If you’ve been dealing with adrenal fatigue, you’ve likely been noticing symptoms that may seem unrelated at first, but have a strong connection to the condition — and weight loss (or gain) is one of them.
Adrenal fatigue as a diagnosis is not accepted by all doctors, says Dr. Luiza Petre, assistant clinical professor of cardiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. However, those who experience know it feels all too real.
“When you have adrenal insufficiency, it can range from a feeling of depletion and fatigue all the way through to fibromyalgia, where you have significant pain,” she says. “There can be many symptoms that are on this spectrum, from emotional issues to physical problems, and weight can be one of them.”
ADRENAL FUNCTION & FATIGUE
As part of the endocrine system, your body has two adrenal glands near the top of each kidney. They secrete hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure and corticosteroids — including cortisol, the hormone related to your stress response.
When functioning normally, the hormones released should fluctuate. For example, less cortisol will be secreted in the evening, so that you can wind down for sleep, and it ramps up again in the early morning to give you energy for the day. But if you’re stressed, either due to external circumstances or from illness, the level of corticosteroids can change dramatically and sometimes get stuck in the “always-on” position.
If that happens, you could be in a state of constant stress even if you don’t feel like there are enough stressors to warrant that reaction — and it can lead to adrenal insufficiency, when the glands are unable to keep up with the demands placed on them.
“At a certain point, you’ll be mentally and physically exhausted, and yet the stressors will keep coming,” says Petre. “Your body will continue to try to respond to these issues, but without the resources you need for an adequate defense.”
One response could be weight fluctuation. Some people experience weight loss, while others might see weight gain, with both effects happening despite eating the same amount of calories.
In addition to a direct effect on weight from adrenal fatigue, the symptoms of the condition can lead to indirect consequences as well, and those can exacerbate struggles with weight gain.
Most notably, you might find eating more sugary and unhealthy “comfort foods” is a way to deal with stress, and not only can that contribute to eating more calories than you’d planned, but the surging cortisol tends to put that weight in the midsection, according to North Carolina-based dietitian Molly Devine, RD.
“One of the functions of cortisol is to take glucose out of storage so your body and brain can use it to deal with short-term stressors,” she says. “But when you have chronic stress, the body doesn’t need all that extra glucose, so it releases insulin to counterbalance that.” The process results in insulin getting stored in the form of fat, and the body’s favorite spot for that is the belly.
Making the situation more problematic is that cortisol release and adrenal gland fatigue can affect digestion and metabolism, so you may be digesting food at a slower rate, Devine adds.
Eating foods that don’t give you energy can also worsen your fatigue, especially if you’re still dealing with stress, and that may have an effect on your activity levels. The ripple effect of eating more calories, exercising and moving less, and dealing with adrenal fatigue can add up to weight issues.
STRATEGIES THAT MAY HELP
Although it might seem like adrenal glands are acting like major saboteurs when it comes to weight gain, there are ways to counteract what’s going on, suggests Petre.
Lifestyle changes like being more active and tracking your calories with an app like MyFitnessPal can be helpful, along with de-stress tactics like deep breathing and yoga. Other strategies include getting fresh air every day — ideally, with movement involved, like taking a walk — improving your sleep, and reducing the use of stimulants and depressants like caffeine and alcohol.
“Most of all, make a plan, and track how changes like these are helping,” suggests Petre. “Take note of your symptoms as well, like pain or weakness, so you can start to see patterns.”
Keeping track of weight gain and loss, and how it might correspond to symptom flare-up can give you a good view of what’s going on and strategies to address it.
Another helpful step is to talk with your doctor. If you feel like you’re suffering from either adrenal fatigue or fibromyalgia, you may need to ask for a referral to a rheumatologist for appropriate screening and treatment.
Unlock an experience that’s like having a dietitian, trainer and coach at your fingertips. Sign up for Premium for expert guidance and tools to help you reach your personal health goals.