Adrenal Fatigue: Faux Diagnosis?

This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.

U.S. News & World Report

Adrenal Fatigue: Is It Real?

You may have heard of so-called ‘adrenal fatigue,’ supposedly caused by ongoing emotional stress. Or you might have come across adrenal support supplements sold online to treat it. But if someone suggests you have the controversial, unproven condition, seek a second opinion, experts say. And if someone tries to sell you dietary supplements or other treatments for adrenal fatigue, be safe and save your money.

Tired man sitting at desk in modern office

(GETTY IMAGES)

Physicians tend to talk about ‘reaching’ or ‘making’ a medical diagnosis. However, when it comes to adrenal fatigue, endocrinologists – doctors who specialize in diseases involving hormone-secreting glands like the adrenals – sometimes use language such as ‘perpetrating a diagnosis,’ ‘misdiagnosis,’ ‘made-up diagnosis,’ ‘a fallacy’ and ‘nonsense.’

About 20 years ago, the term “adrenal fatigue” was coined by Dr. James Wilson, a chiropractor. Since then, certain practitioners and marketers have promoted the notion that chronic stress somehow slows or shuts down the adrenal glands, causing excessive fatigue.

“The phenomenon emerged from the world of integrative medicine and naturopathic medicine,” says Dr. James Findling, a professor of medicine and director of the Community Endocrinology Center and Clinics at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “It has no scientific basis, and there’s no merit to it as a clinical diagnosis.”

An online search of medical billing code sets in the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD-10, does not yield a diagnostic code for ‘adrenal fatigue’ among the 331 diagnoses related either to fatigue or adrenal conditions or procedures.

In a March 2020 position statement, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and American College of Endocrinology addressed the use of adrenal supplements “to treat common nonspecific symptoms due to ‘adrenal fatigue,’ an entity that has not been recognized as a legitimate diagnosis.”

The position statement warned of known and unknown health risks of off-label use and misuse of hormones and supplements in patients without an established endocrine diagnosis, as well as unnecessary costs to patients and the overall health care system.

Study after study has refuted the legitimacy of adrenal fatigue as a medical diagnosis. An August 2016 systematic review combined and analyzed data from 58 studies on adrenal fatigue including more than 10,000 participants. The conclusion in a nutshell: “Adrenal fatigue does not exist,” according to review authors in the journal BMC Endocrine Disorders.

Adrenal Action

You have two adrenal glands in your body. These small triangular glands, one on top of each kidney, produce essential hormones such as aldosterone, cortisol and male sex hormones such as DHEA and testosterone.

Cortisol helps regulate metabolism: How your body uses fat, protein and carbohydrates from food, and cortisol increases blood sugar as needed. It also plays a role in controlling blood pressure, preventing inflammation and regulating your sleep/wake cycle.

As your body responds to stress, cortisol increases. This response starts with signals between two sections in the brain: The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which act together to release a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to make cortisol. This interactive unit is called the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis.

While some health conditions really do affect the body’s cortisol-making ability, adrenal fatigue isn’t among them.

“There’s no evidence to support that adrenal fatigue is an actual medical condition,” says Dr. Mary Vouyiouklis Kellis, a staff endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic. “There’s no stress connection in the sense that someone’s adrenal glands will all of a sudden just stop producing cortisol because they’re so inundated with emotional stress.”

If anything, adrenal glands are workhorses that rise to the occasion when chronic stress occurs. “The last thing in the body that’s going to fatigue are your adrenal glands,” says Dr. William F. Young Jr., an endocrinology clinical professor and professor of medicine in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Adrenal glands are built for stress – that’s what they do. Adrenal glands don’t fatigue. This is made up – it’s a fallacy.”

The idea of adrenal glands crumbling under stress is “ridiculous,” Findling agrees. “In reality, if you take a person and subject them to chronic stress, the adrenal glands don’t shut down at all,” Findling says. “They keep making cortisol – it’s a stress hormone. In fact, the adrenal glands are just like the Energizer Bunny – they just keep going. They don’t stop.”

Home cortisol tests that allow consumers to check their own levels can be misleading, Findling says. “Some providers who make this (adrenal fatigue) diagnosis, provide patients with testing equipment for doing saliva cortisol levels throughout the day,” he says. “And then, regardless of what the results are, they perpetrate this diagnosis of adrenal fatigue.”

Saliva cortisol is a legitimate test that’s frequently used in diagnosing Cushing’s syndrome, or overactive adrenal glands, Findling notes. However, he says, a practitioner pursuing an adrenal fatigue diagnosis could game the system. “What they do is: They shape a very narrow normal range, so narrow, in fact, that no normal human subject could have all their saliva cortisol (levels) within that range throughout the course of the day,” he says. “Then they convince the poor patients that they have adrenal fatigue phenomena and put them on some kind of adrenal support.”

Loaded Supplements

How do you know what you’re actually getting if you buy a dietary supplement marketed for adrenal fatigue or ‘adrenal support’ use? To find out, researchers purchased 12 such supplements over the counter in the U.S.

Laboratory tests revealed that all supplements contained a small amount of thyroid hormone and most contained at least one steroid hormone, according to the study published in the March 2018 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings. “These results may highlight potential risks for hidden ingredients in unregulated supplements,” the authors concluded.

Supplements containing thyroid hormones or steroids can interact with a patient’s prescribed medications or have other side effects.

“Some people just assume they have adrenal fatigue because they looked it up online when they felt tired and they ultimately buy these over-the-counter supplements that can be very dangerous at times,” Vouyiouklis Kellis says. “Some of them contain animal (ingredients), like bovine adrenal extract. That can suppress the pituitary axis. So, as a result, your body stops making its own cortisol or starts making less of it, and as a result, you can actually worsen the condition rather than make it better.”

Any form of steroid from outside the body, whether a prescription drug like prednisone or extract from cows’ adrenal glands, “can shut off the pituitary,” Vouyiouklis Kellis explains. “Because it’s signaling to the pituitary like: Hey, you don’t need to stimulate the adrenals to make cortisol, because this patient is taking it already. So, as a result, the body ultimately doesn’t produce as much. And, so, if you rapidly withdraw that steroid or just all of a sudden decide not to take it anymore, then you can have this acute response of low cortisol.”

Some adrenal support products, such as herbal-only supplements, may be harmless. However, they’re unlikely to relieve chronic fatigue.

Fatigue: No Easy Answers

If you’re suffering from ongoing fatigue, it’s frustrating. And you’re not alone. “I have fatigue,” Young Jr. says. “Go to the lobby any given day and say, ‘Raise your hand if you have fatigue.’ Most of the people are going to raise their hands. It’s a common human symptom and people would like an easy answer for it. Usually there’s not an easy answer. I think ‘adrenal fatigue’ is attractive because it’s like: Aha, here’s the answer.”

There aren’t that many causes of endocrine-related fatigue, Young Jr. notes. “Hypothyroidism – when the thyroid gland is not working – is one.” Addison’s disease, or adrenal insufficiency, can also lead to fatigue among a variety of other symptoms. Established adrenal conditions – like adrenal insufficiency – need to be treated.

“In adrenal insufficiency, there is an intrinsic problem in the adrenal gland’s inability to produce cortisol,” Vouyiouklis Kellis explains. “That can either be a primary problem in the adrenal gland or an issue with the pituitary gland not being able to stimulate the adrenal to make cortisol.”

Issues can arise even with necessary medications. “For example, very commonly, people are put on steroids for various reasons: allergies, ear, nose and throat problems,” Vouyiouklis Kellis says. “And with the withdrawal of the steroids, they can ultimately have adrenal insufficiency, or decrease in cortisol.”

Opioid medications for pain also result in adrenal sufficiency, Vouyiouklis Kellis says, adding that this particular side effect is rarely discussed. People with a history of autoimmune disease can also be at higher risk for adrenal insufficiency.

Common symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Weight loss.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Salt cravings.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin).
  • Irritability.

Medical tests for adrenal insufficiency start with blood cortisol levels, and tests for the ACTH hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland.

“If the person does not have adrenal insufficiency and they’re still fatigued, it’s important to get to the bottom of it,” Vouyiouklis Kellis says. Untreated sleep apnea often turns out to be the actual cause, she notes.

“It’s very important to tease out what’s going on,” Vouyiouklis Kellis emphasizes. “It can be multifactorial – multiple things contributing to the patient’s feeling of fatigue.” The blood condition anemia – a lack of healthy red blood cells – is another potential cause.

“If you are fatigued, do not treat yourself,” Vouyiouklis Kellis says. “Please seek a physician or a primary care provider for evaluation, because you don’t want to go misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. It’s very important to rule out actual causes that would be contributing to symptoms rather than ordering supplements online or seeking an alternative route like self-treating rather than being evaluated first.”

SOURCES

The U.S. News Health team delivers accurate information about health, nutrition and fitness, as well as in-depth medical condition guides. All of our stories rely on multiple, independent sources and experts in the field, such as medical doctors and licensed nutritionists. To learn more about how we keep our content accurate and trustworthy, read our editorial guidelines.

James Findling, MDFindling is a professor of medicine and director of the Community Endocrinology Center and Clinics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Mary Vouyiouklis Kellis, MDVouyiouklis Kellis is a staff endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic.

William F. Young Jr., MDYoung Jr. is an endocrinology clinical professor and professor of medicine in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota

From https://health.usnews.com/health-care/patient-advice/articles/adrenal-fatigue-is-it-real?

Free cortisol evaluation ‘useful’ after abnormal dexamethasone test

An assessment of free cortisol after a dexamethasone suppression test could add value to the diagnostic workup of hypercortisolism, which can be plagued by false-positive results, according to data from a cross-sectional study.

A 1 mg dexamethasone suppression test (DST) is a standard of care endocrine test for evaluation of adrenal masses and for patients suspected to have endogenous Cushing’s syndrome. Interpretation of a DST is affected by dexamethasone absorption and metabolism; several studies suggest a rate of 6% to 20% of false-positive results because of inadequate dexamethasone concentrations or differences in the proportion of cortisol bound to corticosteroid-binding globulin affecting total cortisol concentrations.

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“As the prevalence of adrenal adenomas is around 5% to 7% in adults undergoing an abdominal CT scan, it is important to accurately interpret the DST,” Irina Bancos, MD, associate professor in the division of endocrinology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told Healio. “False-positive DST results are common, around 15% of cases, and as such, additional or second-line testing is often considered by physicians, including measuring dexamethasone concentrations at the time of the DST, repeating DST or performing DST with a higher dose of dexamethasone. We hypothesized that free cortisol measurements during the DST will be more accurate than total cortisol measurements, especially among those treated with oral contraceptive therapy.”

Diverse cohort analyzed

Bancos and colleagues analyzed data from adult volunteers without adrenal disorders (n = 168; 47 women on oral contraceptive therapy) and participants undergoing evaluation for hypercortisolism (n = 196; 16 women on oral contraceptives). The researchers assessed levels of post-DST dexamethasone and free cortisol, using mass spectrometry, and total cortisol, via immunoassay. The primary outcome was a reference range for post-DST free cortisol levels and the diagnostic accuracy of post-DST total cortisol level.

Irina Bancos

“A group that presents a particular challenge are women treated with oral estrogen,” Bancos told Healio. “In these cases, total cortisol increases due to estrogen-stimulated cortisol-binding globulin production, potentially leading to false-positive DST results. We intentionally designed our study to include a large reference group of women treated with oral contraceptive therapy allowing us to develop normal ranges of post-DST total and free cortisol, and then apply these cutoffs to the clinical practice.”

Researchers observed adequate dexamethasone concentrations ( 0.1 µg/dL) in 97.6% of healthy volunteers and in 96.3% of patients. Among women volunteers taking oral contraceptives, 25.5% had an abnormal post-DST total cortisol measurement, defined as a cortisol level of at least 1.8 µg/dL.

Among healthy volunteers, the upper post-DST free cortisol range was 48 ng/dL in men and women not taking oral contraceptives, and 79 ng/dL for women taking oral contraceptives.

Compared with post-DST free cortisol, diagnostic accuracy of post-DST total cortisol level was 87.3% (95% CI, 81.7-91.7). All false-positive results occurred among patients with a post-DST cortisol level between 1.8 µg/dL and 5 µg/dL, according to researchers.

Oral contraceptive use was the only factor associated with false-positive results (21.1% vs. 4.9%; P = .02).

Findings challenge guidelines

Natalia Genere

“We were surprised by several findings of our study,” Natalia Genere, MD, instructor in medicine in the division of endocrinology, metabolism and lipid research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Healio. “First, we saw that with a standardized patient instruction on DST, we found that optimal dexamethasone concentrations were reached in a higher proportion of patients than previously reported (97%), suggesting that rapid metabolism or poor absorption of dexamethasone may play a lower role in the rate of false positives. Second, we found that measurements of post-DST total cortisol in women taking oral contraceptive therapy accurately excluded [mild autonomous cortisol secretion] in three-quarters of patients, suggesting discontinuation of oral contraceptives, as suggested in prior guidelines, may not be routinely necessary.”

Genere said post-DST free cortisol performed “much better” than total cortisol among women treated with oral estrogen.

Stepwise approach recommended

Based on the findings, the authors suggested a sequential approach to dexamethasone suppression in clinical practice.

“We recommend a stepwise approach to enhance DST interpretation, with the addition of dexamethasone concentration and/or free cortisol in cases of abnormal post-DST total cortisol,” Bancos said. “We found dexamethasone concentrations are particularly helpful when post-DST total cortisol is at least 5 µg/dL and free cortisol is helpful in a patient with optimal dexamethasone concentrations and a post-DST total cortisol between 1.8 µg/dL and 5 µg/dL. We believe that DST with free cortisol is a useful addition to the repertoire of available testing for [mild autonomous cortisol secretion], and that its use reduces need for repetitive assessments and patient burden of care, especially in women treated with oral contraceptive therapy.”

Identified: the gene behind an unusual form of Cushing’s Syndrome

A team of scientists in Montreal and Paris has succeeded in identifying the gene responsible for the development of a food-dependent form of Cushing’s Syndrome, a rare disease affecting both adrenal glands.

In their study published in The Lancet Diabetes & EndocrinologyDr. Isabelle Bourdeau and Dr. Peter Kamenicky identify in the gene KDM1A the mutations responsible for the development of this unusual form of the disease.

The scientists also show, for the first time, that the disease is genetically transmitted.

Bourdeau is a researcher and a Université de Montréal medical professor practising at the CHUM Research Centre (CRCHUM), while Kamenicky works at the Hôpital de Bicêtre, part of the Assistance publique-hôpitaux de Paris network in France.

Cushing’s Syndrome is caused by the overproduction of cortisol, a steroid hormone, by the two adrenal glands located above the kidneys.

“When the tissues of the human body are exposed to this excess of cortisol, the effects for those with the disease are serious: weight gain, high blood pressure, depression, osteoporosis, and heart complications, for example,” said Bourdeau, co-lead author of the study with Dr. Fanny Chasseloup, a colleague from the French team.

This discovery comes nearly 30 years after food-induced Cushing’s Syndrome was first described in 1992 by a research group led by Dr. André Lacroix at the CRCHUM and his colleagues Drs. Johanne Tremblay and Pavel Hamet.

The form of the disease being studied by Bourdeau and her colleagues is caused specifically by the abnormal expression of the receptors of a hormone named GIP (glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide), in both adrenal glands of patients. This hormone is produced by the small intestine in response to food intake. For people with the disease, cortisol concentrations increase abnormally every time they ingest food.

The discovery of the genetic mechanism by the French and Quebec teams was made possible through the use of recent cutting-edge genetic techniques on tissues of patients including those investigated by Dr Lacroix at CHUM. Bourdeau was aided by CRCHUM researcher Martine Tétreault during the computer analyses related to the research project.

Earlier diagnosis thanks to genetic analysis

“In general, rare diseases are generally underdiagnosed in clinics,” said Bourdeau, the medical director of the adrenal tumors multidisciplinary team at the CHUM.

“By identifying this new gene, we now have a way of diagnosing our patients and their families earlier and thus offer more personalized medicine. At the CHUM, genetic analysis is already offered in our Genetic Medicine Division.”

In a remarkable demonstration of scientific cooperation, the Quebec and French teams were able to collect and study tissue specimens available in local and international biobanks in Canada, France, Italy, Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Blood and adrenal gland tissue samples of 17 patients—mostly women—diagnosed with GIP-dependent Cushing’s Syndrome were compared genetically with those of 29 others with non-GIP-dependent bilateral adrenal Cushing’s Syndrome.

This was quite an accomplishment, given the rarity of the disease in the general population. It allowed the researchers to identify the genetic mutations of the KDM1A gene and to determine that the disease is genetically transmitted.

Since 2009, the CHUM has been designated as the adrenal tumors quaternary care centre of the Quebec Cancer Program.

About this study

Loss of KDM1A in GIP-dependent primary bilateral macronodular adrenal hyperplasia with Cushing’s syndrome: a multicenter retrospective cohort study,” by Drs. Fanny Chasseloup, Isabelle Bourdeau and their colleagues, was published Oct. 13, 2021, in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. Funding was provided by the Agence nationale de la recherche, the Fondation du Grand défi Pierre Lavoie, the Institut national du cancer, the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Santé, INSERM and Assistance publique-hôpitaux de Paris.

About the CRCHUM

The University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM) is one of North America’s leading hospital research centres. It strives to improve adult health through a research continuum covering such disciplines as the fundamental sciences, clinical research and public health. Over 1,850 people work at the CRCHUM, including more than 550 researchers and more than 460 graduate students

Media contact

  • Jeff HeinrichUniversité de MontréalTel: 514 343-7593
  • Lucie DufresneCentre hospitalier de l’Université de MontréalTel: 514 890-8000 p. 15380

From https://nouvelles.umontreal.ca/en/article/2021/10/15/identified-the-gene-behind-an-unusual-form-of-cushing-s-syndrome/

Metyrapone Effective and Safe in Endogenous Cushing’s Syndrome in Long Term

HRA Pharma Rare Diseases, an affiliate of privately-held French healthcare company HRA Pharma, has revealed data from the six-month extension of PROMPT, the first ever prospective study designed to evaluate metyrapone long-term efficacy and tolerability in endogenous Cushing’s syndrome.

After confirming good efficacy and safety of metyrapone in the first phase of the study that ran for 12 weeks, the results of the six-month extension showed that metyrapone successfully maintains low urinary free cortisol (UFC) levels with good tolerability.

The data will be presented at the European Congress of Endocrinology 2021 next week.

Metyrapone is approved in Europe for the treatment of endogenous Cushing’s syndrome. It works by inhibiting the 11-beta-hydroxylase enzyme, the final step in cortisol synthesis.

From https://www.thepharmaletter.com/in-brief/brief-metyrapone-effective-and-safe-in-endogenous-cushing-s-syndrome-in-long-term-says-hra-pharma-rare-diseases

Chronic Insomnia Can Be Sign of Cushing’s

Abstract

Background: Cushing’s syndrome is a condition caused by excessive glucocorticoid with insomnia as one of its neuropsychiatric manifestation. Cushing’s syndrome may be caused by excessive adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH-dependent), for example from ACTH producing pituitary tumors, or by overproduction of cortisol by adrenocortical tumors. In this report, we presented a case with Cushing’s syndrome manifesting as chronic insomnia with adrenal cortical adenoma and pituitary microadenoma.

Case presentation: A 30-year-old woman was consulted from the Neurologic Department to the Internal Medicine Department with the chief complaint of insomnia and worsening headache for 6 months prior to the admission. She had undergone head MRI and abdominal CT scan previously and was found to have both pituitary microadenoma and left adrenal mass. From the physical examination she had clinical signs of Cushing’s syndrome like Cushingoid face and purplish striae on her stomach. Midnight cortisol serum examination was done initially and showed high level of cortisol. High dose dexamethasone suppression test or DST (8 mg overnight) was later performed to help determine the main cause of Cushing’s syndrome. The result failed to reach 50% suppression of cortisol serum, suggestive that the Cushing’s syndrome was not ACTH-dependent from the pituitary but potentially from overproduction of cortisol by the left adrenal mass. Therefore, left adrenalectomy was performed and the histopathological study supported the diagnosis of adrenal cortical adenoma.

Conclusion: Chronic insomnia is a very important symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome that should not be neglected. The patient had both microadenoma pituitary and left adrenal mass thus high dose DST test (8 mg overnight) needed to be performed to differentiate the source of Cushing’s syndrome. The result showed only little suppression therefore the pituitary microadenoma was not the source of Cushing’s syndrome and more suggestive from the adrenal etiology.

Keywords: Cushing’s syndrome; insomnia; adrenal cortical adenoma; pituitary microadenoma; dexamethasone suppression test

Permalink/DOI: https://doi.org/10.14710/jbtr.v7i1.9247I

Read the entire article here: https://ejournal2.undip.ac.id/index.php/jbtr/article/view/9247/5440

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