The 4 Stages of Adrenal Fatigue

4 stages of adrenal fatigue

Adrenal Fatigue (AF) – sounds like a self-explanatory illness right? It’s when your adrenals become fatigued? Well yes, but it is also a lot more complex and debilitating than it sounds (as we’re sure you know if you are reading this)!

The interconnectivity and complexity of AF lead to an elaborate picture of conflicting symptoms that seem to defy conventional medicine logic – in one blood test your DHEA levels are elevated, in the next they are depleted. It seems like our body is having an ad-hoc response, but that’s not the case, it may seem like this because our medical understanding of AF is still in its infancy. (Who even knew there were 4 stages of AF anyway? We sure didn’t until we did some in depth research!).

In order to help you sift through the piles and piles of information on the internet about AF, we’ve used this post to compile a list of the 4 stages of AF and their symptoms. These are the common symptoms sufferers experience – because our bodies like to throw us curveballs now and again, you might be also experiencing different symptoms so it is important to seek out advice from an AF specialist to help with your recovery.

Stage 1 – The Alarm Phase

This is our body’s fight or flight response to a stressor. In order to manage this stress, our body launches an anti-stress response by increasing the production of the anti-stress hormone cortisol. During Stage 1 of AF, our body is quite capable in responding to this new stressor and usually produces a more than adequate response to it. During this phase, your blood test results might show:

  • Elevated cortisol, Insulin and DHEA levels, as well as
  • Increased blood sugar levels.

During this stage of AF, the fatigue experienced is quite mild and if noticeable, tends to strike around waking and/or mid-afternoon (and sometimes we just write that feeling off as not having a good night’s sleep or having a busy day at work).

As we continue to be exposed to this new stressor, cortisol levels remain elevated and we start to look for stimulants (e.g. coffee to wake us up and that 3pm choc chip cookie for energy). As higher insulin levels continue, our pancreas has to work harder and our blood sugar levels get further out of whack.

If we continue in this stage for longer periods of time we begin to experience a redistribution of fat from our bum and thighs to around our bellies.

Stage 2 – Resistance Response

With continued stress our adrenal glands realise they can’t tackle this problem by themselves and call on our hormones and neurotransmitters to help.

In this stage, the body will start to shift its supply of hormone precursor material from hormone production to cortisol production. If this stage of AF is not treated it can lead to long term hormonal imbalances and problems. Stages of adrenal fatigue

During this stage, your blood test results might show:

Despite a full night’s rest, in this stage of AF you probably wake up tired and not feeling refreshed. During stage 2 you might experience the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety,
  • Irritability,
  • Insomnia (it becomes harder to fall asleep and you begin to wake up more and more throughout the night),
  • Feeling sub-optimal,
  • Infections occurring more often as the immune system weakens,
  • Dehydration,
  • Low blood pressure,
  • Loss of libido,
  • PMS and menstrual irregularities, and
  • Symptoms suggestive of hypothyroidism – It’s during this stage that the thyroid gland starts to be affected. Sluggishness, feeling cold, and weight gain, despite exercise and diet, are predominant symptoms.

Stage 3 – Adrenal Exhaustion

As the name suggests, after continuous exposure to stress, the adrenal glands have become exhausted, unable to keep up with the ever increasing demand for cortisol production needed to overcome the stress.

The body enters this stage with the objective of conserving energy in order to survive. Systematically, the body goes into slow-down mode. In order to produce energy, the body will begin to break down muscle tissue, resulting in the breakdown of muscles and protein wastage.

Common symptoms of this stage are much more prevalent, including:

  • Exercise or general activity intolerance,
  • Extreme sensitivities to food you were once able to eat without problem,
  • Chronic fibromyalgia,
  • Brain fog,
  • Significant Insomnia,
  • Severe and constant depression.

As stage 3 progresses, metabolic, immunological and neurological organ systems dysfunction characteristic of Stage 2 become chronic. This is evidenced by multiple endocrine axis dysfunctions, including the ovarian-adrenal-thyroid axis imbalance in females and adrenal-thyroid axis imbalance in males. When these axis become imbalanced women may experience amenorrhea (loss of periods) and their fertility may become compromised (you could look at it as the body’s way of saying that it is not healthy enough to sustain a pregnancy).

As this stage progresses, the body slows down even further. The body’s pool of hormones eventually fall to levels too low to prime the adrenals and without sufficient levels of hormones, the body goes into a full-blown shut down mode. In this mode, the body tries to stop as much of the non-essential functions as possible to conserve energy in order to survive. Libido is suppressed, digestion slows down and metabolic rate declines to conserve body weight. Generally, at this stage of AF you are not able to work, predominantly bed ridden and requiring multiple naps throughout the day.

Stage 4 – Adrenal Failure

This is not a stage you want to come anywhere close to. This is the stage where the body has done everything it can in order to survive but is still being faced with significant stress that it cannot overcome. In this stage of AF there is a serious chance of cardiovascular collapse and death.

Symptoms of this stage include:

  • Sudden, penetrating pain in the lower back, abdomen or legs,
  • Severe vomiting and diarrhea,
  • Dehydration,
  • Low blood pressure, and
  • Loss of consciousness.

Given you are reading this post, the chance of you reaching stage 4 AF is probably pretty slim – you are doing everything you can to help your recovery. We hope that this blog post has shed some light on the types of symptoms you might experience during each of the stages (because as you know, they can often become blurred). Our next post will discuss recovery techniques for each of the 4 stages.

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