Overcoming adrenal fatigue can feel anything but simple, especially since the condition is not an accepted medical diagnosis, which makes Doctors hesitant to prescribe medication for adrenal fatigue to help.
Still, if you’re experiencing extreme fatigue, unusual weight gain or loss, mental fog, or body aches, these might be the signs of adrenal fatigue, and your body could use a bit of a boost. One method you could use to potentially provide that boost is using red light therapy for adrenal fatigue.
Light therapy is not considered a cure for adrenal fatigue or insufficiency, but it does promote healthy body function and shows promise for relieving some of the above symptoms. It’s also safe, non-invasive, and completely natural.
In this article, we’ll review what adrenal fatigue is, show you how light affects the adrenal glands, and explain how you can use it in the comfort of your own home.
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
The adrenal glands are two small, triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys. These glands produce hormones that help regulate metabolism, the stress response, and other essential functions of the body.
Established medical organizations do not recognize adrenal fatigue as an actual diagnosis. "No scientific proof exists to support adrenal fatigue as a true medical condition," says the Endocrinology Society on its website.
The group adds that even though "adrenal fatigue is not accepted by most doctors, adrenal insufficiency is a real medical condition that occurs when our adrenal glands cannot produce enough hormones."
The difference between these two conditions isn’t just semantics; it’s a different set of symptoms.
Adrenal fatigue, as described by proponents of the condition, is a mild form of adrenal insufficiency. Usually caused by chronic stress, this condition is believed to occur when the adrenal glands can’t keep up with a chronic fight-or-flight response. Eventually, the adrenals burn out.
Adrenal fatigue symptoms include anxiety, extreme fatigue, poor sleep, cravings for salt and sweets, and digestive problems.
Those symptoms are different from the symptoms of clinically diagnosed adrenal insufficiency, which can result in weight loss, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, dry skin, fatigue, and low blood pressure.
According to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article, adrenal insufficiency is a rare disorder, which could mean that what is commonly self-diagnosed as adrenal fatigue may be something else entirely.
This perspective about adrenal fatigue is shared by Theodore C. Friedman, who is chief of endocrinology, metabolism, and molecular medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. Dr. Friedman says it’s important to look for the real underlying causes of symptoms, such as a sluggish thyroid or other hormonal imbalances.
Also according to Dr. Friedman, some of the symptoms commonly associated with adrenal fatigue (brain fog, salt cravings, and light-headedness) may be caused by low levels of a hormone known as aldosterone.
Yet even doctors who don’t believe adrenal fatigue is a real illness agree that patient symptoms must not be dismissed. In a September 2017 article in Endocrine News, Dr. Lynnette Nieman, president of the Endocrine Society, said: "Our role is to be good active listeners to determine if there is a true medical disorder lurking among the complaints. It is very important to take the person seriously, not to brush them off and say there is no [such thing as] adrenal fatigue. These people are suffering from something, so we need to take the suffering seriously."
The Adrenal Glands and the Autonomic Nervous System
Understanding the autonomic nervous system, which governs the adrenals, offers a clue on how adrenal fatigue can be treated.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for all automatic bodily functions, such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, and urination, among other functions. Depending on the situation, it is either sympathetic-dominant (survival and the fight-or-flight response) or parasympathetic-dominant (rest, repair, and digestion).
Sympathetic dominance is triggered when there are real or perceived threats. You feel the adrenaline rush as the body mobilizes all necessary resources involved in the fight-or-flight response.
Although the adrenal glands are largely associated with the sympathetic nervous system, they are also vital to the parasympathetic nervous system. They produce a variety of hormones necessary for various bodily functions, including:
- Cortisol: a stress hormone that prepares the body for the flight-or-fight response, and is also involved in the sleep-wake cycle, metabolism, and the immune response;
- Aldosterone: a hormone that regulates salt and water in the body, thus affecting blood pressure and blood pH;
- DHEA: precursor hormones that are converted in the ovaries into female hormones (estrogens) and in the testes into male hormones (androgens);
- Adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine): the hormones that initiate the flight-or-fight response to stress, and provide the body with added resources and energy to respond to a perceived threat.
During a sympathetic response, energy and resources are diverted from digestion and other normal functions. Ideally, sympathetic dominance is temporary, and parasympathetic dominance soon takes over to continue its repair and restorative functions.
