Is It Adrenal Fatigue, Or Is It Your Brain?

Is It Adrenal Fatigue, Or Is It Your Brain?

Dealing with exhaustion, body aches, and digestion problems? Could it be adrenal fatigue? You may have heard of this term, which is used to describe symptoms that appear to be related to an overload of chronic stress. The concept is that when the body is under duress, the adrenal glands pump out the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. The theory goes that when stress is constant, it wears out the adrenal glands. But this theory leaves out one very important part of this equation—the brain.

It’s the brain—and in particular, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland—that is controlling the action. Together with the adrenal glands, they form the HPA axis, which regulates the way your body responds to stress.

Meet the HPA Axis

  • The hypothalamus, about the size of a pearl, is an important part of the brain that is responsible for translating our emotional state into physical feelings of relaxation or tension. The back half of the hypothalamus sends stimulating or fear signals to the body and is responsible for the fight-or-flight response—a primitive state that gets us ready to fight or flee when we are threatened or scared. When stress hits, the hypothalamus releases hormones that prompt the pituitary gland to start secreting other hormones.
  • The pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located at the base of the brain, is considered the body’s “master gland” because it produces many hormones. One of its jobs is to stimulate other glands within the body to secrete other hormones. When the hypothalamus alerts the pituitary gland to stress, the pituitary release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which then signals the adrenal glands to start spewing out those stress hormones.
  • The adrenal glands are small organs situated above the kidneys. They take their cue from the pituitary gland and begin pumping out cortisol and adrenaline.

This hardwired response happens automatically upon activation, such as witnessing or experiencing an emotional or physical threat. Your heart beats faster, breathing and blood pressure increase, hands and feet become cooler to shunt blood away from the extremities to the big muscles (to help you defend yourself or run away), and the pupils dilate (to see better).

For our cave-dwelling ancestors, this stress reaction helped us stay alive by helping us run from predators—think saber-tooth tigers or an encroaching tribe. In today’s world, it’s things like mind-numbing traffic, impossible deadlines, or over-exercising that can set this process in motion.

Chronic Stress and the Brain

When stress becomes chronic, the HPA axis gets stuck on high alert, and the brain keeps telling the adrenals to continue releasing stress hormones. This may cause the adrenals to become depleted, but it’s the brain that’s in the driver’s seat. Brain imaging studies show that chronic stress has serious impacts on the brain. It constricts blood flow to the brain, which lowers overall brain function, and it also drains your emotional well-being and is associated with anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Unrelenting tension can also wreak havoc with gut health, which is involved in producing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.

Treating Adrenal Fatigue by Optimizing Brain Health

The key to reducing chronic stress and reestablishing a healthier HPA axis is to enhance your overall brain health. Here are 11 strategies that help:

  • Reduce the intake of sugar, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine
  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Eliminate gluten
  • Avoid excessive high-intensity exercise
  • Meditate or pray on a regular basis
  • Learn to delegate
  • Practice gratitude
  • Laugh more
  • Support gut health with probiotics
  • Optimize vitamin D levels
  • Take omega-3 fatty acids

At Amen Clinics, brain SPECT imaging is performed as a component of a comprehensive evaluation for people with symptoms of chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. The Amen Clinics Method takes an integrative approach to diagnosis and includes looking at the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of your life to identify areas that can be optimized.

If you’re tired of feeling tired and worn down all the time, call 888-288-9834 to talk to a specialist today or schedule a visit.


  1. What med do you recomend on adrenal problem . My blood work show all of this

    Comment by Patricia Guggenbiller — November 15, 2019 @ 3:17 AM

  2. Yes….adrenal glands and brain…..AND what affected my adrenals and brain was none other than Lyme disease…!!!
    On another note the holistic clinic that I attend does air and water samples…..And in their air testing they have found the Lyme bacteria present in the air samples…..then one will wonder why Lyme is epidemic….and also wondering how is it getting into the air…..!!!Lyme is hard to get rid of the little sneaky bastards hide in the ‘biofilms’…a person needs to break up the biofilm and purge it out with personalized clinical nutritional testing supplements.

    Comment by John Szewczyk — November 15, 2019 @ 4:30 AM

  3. I am so confused, about all the hormones, what to eat!I am 69 years old, I am active bu my concentration is horrible I can not focus long enough to read let alone , know what I am reading!!! I am on stratra , and prestique , No help!! Is it my thyroid, adrenal ?

    Comment by Kathleen Louise — November 15, 2019 @ 6:22 AM

  4. I have had an understanding of this info for quite sometime.Diagnosed with Crones.I have acted upon in nutrition eat.Weakness in mind & body just keeps getting worse.I am 72 & always been very active mentally,spiritually & physically.I am about yo give up!!

    Comment by Julia Gibson — November 15, 2019 @ 6:56 AM

  5. Great information. Thanks for all the education you are getting out there about brain and gut health. I survived an undiagnosed pheochromocytoma that I may have had for up to 5 years. Had been a marathon runner and healthy lifestyle.

    It was discovered after I went into cardiac arrest, coded twice for a total of 20 minutes, causing at least one stroke, 5% heart life, a week on ECMO, organ failure, bp of over 300/155 multiple times in that process, and more.

