E=MC²: Adrenal Fatigue and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Adrenal fatigue is the modern stress syndrome nobody talks about. We look at the Chinese Medicine view of this problem.


Feeling wired, stressed and burned out all at the same time? Do you have secondary symptoms that seem unrelated like soreness in the lower back, tinnitus or thinning hair? Chinese Medicine recognises this as the symptoms of an internal imbalance involving the kidney system and in Western Medicine we refer to it as adrenal fatigue. Whatever name we give it, the symptoms are the same and left unaddressed, adrenal fatigue will give rise to chronic ill health. In this article we will explore a little Chinese theory and discover why we should ditch fruit juice in favour of chicken soup with this condition…


In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the Kidneys are the seat of ‘original qi ‘in the body. Qi is our universal vital life-force, élan or energy. Qi is the force behind our cellular activity and can be somewhat likened to our mitochondria in Western Medicine. Without our qi we are inert. We are born with a reserve of qi in the Kidneys and we deplete that reserve over our lifetime. This original qi is not replenished over our lives, but we can slow the burn. Remember this is a concept, rather than a quantifiable substance in the body, so we have to use a measure of self-awareness to understand the theory. Western Medicine recognises this same function in the body as that of the adrenals, the little pyramid shaped glands that sit atop the kidneys. (Nb. Those more familiar with TCM theory here will appreciate the simplified view provided above, where Kidney yin or Kidney yang deficiency are more likely diagnoses.)

The adrenals are definitely the unsung heroes of the endocrine family. So often the rebellious thyroid and bossy hypothalamus steal the show. These hard-working glands are responsible for our stress responses, the big stresses and the daily, low-level constant ones.

Cortisol is a key adrenal hormone, known as the ‘stress hormone’ and serves a vast array of functions in the body from anti-inflammation to blood sugar regulation. Cortisol also has a hand in many important physical presentations such as fat distribution, gastrointestinal function and immune regulation.

Like other glands in our bodies, the adrenals suffer disease and decay. However this is not recognised well by doctors until the disease represents something that can be treated, medically or surgically. There are only two major diseases of the adrenals which are routinely treated, Addision’s disease (chronic adrenal insufficiency) and Cushing’s disease (more common, chronic hyper-stimulation of the adrenals). These represent either extreme of the malfunctioning adrenals, but what about the bit in between? This is called adrenal fatigue and there is no pharmaceutical medicine for it. Don’t be surprised if your doctor doesn’t recognise it as a condition…

Adrenal Fatigue

Dr James L Wilson is an established authority on adrenal fatigue in the US and has made it his life’s work to raise awareness and support patients who are otherwise marginalised by the medical system. Dr Wilson’s criteria for assessing adrenal fatigue is largely reliant on clinical signs and symptoms. He does advocate tests such as a 24 hour urinary cortisol tests in conjunction with the Adrenal Corticotrophin Hormone test for lab confirmation of this, though this is not really emphasised as necessary and with the lack of support from most GPs in diagnosing this syndrome in the first place, it will likely be viewed as an unnecessary cost.

The symptoms of this syndrome are physical fatigue, difficulty getting up in the morning and not feeling refreshed by sleep, craving salty foods, decreased sex-drive, lower stress-threshold and postural hypotension or faint feelings on standing up. Sufferers report blood sugar metabolism issues, such as critically low energy between 3 and 4pm and a surge of energy after the evening meal. Mood problems are heightened and sufferers experience more irritability, frustration and brain-fog. Visible symptoms include dark circles under the eyes and failing the iris test, which you can find at the end of this article.

Although a lot of the symptoms above will have come to be accepted as part of normal everyday life, collectively these symptoms are indicative of hypoadrenia and you can do something about it. We may choose to live in the rat-race but we can use traditional and natural treatments to bring ourselves back to a place of relative calm and balanced health.

The Mindset Challenge


Of course you do! But first, let’s work on the mindset. Let’s think about what measures we impose upon ourselves that bring us stress. Usually this starts with our jobs, then our identity with our age and then it’s the small stuff like bills and health anxiety (tongue firmly in cheek)…

Please ask yourself these questions:

Am I career-driven person and if so, do I get real enjoyment from my career? Or, am I a practical type, happy to have a job that pays my bills and gives me the quality of life I want? Either way, am I happy with my daily job?

Am I where I want to be at this point in my life? Do I consider others my age as having less or more than me? Do I measure my happiness against what other people expect or have themselves?

Do I have boundaries in my relationships with other people? Do I measure my own self-worth by what others think of me and the way I live my life? Do I allow people to talk to me in a way that makes me unhappy? Can I stand up for myself?

So there they are, the big questions. Society, the rat-race, first world problems, whatever you want to call it, ensure that these questions weigh heavily on our minds. Holistic medicine tells us that our minds and bodies are one, so if one of them is exhausted it predisposes the other. Stress from our jobs, families and finances make sure our adrenals, our stress mediators, are taxed to the max. The pressure we place upon ourselves is immense and until the mindset changes, the adrenals will continue to take a battering, raise your stress hormone (cortisol) levels and make you tired, fat and miserable. From a TCM point of view we are exhausting our qi. We cannot survive if always in fight mode, sometimes we have to take flight.

Do you need to change your mindset?

Sleep and stimulants: Be the slinky

Stimulants. We love them. Coffee, tea, sugar, nicotine, alcohol and drugs. Then there’s deadlines, schedules, commitments and dates. What gives us an adrenaline rush gives us purpose. What’s the opposite of this? Sleep. How often are our days filled with either stimulants or sleep? We are truly living like yoyos.

