Adrenal Cortex Extract May Not Be the Answer for Adrenal Fatigue

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


Supplements containing adrenal cortex extract can actually be more harmful than helpfulPeople with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) may find themselves trying out multiple natural compounds and supplements in an effort to help recover from the condition. In most cases, these supplements are described as supporting certain specific functions, or replacing particular compounds that someone with AFS may be lacking. Adrenal cortex extract is one of these supplements, and it is usually made of the adrenals derived from cows, pigs, or even sheep.

Although one might think that adrenal cortex extract might be the perfect supplement to take in the case of flagging adrenals, as is the case with AFS, the question remains.

Does it work?

What Is Adrenal Cortex Extract Supposed to Do?

The major active hormone in adrenal cortex extract is hydrocortisone, which is usually used in the manufacture of topical inflammatory creams for skin conditions such as eczema or rheumatism.

During the early 1920s, however, adrenal cortex extract was often recommended for use in those with Addison’s disease, which is typified by an adrenocortical insufficiency. This condition results in the gradual destruction of the cortex surrounding your adrenal glands and is usually accompanied by hormonal deficiencies which could prove fatal.

The 1940s saw adrenal cortex extract used to combat symptoms associated with what was then commonly referred to as ‘hypoadrenal syndrome’ and hypoglycemia, i.e. low blood sugar. Amongst the symptoms, adrenal cortex extract was touted as addressing are included insomnia, concentration issues, faintness and lightheadedness, fatigue, nervousness, and depression, amongst numerous others. These are a few of the many symptoms commonly associated with AFS.

These days, many people turn to adrenal cortex extract to address such issues as stress, fatigue, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, inflammation, low blood sugar levels, autoimmune conditions, and low blood pressure, to name but a few. Many also use it when suffering from alcohol withdrawal or when the use of drugs containing cortisone is discontinued.

When it comes to intravenous applications, adrenal cortex extract has been used to address high blood potassium levels, low adrenal function, ulcerative colitis, and the prevention of miscarriages. Please note that no studies have, as yet, been done to study the effect of adrenal cortex extract on an unborn fetus, so there is no evidence as to what its effect may be on a baby.

Typically, it is expected that adrenal cortex extract will fulfill the function of your body’s compromised adrenal glands.
However, it is important to be aware that insufficient evidence exists to support the claims of effectiveness of adrenal cortex extract for the many different symptoms it is supposed to address.

Possible Side Effects of Adrenal Cortex Extract

Liver congestion can be made worse with supplements that have adrenal cortex extractAdrenal cortex extract injections are not considered safe. Numerous reports have noted serious infections occurring at the site where people have been injected.

When it comes to the oral application of adrenal cortisol extract, cases of bovine spongiform encephalitis, “mad cow disease,” have been reported. This is because many companies making adrenal cortex extract source their adrenal glands from slaughterhouses and potentially diseased animals. This practice, however, has stopped to a large extent, and more stringent measures have been applied since this first occurred.

People with allergies or who are hypersensitive may stand a stronger chance of having an adverse reaction when taking adrenal cortex extract. Possible stimulatory side effects include irritability and insomnia. When taken in high dosages, you may experience symptoms that are similar to corticosteroid excess, including salt and water retention, increased appetite, weight gain, and becoming more susceptible to infections. Other symptoms include stomach irritations and nausea.

Studies are inconclusive as to the effect of adrenal cortex extract on babies whose mothers are still breastfeeding; thus, it is best to avoid it in this instance.

It is also best not used by people with a low immune system function as these people stand a higher chance of developing new infections when taking adrenal cortex extract.

Your liver may also be affected because, while its main function is to clean the body from toxins, adrenal fatigue may be accompanied by liver congestion and paradoxical reactions. In more severe cases of adrenal fatigue, you may find taking medications, supplements, or even food a difficult task. Adrenal fatigue sees your body compromise on, or even stop, certain functions not deemed necessary for immediate survival. This could result in a buildup in certain metabolic byproducts in your body, especially in your liver. Taking into consideration that adrenal cortex extract needs to be processed by different systems in your body which may already be compromised, you could compound an already congested situation where your body, and liver, already have biological products that it needs to attend to. Forcing an upped adrenal function in a body that is already fragile could cause an imbalance that may result in your body crashing. This means you could end up in a worse state than before taking this supplement.

While adrenal cortex extract may be beneficial when it comes to adrenal support under the right conditions, one has to understand that there are many obstacles to testing the safety of such a product, and there is a lack of thorough, modern research. Testing cannot be conducted on only one substance or hormone within a substance like adrenal cortex extract. Instead, testing must be done on all the different components and their interaction with each other as well as the subjects taking part in the studies. This means researchers must also be aware of dosage and each person’s particular cause and stage adrenal fatigue as well. There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to addressing AFS.

Everything is Connected

The body has a great capacity for self-repair and adrenal cortex extract may simply not be neededOne would think that taking adrenal cortex extract to support the adrenals would be a great idea for adrenal fatigue, as it may help address many of the symptoms associated with the condition. This might be true had your adrenals operated in a vacuum with no interrelation with other body systems. The truth of the matter, however, is that your adrenal glands play a role in just about all body systems.

