As you might have read in my article on the causes of Adrenal Fatigue, many diseases are capable of greatly weakening the adrenals over time. This is because diseases are just another form of stress on the body, requiring a physiological response that is not so different from emotional stress. In particular, the burden of managing a long term condition can reduce the ability of your adrenals to produce the hormones that you need.
The definition of a ‘chronic disease’ can vary, depending on whom you are talking to. However the World Health Organization defines a chronic disease as one that has lasted for 3 months or more. Compare this to ‘acute’ conditions which last for less than 3 months. Of course in some cases chronic conditions last far longer than 3 months, and may even last a lifetime, but 3 months is the accepted cut-off point after which an acute condition can be termed chronic.
Chronic disease and Adrenal Fatigue
How exactly does a chronic disease lead to Adrenal Fatigue? Chronic diseases like asthma or arthritis cause inflammation, which triggers a hormonal response from your body. Specifically, the adrenals produce and release cortisol and cortisone to counter the inflammation.
The type of illness from which you are suffering is an important factor. Respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis, sinus infections and pneumonia cause a great deal of inflammation and can be particularly hard on the adrenals. The worse the infection, the harder your adrenals have to work. This was first demonstrated after the great influenza outbreak in 1918, known as the Spanish flu. A group of researchers (Lucke, Wight, & Kime) conducted autopsies on a selection of 126 soldiers who had died in the flu outbreak. Of those 126 cases, 103 showed actual physical damage to the adrenal glands. In a further 3 cases, the adrenal glands had swollen to double their usual size and hemorrhaged. In total, 84% of the deceased soldiers exhibited damage to their adrenals that was detectable even without a microscope.
Don’t forget that the treatment for chronic disease can be stressful on your body too. Treatments like antibiotics and chemotherapy can place enormous stresses on our endocrine system. And the fatigue associated with infections can lead us to develop habits that weaken the adrenals further – for example drinking more caffeine or taking other stimulants.
We have only covered a small number of conditions, but they are only a few of the many illnesses that can lead to Adrenal Fatigue. Other examples might be fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, parasites, or even food allergies. In reality, any condition that causes long term pain or illness can be a trigger for Adrenal Fatigue.
Trauma and Adrenal Fatigue
Your condition doesn’t have to be chronic for it to contribute to a case of Adrenal Fatigue. A particularly severe disease can lead to Adrenal Fatigue even if it is short-lived. An extreme example might be the soldiers killed by the Spanish flu in the example above, whose adrenals were damaged even by a relatively brief period of illness.
Although a short-lived illness might weaken the adrenals by itself, it becomes much more dangerous in combination with the various other lifestyle and dietary factors that contribute to Adrenal Fatigue. Sometimes an Adrenal Fatigue sufferer might be surprised that a particular illness might have caused his or her condition. But when we factor in the other stresses that he or she was experiencing at the time, it becomes much more clear.
Moving on to even shorter forms of illness, physical trauma is another possible cause of Adrenal Fatigue. Single, traumatic incidents like car crashes or major surgery are perfectly capable of having enduring effects on our health, no matter how quickly they finish. And of course the adrenals have to keep working for long after the incident itself – inflammation and weakened immunity can last for weeks or months after a single episode of physical trauma.
A 2000 study on the hormonal response to major surgery found that levels of cortisol and aldosterone (both produced by the adrenals) saw a rapid increase. However the hormonal response was actually much broader – the larger list includes adreno‐corticotrophic hormone, arginine vasopressin, follicle‐stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, thyroid‐stimulating hormone, growth hormone, and glucagon. You can immediately see how surgery places the endocrine system under tremendous stress.
The stress response to trauma and surgery (British Journal of Anaesthesia)
Physical Health Problems After Single Trauma Exposure: When Stress Takes Root in the Body (Journal of American Psychiatric Nurses)
What are Some of the Physiological Manifestations of PTSD? (PsychCentral, 2013)