Take the slinky for an example of an energy-efficient alternative to emulate. Tightly sprung, the slinky will utilise it’s natural environment and operate on a downward slope, optimising it’s own energy potential. It does not defy it’s engineering by turning corners, unless it is about to career out of control and lose inertia.

We need to learn to harvest our own energy by making our bodies run like the machines they are. Just because we are adaptable, intelligent organisms, doesn’t mean we are indestructible. To run like a machine you have to efficiently upcycle and down cycle your batteries. In medical terms this means you have to observe the circadian cycle, go to bed at regular times, around 10.30pm and sleep until 9am as often as possible. This is especially important in those with adrenal fatigue as sleep is incredibly restorative to the adrenals. Sleeping too much is seen to be counterproductive, as it is important to regulate blood sugar by eating breakfast before 10am. Irregular sleep patterns send signals to your body that you are not in control and raises cortisol levels. Listen to your body. Be the slinky that comes to a rest when the energy potential has been realised.

You are what you eat

The bottom line in diet for adrenal fatigue is to choose foods that do not require more of your body’s nutrients than they supply. Processed, artificially coloured or sweetened and chemical laced foods will drain your energy just to get them through your system.

Dr Marylin Glenville’s book Fat Around the Middle details how reducing intake of processed, fatty, sugary and stimulant foods reduces serum cortisol levels and helps patients lose weight that stays off. This is because cortisol tells the body that you are stressed, and in case of impending fight or flight, you retain fat stores for quick energy when the time comes. The need for fuel essentially comes in small bouts, never really requiring the fat that has been stored and there you have it, the spare tyre.

People with true adrenal fatigue are problematically tired during the morning and afternoon, so they choose foods which allow them an energy boost as a survival method. If this is you, Fat Around the Middle should be your bible – even if you are not fat – yet!

Dr Wilson is a nutritional expert on the subject of adrenal fatigue and he highlights dietary fads that contribute to the problem in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. He picks up on the trend toward low sodium intake in modern diets, as salt is viewed to be contributory to high blood pressure. In fact, he says, unless your blood pressure is regularly raised above 140/90, adding salt to your diet will benefit you if you have symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Suffice to say, the reason for this is complex, but in brief aldosterone (another adrenal hormone) maintains fluid balance in roughly the same concentration as sea water, with sodium the dominant mineral in the interstitial fluid and potassium the dominant mineral within the cells. The ratio between sodium and potassium is all important. In adrenal fatigue, the lack of adequate aldosterone means the concentration of sodium in the fluids reduces in response to the cellular demand and results in a craving for salt. Dr Wilson also advises against high intake of potassium rich foods, such as bananas, due to this same aldosterone mechanism.

Dr Wilson also highlights the role of good quality, natural protein in the diet to aid adrenal recovery through adequate amino acid intake. He advises against processed meats and substitutes like texturised vegetable protein. He highlights the difficulties faced by vegetarians in taking in sufficient protein to recover from adrenal fatigue and suggests the inclusion of eggs, sea vegetables and yoghurts to help in the challenge.

Also a note about carbohydrates. We know that complex carbs are going to be more beneficial than simple sugar carbs, because we have already seen the impact that adrenal fatigue has on blood sugar levels. Fruit should be taken in moderation and fruit juices avoided where possible, to avoid driving the blood sugar up too quickly (only to have the inevitable crash). But also we need to appreciate that so much of our foods are made with white flour. White flour is a hazard because it represents the tasty, quick fuel, inner part of the grain and none of the starchy shell which slows the delivery of its energy. This is dreadful for adrenal fatigue as it impacts on blood sugar metabolism and slows our digestive processes – and all this at a time when we are trying to recover energy – give us a break!

The Acupuncture Effect

Chinese Medicine teaches us to have regularity in our daily habits, to perform them with a calm spirit and enjoy the simplicity of sleep and food when taken in moderate amounts. Anything short of or in excess of this will deplete qi. It is not complex and perhaps that is why we get it so wrong, we are hard-wired to see life as a challenge.

We as a society are now hungrily seeking out practices from the East. Yoga, tai chi and qi gong have never been so popular and are practically available on every street in central Dublin where I practice acupuncture, which is also incredibly popular. These health systems each have a philosophical underpinning – that living with nature is to learn from what we see around us and that we are materially connected with the world, which just like us, is cyclical and habitual in nature.

Acupuncture helps those suffering with adrenal fatigue by normalising the HPA (hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal) axis via the regulatory effect on neurotransmitters and neurohormones, affecting our brain chemistry. We get an endorphin release from the insertion of the very fine needles, which promote relaxation and pain relief.

My patients with adrenal fatigue are told to stop and review their lives, identify the stressors and follow the regularity approach to sleeping and eating. They are advised to exercise in moderation and not to the point of exhaustion. They are encouraged to come down from the stimulants and attend for regular acupuncture to support the process. I always advise making bone broth soup, which is a Chinese Medicine health food for nourishing the Kidneys (Western adrenals).

So if you are crying out ‘I WANT MORE ENERGY!’ and you can identify with the symptoms mentioned above, it’s time to put a sound strategy in place. Come to see me in one of my my clinics, 19 Pembroke Road, Dublin 4 or Dublin Holistic Centre, South William Street, Dublin 2. Appointments 085 153 7089. I am here to help.

See here a link to Dr James Wilson’s iris test for adrenal insufficiency. Dr Marylin Glenville’s stress supplements can be found here.











Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: