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Is Adrenal Fatigue Real? Know The Signs and Symptoms

You might have heard of adrenal fatigue being discussed by your friends and online sources, but does it really exist? Here’s what medical experts and Traditional Chinese Medicine have to say about it.

Woman working at a desk in front of a desktop computer, massaging her eyes due to fatigue.

Adrenal fatigue has been widely discussed on online sources like TikTok, but medical experts beg to differ on the “condition”. If you feel tired all the time, have sleep issues, and can’t concentrate, you may think these are signs of adrenal fatigue.

Most doctors and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physicians agree that adrenal fatigue is not a recognised medical condition. Many other health conditions such as anaemia, sleep apnoea and autoimmune diseases, to name a few, may be responsible for the symptoms for adrenal fatigue. 

Read on to learn more about your adrenal glands, what could be causing your chronic fatigue and some ways to ease the symptoms.

Is Adrenal Fatigue Real In TCM?

Man lying awake in bed, unable to sleep due to insomnia and a digital clock showing 2.08am.
Unable to sleep at night? It could be due to a Kidney and Heart Imbalance according to TCM.

TCM physician Kwek Le Yin says chronic fatigue in TCM is similar to adrenal fatigue. Within chronic fatigue, there are many syndromes that include Qi Deficiency, Blood, and Yin and Yang Deficiency of the five major organs – the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys.

Because the adrenal glands are positioned on top of the Kidneys, TCM regards adrenal fatigue as a Deficiency in the Kidneys. Apart from fluid regulation, TCM believes that the kidney system also stores essence, which can transform into vital energy (qi). The Kidneys are the root of qi and the foundation of yin and yang. It supplies the other organ systems with qi, yin and yang, and governs reproduction, hair growth, hearing, memory, sex drive and life span.  

“When the adrenals are overstimulated due to stress, it can affect the Kidneys, the four other major organs and their physiological functions, leading to a lack of qi, an imbalance in the body and the emergence of fatigue symptoms.” 

TCM Physician Kwek Le Yin

Causes and Syndromes of Fatigue in TCM 

The four major causes and syndromes of adrenal fatigue are: 

1. Kidney and Heart Imbalance 

Common symptoms include insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety and depression, heart conditions, emotional instability, and fibromyalgia (severe pain and fatigue in joints and muscles throughout the body).

2. Kidney and Spleen Imbalance 

Common symptoms include fatigue, craving for sweets, hypoglycaemia, brain fog, muscle weakness, poor digestion, and food intolerance.

3. Kidney and Liver Imbalance 

This can be worsened by late nights, alcohol and stress. Common symptoms include headaches and migraines, irritability, anger and frustration, hormonal symptoms, and acne.

4. Kidney and Lung Imbalance 

Common symptoms include allergies, hay-fever, recurring respiratory infection, cold, flu, and asthma

Clinical Causes and Symptoms of Fatigue 

Woman holding a doughnut in one hand and eating another doughnut in the other.
If you have an unexplainable craving for sweet of salty treats, it could be a sign of adrenal fatigue.

Your adrenal glands produce several hormones including cortisol. When you’re under stress, you produce and release short bursts of cortisol into the bloodstream.

In Western medicine, a state of low cortisol will likely lead to a diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease. This can cause symptoms such as brain fog, low energy, depression, a craving for salty or sweet food, and light-headedness. 

An article by the Endocrine Society says that these symptoms are common and can be caused by other conditions such as depression and obstructive sleep apnoea. They also can occur if you lead a normal, busy life. If you find that these symptoms are affecting your quality of life, you should obtain a proper diagnosis by a medical professional to get to the root of the issue. 

TCM Remedies to Help with Fatigue 

Physician Kwek suggests these herbs and treatments to help with symptoms of fatigue.

Decoctions and herbs 

Si Shen Tang (四神汤) helps treat anxiety and adrenal fatigue symptoms. It can also lower blood sugar, reduce oedema, restore kidney function, and boost qi and blood reproduction. 

You can try making this Si Shen Tang soup recipe or opt to purchase a soup pack

Si Shen Tang Soup recipe 

  • 50g Euryale ferox (芡实)  
  • 40g Lotus seed (lian zi, 莲子) 
  • 40g Chinese yam (huai shan, 淮山) 
  • 40g Poria (fu ling, 茯苓) 
  • 1l water  

Method: 

1. Soak the herbs for 20 minutes, then wash and drain them. 

2. Add all the ingredients to a large pot of boiling water.

3. Boil for 20 mins and reduce heat to simmer for one hour. Serve. 

Another herbal decoction that can help is Ba Zhen Tang (八珍汤) with the addition of Rhizoma corydalis (yan hu suo, 延胡索). It nourishes qi and blood and improves blood circulation.

Apart from herbal formulas, some herbs can help combat the cause and symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Physician Kwek recommends Astragalus root (huang qi, 黄芪), codonopsis (dang shen, 党参) and liquorice root (gan cao, 甘草), which strengthen the immune system and replenish vital energy and blood.

To strengthen the Kidneys’ qi and yang, Physician Kwek says cordyceps is effective, while goji berries (gou qi zi, 枸杞子) strengthen Kidney yin

As always, speak to a TCM physician before self-prescribing any of these herbs and decoctions to ensure they’re suitable for you.

Lifestyle practices 

Red kidney beans in a wooden bowl, spoon and scattered on a mat
Food such as kidney beans nourishes the Kidneys.

Physician Kwek advises that apart from incorporating Chinese herbs into your diet, consider having numerous small meals spaced out more frequently throughout the day instead of three heavy meals a day.

“Consume food that nourishes the Kidneys such as kidney beans, black sesame seeds (hei zhi ma, 黑芝麻), and walnuts (he tao ren, 核桃仁). You should also lower your intake of sugar, alcohol, and food high in sodium, and stop smoking.” 

TCM Physician Kwek Le Yin

Stress and other emotional strains should also be avoided if possible or regulated through exercising or meditation. Suitable exercises include Qigong and yoga breathing exercises, which can nourish the Kidneys and calm your mind. 

Acupuncture  

Acupuncture can balance hormones by calming your body and nervous system.

As the underlying cause of the adrenal fatigue symptoms in TCM is Kidney Deficiency, acupoints associated with the Kidneys or on the Kidney meridian may be stimulated to improve adrenal fatigue. A qualified acupuncturist will stimulate acupoints tai xi (KI3, 太溪) and yong quan (KII, 湧泉). 

Physician Kwek also suggests acupoints to help calm the mind, which are shen men (HT7, 神门) and bai hui (GV20, 百会). If you’re looking to relieve a headache, he gu (LI4, 合谷) and tai yang (EXHN05, 太阳) will help while shen mai (BL62, 申脉) and zhao hai (KI6, 照海) can improve sleep. 

Though adrenal fatigue isn’t officially recognised by Western and TCM practitioners, you might be troubled by your symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion. Don’t be afraid to consult a doctor or TCM physician to get to the bottom of it and you’ll soon be on a path to feeling energised and healthy again. 

Do these symptoms of fatigue sound familiar? Share your story with us if you’ve managed to overcome the condition. 

References

  1. Harvard Health Publishing, 2020, Is adrenal fatigue “real”? [online] [Accessed 10 April 2023]
  2. Endocrine.org, 2022 Adrenal Fatigue, [online] [Accessed 10 April 2023]
  3. Health Direct. Adrenal Fatigue, [online] [Accessed 10 April 2023]
  4. CedarsSinai.org 2018, Debunking Adrenal Fatigue, [online] [Accessed 10 April 2023]
  5. Cleveland Clinic, 2021, Here’s The Truth About Adrenal Fatigue

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