AFS does not develop overnight. Instead, it is a condition that develops over a period of years, eliciting a slow decline in adrenal function that has had an effect on your whole body, including your body’s entire hormone system. By the time AFS has presented itself, many parts of your body have become compromised, and you probably have a number of symptoms that may seem entirely unrelated from each other. This means that, when working out a support program, all your bodily needs must be considered, not only the adrenals.

Consider your thyroid health, for example. When your adrenals are compromised, so too is thyroid function, resulting in a set of symptoms that may seem unrelated to the adrenal glands. Another example is irritable bowel syndrome, where the condition is the result of a compromised gut lining that is directly connected to increased cortisol production in the initial stages of adrenal fatigue and a compromised immune system and inflammatory response.
If you have other complications along with adrenal insufficiency, as nearly all people with AFS do, all your body’s needs must be taken into consideration, not only those of the adrenal glands. Just boosting adrenal function alone could create more problems than it solves, if it solves anything.

The Hormone Connection

One of the dangers mentioned regarding the use if adrenal cortex extract is that of corticosteroid excess. The term ‘corticosteroid’ refers to any medication or supplement that has a cortisol-like effect. In other words, you may end up with high cortisol levels in your body. Besides having an impact on your entire body, this may also have a debilitating effect with regards to your various hormones and your hormonal circuit.

Your adrenal glands are regulated by what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, with your hypothalamus and pituitary glands sending chemical messengers that indicate to the adrenals which hormones are needed. During times of stress, for example, they would call on the adrenals to produce more cortisol as part of your fight-or-flight response. This is an automatic reaction, often referred to as the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. A woman’s ovaries are also governed by the HPA axis.

But amongst the different end organs that produce hormones, one also finds connections. Take the Ovarian Adrenal Thyroid (OAT) axis, for example. These three end organs are co-dependent when it comes to optimal function. If there is an issue with your adrenals, it will impact on both your thyroid and ovarian function.

Usually, when a stressful event is encountered, your HPA axis will indicate the need for increased production of cortisol, while any function not deemed necessary for imminent survival may be reduced or even switched off entirely. This affects both your ovaries and thyroid, and their hormone production is reduced so that your body can see to the matter of survival. Once the threat has passed, your brain will tell your adrenals and the rest of your body, and all systems will once more work as per normal.

When stress is of long duration, on the other hand, the compromised systems may keep up the status quo – sometimes indefinitely. You may end up with an underactive thyroid that is not producing the thyroid hormone needed for correct functionality, while in the ovaries you may experience not only compromised hormone function but other effects as well. Amongst these are irregular periods and even fertility issues.

Conversely, a compromised thyroid may negatively affect adrenal function, while an imbalance of ovarian hormones such as estrogen dominance may negatively impact thyroid function. For all three these components of the OAT to function correctly, all three need to be in a state of balance, especially with regards to their hormone production.
The various symptoms represented by an OAT axis imbalance may be sub-clinical as well. In other words, it presents no visible symptoms. The clinical symptoms are related to numerous endocrine symptoms imbalances that may seem unrelated.

In males, an imbalance of the OAT axis may present itself as a testosterone deficiency and a lowered libido.

General symptoms often associated with a hormone imbalance include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Mood swings, anxiety, and even depression
  • Weight gain (especially around the belly) or weight loss without any known cause
  • A reduction in muscle mass
  • Digestive issues such as bloating, flatulence, or diarrhea
  • Food cravings
  • Excessive sweating
  • A lowered libido
  • Constant fatigue
  • Skin issues, e.g. dry, flaky skin
  • Hair loss
  • Temperature sensitivities

In Closing

Although your body has a vast capacity to repair itself, you need to remember that adrenal fatigue is a condition that impacts your entire system. Taking an adrenal cortex extract may not be the simple solution it seems to be, although it may be of benefit to some people who are at a certain stage of recovery when used in conjunction with other supplements and as part of an overall recovery plan. Do remember that adrenal fatigue may have a physiological, psychological, or environmental cause, and sometimes a combination of all three. The condition also affects each person differently, with no two people showing the same set of symptoms. This not only makes the condition difficult to determine but makes addressing it quite complicated as well.

When presented with AFS, your best course of action is to implement lifestyle and dietary changes and consult with a qualified professional with experience of the condition. Together, the two of you may be able to work out a recovery plan that works in your best interests, making changes to it as you progress along your road to full recovery.

Please do take note of the fact that recovery may be a long process with a few hitches along the way. AFS does not develop overnight, and recovery is not instantaneous.

 
© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

While adrenal cortex extract is said to support the adrenal glands, addressing adrenal fatigue does not depend on one supplement. Instead, the condition needs to be addressed by means of a multi-pronged approach that takes all aspects of your body and its health into consideration.


Liver congestion can be made worse with supplements that have adrenal cortex extract

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