendencies may be associated with adrenal burnout. One may become addicted or very attracted to excessive exercise, sex, loud music or other forms of excitement. The unconscious goal is always the same, to stimulate the adrenals into activity.
Many areas of life affected. Adrenal burnout affects every area of life. One may lose interest in friends, family and work. Relationships often suffer when one person in the relationship goes into adrenal exhaustion. Unfortunately, many with adrenal burnout function on anger and resentment. These act as adrenal stimulants, providing a negative energy with which to function. Most of the world, in fact, functions on the negative energy of anger.
Bigger implications. While it is beyond the scope of this article, entire nations can go into adrenal exhaustion as a result of wars, famines and other catastrophes. When this occurs, the attitudes of the people change, and with it the leaders they elect. This has happened many times in history, and is an important hidden factor in our politics of today in America. For example, a population in burnout does not feel capable of taking care of themselves. They will vote for more and more government welfare programs, often bankrupting the nation, without understanding the consequences of their votes.
The Physiology of Adrenal Burnout
Low cortisol symptoms. Low blood sugar, low blood pressure, low temperature, depression, joint pain and allergies may result from low levels of cortisol. Multiple chemical sensitivity is an extreme allergic condition associated with adrenal burnout. Later, blood pressure may rise as toxic substances build up in the arteries and kidneys.
Copper toxicity and burnout. Elevated copper and low zinc related to adrenal burnout impair the immune system. Chronic infections may develop. The stage is also set for the development of degenerative conditions. Cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases may be end-stage results of toxic accumulation and energy depletion.
Thyroid imbalances and burnout. Often secondary to adrenal exhaustion are other glandular imbalances such as hypothyroidism. The thyroid gland and the adrenals have a very close relationship and stress on one always affects the other.
Much less common is the development of a secondary hyperthyroidism, or overactivity of the thyroid. This may be a compensation for low adrenals, as the condition will disappear as the adrenals are allowed to rest and rebuild.
The adrenal glands produce estrogen and progesterone. They are the main source of these hormones after menopause. Premenstrual syndrome and hot flashes often have to do with weakened adrenal glands.
Reduced cellular energy production. Depression and apathy are often the result of low energy production in the cells. Also, cortisol provides a natural ‘high’. Thus, low cortisol can contribute to feelings of depression and even despair. Unsure if there is energy to get through the day, anxiety may occur. Irritability is common as one is less able to handle even minor stress.
Burnout and metal toxicity. When the adrenals are weak, copper builds up in the body. Elevated copper enhances emotions. Panic attacks, bipolar disorder, mood swings and schizophrenia are related to copper imbalance. As one’s energy level declines, other toxic metals build up as well. Mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic, beryllium and others contribute to hundreds of physical and emotional symptoms.
Recovery from Adrenal Burnout
Recovery from burnout is certainly possible. We have helped many people to do this. Our program is all about diet, rest and other lifestyle changes. Be prepared to spend several years on a nutritional balancing program. This does not mean you cannot work or take care of your family during this time. However, lots of rest is critical and recovery still usually takes several years of effort. The following is an outline of the program we recommend for adrenal burnout:
1. An improved diet. For more on diet, click here for the Slow Oxidizer Diet Plan.
2. Plenty of pure water to drink. We prefer distilled water to begin with, and later spring water, in most cases. At least use a carbon filter on your tap. We don’t like reverse osmosis water very much, nor do we like most alkaline water systems, “drinking water” or tap water.
3. An improved lifestyle. Loads of rest is the single most important lifestyle change. (For some other details, click on The Healing Lifestyle and many other articles Dr. Wilson’s website about lifestyle.)
4. About 6 or 7 basic nutritional supplements. These must be targeted and individualized using a properly performed and properly interpreted hair mineral analysis. (For more information, click on Nutritional Balancing And Why I Recommend It.)
5. A detoxification protocol is helpful, though perhaps not always needed. This involves the use of a near infrared sauna and perhaps coffee enemas or colonic irrigation. This is included with all nutritional balancing programs. For some general information about these procedures, click on Detoxifcation Procedures.
6. A meditation-observation exercise that is extremely centering and grounding. (Click on Meditation to learn more about this excellent and simple procedure.)
7. Shifts in your attitudes and perspectives on life, when needed. Attitudes of forgiveness, letting go, positivity, spirituality, prayer and more can speed up healing greatly. Addressing all these aspects is the way to assure success. The preceding are general suggestions only. If possible, work with someone on our list of recommended practitioners. These are the only people I can recommend. Others, no matter what their education or experience, often do not know how to correct adrenal burnout syndrome.
What about adrenal and other testing? In general, we require only the hair mineral analysis, with repeated tests every six months for several years. Food allergy testing may be helpful, but usually not needed, in cases of severe food intolerances.
We do not tend to need hormone tests, blood tests or other types of tests, although we are happy to review any tests you may have. However, we never discourage other testing when needed.
What about bio-identical hormone replacement therapy? We do not use any hormones at all. This is important to emphasize. Many holistic doctors suggest using low-dose cortisone, DHEA, pregnenalone, testosterone and other hormone replacements.
We do not find this necessary. Also, we find that even bio-identical hormone therapy may easily delay real healing of the adrenals. We much prefer to rebuild the adrenals through nutrition and detoxification and we have excellent success if a person will follow our simple dietary and lifestyle program. Hormone replacement often complicates things because the body’s hormonal regulatory and feedback system is very complex and hard to duplicate with hormone pills or shots.
What about anti-depressants and other drug therapies for burnout? We very rarely recommend any pharmaceutical or over-the-counter drug for any reason.
Exceptions include if one absolutely cannot sleep or perhaps, if one has a severe parasitic infection or some other serious infection. In almost all these cases, however, natural products such as colloidal silver, herbal remedies and other work well at a lower cost and with far fewer side effects.
We do not take people off prescribed medication. That is a matter between you and your prescribing doctor.
The Blessing of Burnout
Adrenal burnout can be the best thing that happens to a person. It is a wake up call. Often, some area of life is out of balance or alignment. Addressing burnout is often the starting point for a deeper exploration of self. Rather than just existing as a programmed zombie, adrenal burnout may be the beginning of real living.
This was the case for me, and for many patients I have worked with. I suffered from adrenal exhaustion for a number of years. As I began to understand the condition better, I made many changes in my diet, lifestyle and most critically, my thinking.I forced myself to do coffee enemas, to walk every day and to meditate daily, although I did not enjoy doing any these things, at first.
I let go of family ties and other relationships that I discovered were toxic and harmful for me. I also moved out of the polluted city, although the process was terrifying because I had very little energy or money to accomplish the move.
Perhaps most important was the need for more subtle changes in attitudes and mental tendencies. I realized how important it is to give up all victim thinking and negative thinking. I had to let go of thinking of anyone else as a victim, either, although that may sound like a strange attitude. I have written about this in other articles on this website.
I also dwelled upon and developed the spiritual or real part of myself. This is an incredible benefit if you can make yourself do it. In the process, I had to leave behind the superficial life style that I, like most people, had lived most of my life.
These shifts have served me extremely well, as they have served thousands of others I have since worked with. Thus, I have learned it is wrong to think that adrenal burnout, or any serious condition, is just a curse to be “handled” as quickly as possible. If you act this way, you may miss the greatest blessing of your life.
—Dr. Larry Wilson