    It was a challenging recovery process but today I am on no meds of any kind and feel terrific. I have spent time researching this, why/how it could be avoided, genetic testing and more. My heart made a full recovery. I don’t know if I could live through it twice though 🙂 Love researching health and paying it forward as an advocate.
    Every day is a gift!!!

    Comment by Angie Jorgensen — November 15, 2019 @ 7:24 AM

  6. “avoid caffeine” and “delegate” aren’t really realistic suggestions for the majority of people. Delegate means telling someone else to do your work. Haha not going to happen. Most jobs don’t allow a person to “delegate” and doing so is not part of the job description and would get you fired (and rightly so). Trying to “delegate”in personal life would be equally unlikely if there’s no one around ready and willing to pick up your slack for free. It could even end in divorce, ended friendships, strained relationships with siblings and family, or even lost custody (“they kept trying to ‘delegate’ things to their kids, family, and neighbors, because they claimed to have “adrenal fatigue” – finally the state took their kids). Caffeine and other stimulants are used out of necessity. Yes they are hard on the system, but those bills won’t pay themselves, those chores won’t do themselves, those responsibilities won’t resolve on their own. The problem is the CEOs and other employers, govt, healthcare, education, and real estate/housing sector, have decided to squeeze the populace as hard as they can for $$$$$. If all the billionaires were taxed at a fair level, there wouldn’t be people working too many hours, using caffeine to get by, etc.

    Comment by MKJ — November 15, 2019 @ 9:17 AM

  7. How did you break up the biofilms and what Clinic do you go to? I’ve been bit by Lyme tick five or six times over the past 15 years. It’s been horrific.

    Comment by Cheri yannotta — November 15, 2019 @ 4:45 PM

  8. Hi Julia…I will keep you in my thoughts & prayers. I feel for you as I have crohns too & am 65…feel waaay older cuz of crohns plus herniated disks & osteoarthritis in back & spine…sad & hopeless living with so much daily pain…very diff on body & mind!! Let me know if you find anything that helps with crohns or just email me anytime you wish… prayers & love in Jesus Christ, Ruth

    Comment by Ruth — November 16, 2019 @ 9:30 AM

  9. I am improving in physical and mental health by following Dr. Fuhrman’s Six Week Plan from “EAT TO LIVE”. Easy to follow, mostly salads and vegetables and fruit, so no complicated recipes or preparations; and I save money. If you haven’t already, you must give up wheat. It is toxic. I am 68 and my wife’s name was also Kathleen Louise so I naturally had to reply. Many people are iodine deficient since it is not in bread anymore, we avoid milk and iodized salt. One sheet of nori is 400 mcg, 40% of the upper RDA and what people prior to 1970 were getting daily. Any diet high in vitamins and minerals without wheat will help you. Ask for a nutritionist consult because there are many vitamins that you need and most doctors are not educated about.

    Comment by Paul Mammen — November 16, 2019 @ 7:24 PM

  10. At the age of 59, I had a sudden awareness of loss of concentration, inability to focus and read books, etc. Through a MRI they found I had meningioma brain tumors that were very slow growing. Thus the symptoms I was experiencing, one of them being lack of concentration, had come on so slowly I didn’t notice until they were pointed out. Talk to you doctor. 700,000 people a year a diagnosed with brain tumors, most benign, like mine. Some never require surgery, mine did, but it’s common for people to go their entire lives without knowledge of this type of tumor. I don’t mean to scare you, but with knowledge comes the power to do something about it, including finding ways to stop or limit growth with nutrition and supplements.
    Take care and you are in the right place!

    Comment by Nena Stewart — November 17, 2019 @ 12:42 PM

  11. Is it possible to have too much fiber in your diet where it has a opposite effect?

    Comment by Natasha — November 20, 2019 @ 8:29 PM

  12. I have a friend in Canada who is controlling her Chevrons with a low FODMAP diet. She is able to eliminate all but one of her medications. My father had Chrons and I control my IBS by diet also. It takes dedication but is worth it. Best of luck to you.

    Comment by ELAINE SMITH — December 6, 2019 @ 11:10 PM

  13. Hi MKJ,

    The suggestion to ‘delegate’ could look like hiring someone to help keep the house tidy or utilizing a service to get groceries delivered. If keeping up the household is something that causes stress, it is a great idea to find creative solutions to get some of those time-consuming and stress-causing tasks off of your plate! I completely understand your responses regarding delegation at work but try to think creatively about some other ways in which you can delegate in your life!

    Comment by ANB — February 28, 2020 @ 11:33 AM

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    Comment by cortexi — November 20, 2023 @ 8:59 PM

  15. I am in my 70s with HPA axis dysfunction. Long story short…chronic severe stress over my long lifetime due to severe childhood adversity. I have severe unremitting fatigue and would like to know if I can, considering my age, recover from this veritable hell I live in. I do everything according to protocol, have a functional doc, take supplements, eat healthy, exercise, fresh air, and nutraceuticals, incl. DHEA… still fatigued. This disease actually robs you of your will to live. Pls somebody help.😞

    Comment by Robyn — November 21, 2023 @ 3:57 PM

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