A Cortisol Saliva Test Can Help Uncover Adrenal Fatigue
You may have heard the adrenal glands are the stress control center of the body, but what does that mean? The adrenals are responsible for the production of three hormones: epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol. These three hormones help control various factors in our body such as inflammation, blood sugar, and blood pressure. When stress affects the body, these internal factors are thrown out of balance, and the adrenals leap into action to release the appropriate amount of these hormones to maintain the body.
All your body’s stress responses – from the fight-or-flight response experienced when you run into an angry bear to constricting the blood vessels in your legs when standing up – are controlled through the adrenal glands. Now, being a part of the body itself, the adrenals themselves also experience stress, and can become tired and fatigued. Especially with the huge number of stresses we now encounter in the modern world, the adrenals can easily be overwhelmed and end up in a state we call Adrenal Fatigue.
Looking for Adrenal Fatigue With a Cortisol Saliva Test
Adrenal Fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands are overworked by chronic and/or overwhelming stress, and they have become too tired to maintain their normal level of function. This dropoff in adrenal function can to a whirlwind of unpleasant symptoms; but many of these symptoms – such as fatigue after exercising and chemical sensitivities – are nonspecific and vague enough that it can be difficult to know if they are a result of Adrenal Fatigue.
So what kind of adrenal stress test could be useful to gauge the health of the adrenals? While many laboratory tests can reveal indirect measures of adrenal function, the most direct value to test is saliva cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone the adrenals primarily use in the day-to-day maintenance of our biological rhythm, so it is the best laboratory measure of adrenal output.
A single test of saliva cortisol won’t tell us much though; even in a healthy body, cortisol levels range widely throughout the day as our bodies’ energy needs change. In order to get a meaningful result, four saliva samples need to be tested through the day at 8 AM, noontime, 5 PM and before bed. This serial testing traces the cortisol curve throughout the day and helps illuminate whether the adrenal glands are producing the proper levels of cortisol throughout the day as the body’s needs change.
Is an adrenal stress test enough?
Even this adrenal stress test comes with two important caveats when testing for Adrenal Fatigue. The first is that Adrenal Fatigue is a largely subclinical condition in most sufferers. What this means is that for most sufferers of the condition, the laboratory values will not fall outside what is considered the normal range of cortisol values. Unless the condition is very severe in the advanced stages, it is difficult for someone not familiar with Adrenal Fatigue to make sense of the results and determine if there is an adrenal dysfunction.
Second, the normal range of cortisol can vary widely from person to person as each individual’s physiology is unique, and can differ greatly from one another. What may be abnormally low levels of cortisol for one person may be sufficient for healthy function in another; and this can be a very fine line when talking about a subclinical condition like Adrenal Fatigue. In many cases the lab measured daily cortisol curve isn’t deranged enough for a slam dunk determination.
So if the best lab test we have can’t give us a definite answer on Adrenal Fatigue, what else is there? Unfortunately, since Adrenal Fatigue isn’t yet a defined medical condition, there doesn’t exist a set of diagnostic protocols a clinician can use to make a diagnosis. Instead, health practitioners that are familiar with Adrenal Fatigue must draw on their experience and knowledge to review the health history of a potential sufferer to make that determination. The adrenal stress test of the daily cortisol curve has its place as one of the tools used to determine if someone is suffering from Adrenal Fatigue, but it must be correlated with other events, experiences and symptoms by an experienced practitioner to truly determine if Adrenal Fatigue is present.
NEM Stress Response and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome Recovery
There is another aspect with which the topic of cortisol saliva testing relates and that is through the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. The NEM Stress Response is representative of the entire cycle with which our bodies regulate and respond to stressors. It encompasses everything from the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, to the pituitary and adrenal glands as the process of stress adaptation progresses from mere messaging to physical action. A dysregulated NEM Stress Response can contribute to adrenal fatigue by overloading the burden placed on the adrenal glands during periods of increased mental pressure. When a patient is attempting to determine whether or not they are experiencing adrenal fatigue, it is important to use as many tools as are available to aid them in their conclusions. A cortisol saliva test is only one of the many methods which can help you better understand the burden that you are placing on your adrenal glands.