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Adrenal Fatigue vs Burnout: What You Need to Know

An image of a man who is experiencing burnoutNearly everyone knows that burnout can affect people in many walks of life. But can you tell the difference between adrenal fatigue vs burnout? They have very similar symptoms, and very similar causes, but they also have a few key differences that could be important to know in your journey back to feeling energized and inspired again.

Adrenal Fatigue vs Burnout: Definitions

In order to spot adrenal fatigue vs burnout, you first must understand the definitions of each.

Adrenal Fatigue

The condition known as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) begins when stress from any source hits your body. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis becomes activated. This stimulates your adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol and other hormones to fight the effects of stress. However, if stress becomes chronic, the demand on your adrenals for more and more cortisol becomes too great. Consequently, the adrenals can no longer supply sufficient cortisol. This begins the condition known as AFS. Symptoms may appear vague at first but increase in severity and impact on your body as stress continues.

Burnout

The condition known as burnout appears to be more of a psychological issue than a physical one, although many of the symptoms show up in the physical realm. It occurs when a person finds himself or herself in a position where high demands and constant pressure combine with low resources or control. Often, those to suffer burnout face pressures put on them with little power or authority to make changes or to do work effectively and little or no work-life balance. In addition, they often get blamed when things do not go well and seldom get credit when things go successfully.

Similar Symptoms in Adrenal Fatigue and Burnout

When considering adrenal fatigue vs burnout, the symptom picture of each condition appears similar. The list below contains the set of symptoms attributable to both. As can be seen, the two share a number of symptoms.

  • Sleeplessness and dysregulated body clock
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Abnormal hormone levels (cortisol, testosterone, and thyroid)
  • Difficulty regulating temperature, night sweats
  • IBS symptoms including diarrhea and constipation
  • Suppressed or changed immune systems that leave the person vulnerable to infections
  • Increased allergic responses

Not everyone will experience the same set of symptoms.

Similar Causes: Adrenal Fatigue vs Burnout

The causes behind adrenal fatigue vs burnout may appear at first to be different, but a closer examination shows definite similarities. Above all, the causes of burnout are also sources of stress that can lead to adrenal fatigue.

By definition, burnout comes about due to long-term psychological and/or physical stress and emotional arousal. For example, service professions and professions with a great deal of direct customer contact often require suppression of emotions. Depersonalizing those with whom these professionals must relate face to face may become a defense mechanism against the emotions generated. Suppressing emotions in this way can lead to significant stress over the long-term.

Stress from any source that triggers the HPA and stimulates the adrenals to release stress-fighting hormones can cause AFS. Over time with the stress continuing, the adrenals become fatigued.

This simple explanation of the causes of adrenal fatigue vs burnout shows how the two relate closely.

The Role of Cortisol

An image of a woman who is meditating while two people are arguing behind herCortisol plays a major role in both adrenal fatigue and burnout. In AFS, cortisol from your adrenals fights the effects of stress. At the beginning of your stress response, cortisol levels increase.

However, as your adrenals become fatigued due to chronic stress, cortisol levels decrease. Likewise, with chronic stress, HPA axis activation becomes suppressed. This suppression then reduces the stimulation of your adrenals, resulting in lower cortisol levels.

In burnout, research indicates low levels of cortisol predominate. These low levels of cortisol may represent a protective mechanism designed to conserve energy when your body encounters threats beyond your ability to cope.

This same type of mechanism occurs in the later stages of AFS when chronic stress reaches the point of overwhelming your body’s coping ability. At this point, the symptoms of AFS become increasingly severe.

Role of The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

Activation of the ANS also plays a major role in adrenal fatigue vs burnout. When the adrenals become fatigued, another stress-fighting mechanism, the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, kicks in to fight stress as well. The NEM describes the role multiple organs and system play to address stress.

The Neuroaffect circuit of the NEM contains the ANS, which becomes activated to release more powerful hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine to deal with stress. These two powerful hormones can become imbalanced and the ANS becomes dysregulated. Significant symptoms result including anxiety, panic attacks, and feelings of impending doom. Other significant physical symptoms can also come from a dysregulated ANS, such as irregular heartbeat, POTS, and dizziness. In addition, dysfunction in this part of the NEM affects other parts as well. Therefore, symptoms affecting the gastrointestinal tract, temperature regulation, and metabolic function result.

Likewise, in burnout, dysfunction of the ANS also occurs and leads to major symptoms. Over time, the ANS becomes oversensitized in burnout, leading to much lower levels of stress causing dysfunction. Some symptoms associated with this ANS dysfunction in burnout include dizziness, fainting or low blood pressure when standing, and dysfunction in other body systems such as the GI tract, metabolic system, and hormone systems.

Role of the Brain

Research indicates that the low levels of cortisol found in burnout may actually come as a result of brain function rather than fatigue of the adrenals.

Fatigue makes up a large part of both adrenal fatigue and burnout. But in burnout, research suggests it may actually come about as a neurotransmitter dysfunction generated by the brain to stop damage to the body. Other studies show those who experience chronic burnout show marked changes in their amygdala's and in their ability to regulate negative emotions.

In this regard, fatigue directly affects the motor cortex in the brain. Animal research appears to support this concept through an unconscious ‘cost-benefit analysis’ in the brain that evaluates whether an activity benefits from the energy expenditure required.

The dopaminergic systems of the brain appeared to govern this analysis in one study. This part of the brain governs reward and goal processing. Likewise, it controls feelings of mental fatigue. If the signals from this part of the brain become fainter due to a decrease in dopamine levels, as may come with AFS, the risk of developing chronic fatigue increases.

Recovery from Adrenal Fatigue vs Burnout

An image of a man, woman, and a childIn general, people who find themselves in situations of high stress/high cortisol such as early AFS, and those who find themselves in situations of high stress/low cortisol such as burnout can benefit from the same things. They may find focused adrenal support and lifestyle changes that reduce stress to benefit them greatly. In addition, learning better and more effective ways to manage the stress they do experience can also lead to great benefits. Improving their ability to handle stress psychologically will likewise prove to be of great benefit. Professional help may be necessary in this latter case.

Conclusions

In most cases, there is a strong connection between adrenal fatigue vs burnout. The causes of burnout can be sources of stress that trigger the HPA axis and lead to AFS. The symptoms are likewise similar. In some cases at least, the relationship between adrenal fatigue and burnout may actually constitute a progression over time from burnout to adrenal fatigue.

However, burnout may occur without the feeling of stress as well. Some people mat not develop stress as they become burned out. Some research suggests that burnout has to do with neurotransmitters and restructuring in the brain rather than an adrenal problem.

Much more research is needed to determine the biological causes of adrenal fatigue vs burnout.

What Can You Do?

If you are suffering from burnout or adrenal fatigue, here are a few things you can do:

  • Decrease your overall stress through relaxation, meditation, or other healthy means.
  • Seek out ways to improve your environment to reduce the risk of burnout.
  • Develop a more positive attitude about your situation.
  • Get sufficient sleep and moderate exercise.
  • Improve your diet to include more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables.

Whatever course of action you decide to take, however, it is always a good idea to do so with the guidance of your healthcare professional..

If you would like more information about or need assistance with burnout vs adrenal fatigue, the team at Dr. Lam Coaching can help. We offer a free** no-obligation phone consultation at +1-626-571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and various options. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Adrenal fatigue vs burnout can be seen as two different conditions. However, the similarities between the two are greater than their differences. They share many of the same symptoms and their causes are much the same. In fact, burnout may be considered a beginning of adrenal fatigue. There are key internal differences in some cases though.

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