Is Adrenal Fatigue Real? A Rebuttal to ‘Couch Potato’ Syndrome

An article published in 2017 is circulating on the internet again. In it, the author claims that adrenal fatigue, a term we often use in integrative medicine, is a false disorder.

Instead termed “couch potato syndrome” or “life is hard syndrome” by the former president of the Endocrine Society, adrenal fatigue is dismissed as an invented disorder that conventional medicine doesn’t recognize.

What I take away from it is this: Women, who consume about 80% of our healthcare system, are STILL being told that it’s just fine to be irritable, tired, have such bad brain fog they can’t think, or be anxious because they just can’t handle day to day life.

It’s another example of how modern medicine doesn’t support women and our concerns—and it’s an example of how our massive healthcare system was not designed to listen and treat conditions that don’t have a life-ending outcome.

Adrenal Fatigue vs. Adrenal Failure: They’re Different

But where this article is really misleading is the fact that its author and its interviewees insinuate functional medicine practitioners are routinely telling patients that their adrenals are FAILING. That’s not true.

Adrenal failure is called Addison’s Disease—and it has a very unique and specific set of symptoms. The testing mentioned in this piece (ACTH stim, aldosterone, renin and more) would actually be very helpful in ruling in/out Addison’s Disease. But what we’re really talking about here is adrenal FATIGUE, a state in which where your adrenals aren’t functioning optimally.

To simplify things (this is a huge topic that we’ll address in the future), functional medicine practitioners look at a broader range of values when it comes to reviewing patients’ lab results. Why? Because those ranges don’t take into account the person living within them.

Your lab results might technically be within a “normal” range, but if you aren’t feeling well, something is going on. Functional and integrative practitioners are often working with patients who have “sub-optimal” lab values, which can illuminate precursors of disease, and ultimately help prevent something more serious (in this case, Addison’s Disease).

Plus, integrative medicine takes YOU into account. It’s personalized. You might feel better at a higher number on the scale; someone else might feel better in the lower lab range. But we have to tailor that to each individual, instead of assuming that you’re suffering from “couch potato syndrome” and your symptoms aren’t valid.

Your Fatigue Symptoms Don’t Mean You’re Lazy

The author of this piece is also dismissing a huge finding of Hans Seley’s theory of Adaptation Syndrome. This helps explain how the body adapts and reacts to chronic stressors over time. The author and the interviewees dismiss patients going through symptoms including anxiety, digestive distress, and insomnia that eventually end in “exhaustion.”

These are REAL symptoms. They’re not “life is hard” or “I’ve not moved my butt all day” side effects—they’re REAL physical symptoms that manifested from chronic stress

Patients who experience these symptoms are NOT lazy. The author of this piece assumes that dealing with fatigue, anxiety, digestive distress, and more are not taking care of themselves. Nine times out of 10, that is not the case. The majority of my patients eat well, exercise or at least move their body several times per week, and are attempting to rest at the capacity their life allows.

Yes, there’s always room for improvement. But that’s just being a human being, not a couch potato, and calling individuals out for listening to their bodies and asking for help when they’re not feeling well isn’t health-supportive. It’s only contributing to the problem.

That’s why personalized medicine is so beneficial. With an integrative practitioner who spends 90 minutes with you on your first visit, you’ll be able to provide a complete picture of your health story. We need to listen to you in order to treat you.

And, by listening to you, your doctor can begin to see patterns, and start to put together a holistic view of your current health. Hearing your story helps us understand your pain points (literally and figuratively) so we can decide what bloodwork, lab tests and treatments to pursue. Each patient is different, and has different needs. By spending time with you and getting to know your health story, we can craft the health plan that’s best for you.

That’s what’s missing from broadly declaring that adrenal fatigue isn’t real: The personalized approach that considers patients as more than their lab results, their isolated symptoms, and their emotional and mental health.