Adrenal fatigue symptoms are easy to miss: 14 red flags to read up on, stat

Research is hard to come by, but approximately 22 to 24% of people suffer with similar conditions.

Adrenal fatigue symptoms: a frustrated female computer programmer with head in hands sitting in creative office suffers from adrenal fatigue
(Image credit: Getty Images/Maskot)

Research is hard to come by, but approximately 22 to 24% of people suffer with similar conditions.

Feeling exhausted, having difficulty concentrating or battling a pretty persistent low mood? These are just three of the common adrenal fatigue symptoms that you should probably be aware of.

Under NHS guidelines, AF isn't a confirmed medical condition, but since 1998, when naturopath James Wilson coined the term, it's been regularly covered in the media because, sadly, many regularly feel the main symptoms day-to-day.

Naturopaths, holistic doctors and experts in alternative medicine use the term to describe a chronic kind of fatigue, whereby, as functional medicine practitioner and registered nutritionist Nicole Goode explains, the HPA axis in your body dysfunctions.

"Otherwise known as HPA axis dysfunction, adrenal fatigue describes when there's a breakdown in communication between your adrenal glands, the pituitary in the brain and the hypothalamus," she shares.

Been feeling a bit knackered recently and want to make sure it isn't adrenal fatigue? Keep scrolling.

When does adrenal fatigue occur? 

It occurs when your adrenals (think two walnut-sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys) pump out extra quantities of hormones, such as cortisol, adrenalin and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), to compensate for your chronically raised stress levels.

Trouble is, these hardworking glands are designed to release these hormones only in spurts – when you need the extra energy and focus in response to a perceived threat. So if feeling up against it is your status quo, the result can be large amounts of these hormones circulating in your system, and your adrenal glands becoming overtaxed.

When supplies eventually become depleted, your body can be left out of whack and you may feel jittery, exhausted and overwhelmed. "If you’re constantly on the go, you might take on more stress than you can cope with," explains Marek Doyle, a nutritionist and hormone specialist.

Adrenal fatigue symptoms: A woman yawning

Adrenal fatigue symptoms: 14 red flags

According to naturopath and nutritional therapist Olivia Smart, the main symptoms of adrenal fatigue are:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Tired but wired
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Palpitations
  • Dizzy spells
  • Craving salt or possibly sugar
  • Gut distress (stomach aches/constipation/diarrhoea)
  • Loss of interest or motivation
  • Low mood
  • Withdrawing from work, family and/or friends
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration.

"If left untreated, you may develop chronic health issues," explains Goode. That's because stress increases pro-inflammatory mechanisms in the body and can then act as a trigger for various chronic illnesses, she shares.

Why isn't adrenal fatigue medically recognised?

As we've touched on, the term isn't an official medical term and causes some contention within the world of medicine, largely because the term in itself isn’t entirely linguistically accurate.

According to GP doctor Houda Ounnas, the condition isn't widely accepted by the medical community or classified officially is because it cannot really be proven. "There isn't sufficient medical research, and because evidence-based medicine relies heavily on evidence from research, we cannot classify something as scientifically correct if it has not been proven by science," she explains.

"It's best described as a 'syndrome', which is a term used to describe a cluster of symptoms with some theory behind them," she continues.

Adrenal fatigue symptoms: Tired businesswoman with head in hand sitting at computer desk in office

3 tips for dealing with adrenal fatigue

1. Sleep is your number-one priority

A chronic lack of sleep can contribute to hormonal imbalances and make you susceptible to adrenal fatigue. ‘It’s more important than exercise, diet and drinking enough water," says doctor Tim Jones.

He advises you to banish Wi-Fi from the bedroom and , if you have your phone next to you at night, set it to airplane mode. "Dim the lights, and don’t stare at Instagram for ages before trying to go to sleep. Your best bet is to create a new routine. Soon you’ll associate it with better rest and it will become a habit," he reckons.

2. Caffeine is not 

It can dehydrate you, stimulate cortisol levels and stay in your body for hours.

"The half life of caffeine – the amount of time it takes for half an ingested dose to wear off – is about six hours, so having a cup of coffee in the afternoon could stop you sleeping,’ says Jones. ‘If you really can’t give it up, don’t have any caffeine after midday."

3. Movement is medicine

Aim to move around every half an hour, if you can.

"If you’re desk-bound during the day, set the alarm on your phone and every half hour to an hour, get up and be mobile for sixty seconds," recommends Jones. "It can help to keep your cortisol levels stable."

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.