Since modern life isn’t as physically dangerous as in our ancestors’ time, today’s stresses are mostly emotional, which isn’t something you can physically battle (fight) or run away from (flight). Many individuals remain in sympathetic dominance in response to everyday financial, relationship, or work stress—and that kind of chronic stress can literally make you sick.
Over time, the chronically activated stress response depletes the body and, according to adrenal fatigue proponents, may prevent the adrenals from producing the hormones involved in the stress response.
People suffering from the effects of chronic stress are looking for ways to tone down their automatic stress response, release stress hormones from their bodies, and most of all, heal the adverse effects of constantly being on “red alert.”
How Light Affects the Adrenal Glands
For centuries it has been known that the human body reacts to light. Our bodies create energy from light, much like the process of photosynthesis in plants. Every wavelength of visible and invisible light has a different absorption depth into the body, and different effects based on those depths.
To examine the effects of light on the endocrine system, which governs the release of hormones, researchers at the Lighting Research Center of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute conducted a study in 2010. During the study, which was published in the International Journal of Endocrinology, the researchers compared the effects of blue and red wavelengths on levels of the hormones melatonin and cortisol.
The findings were noteworthy in relation to adrenal fatigue because both melatonin and cortisol are known to affect the functioning of the adrenal glands. Thus, modulating the release of melatonin and cortisol may help ease symptoms.
Melatonin, often called the sleep hormone, plays a significant role in the sleep-wake cycle. Its production increases in response to darkness in order to promote healthy sleep. Blue light after dark suppresses melatonin production, but the negative effects of this are most commonly found in excessive use of cell phones or computers, not due to blue light therapy sessions, which tend to be far shorter than time spent using electronics.
Cortisol also follows the circadian rhythms, peaking in the morning, which corresponds with shifting into a state of activity. As the Rensselaer researchers found, blue light after dark increased cortisol production to daytime levels after one hour of exposure. This is partly why it is generally optimal to engage in blue light treatment earlier in the day.
Cortisol has the opposite effect of melatonin. When melatonin levels are low, cortisol production increases, and vice versa. Both are adversely affected by blue light exposure at night; given the use of electronic devices that emit blue light, this disruption in hormonal balance could contribute to adrenal fatigue.
In a 2009 study, researchers from India found that melatonin production influenced adrenal functions in response to thermal stress, effectively helping the test subjects (goats) adapt faster to extreme temperature changes.
This is significant in relation to adrenal fatigue because the body does not distinguish between emotional stress (such as losing a job or a breakup) and physical stress such as a life-threatening situation. The stress response is the same.
These and other studies offer hope for those who suffer from adrenal fatigue. Because these wavelengths help your body heal at the cellular level—from the inside out—they show promise for addressing the root causes of adrenal issues including hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism.
Using Red Light Therapy for Adrenal Fatigue
Red light therapy, which is also called photobiomodulation or low-level light therapy (LLLT), involves shining red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths of light onto the skin. The technique is based on ancient sun therapy that has been practiced for thousands of years. Yet red light therapy isolates the beneficial wavelengths of light rather than exposing the skin to all wavelengths, including those that can be harmful, such as ultraviolet rays.
Thousands of independent studies have shown that the most beneficial wavelengths include red, ranging from 630 to 660 nanometers (nm); and near-infrared, from 810nm to 850nm. Both red and NIR light are part of the invisible light spectrum. These wavelengths have been proven effective for treating a wide variety of conditions.
As it relates to adrenal dysfunction, photobiomodulation can give your system a boost and help regulate the production of various hormones in order to restore hormonal balance. For example, red light has been shown to boost thyroxine (T4) production in the thyroid; Thyroxine is responsible for regulating the metabolism, mood, and body temperature, and more.
When red light absorbs into the body, it interacts with light-sensitive chromophores within mitochondria, which are the energy-producers inside most cells of the body. The mitochondria respond to red light by producing more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is cellular fuel.
A condition called mitochondrial dysfunction is now seen as one of the main causes of many chronic health challenges. The disorder stems from the inability of the mitochondria to convert raw materials into energy. Energy-depleted cells are unable to perform their functions and become more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria.
You can’t function at your peak if you’re suffering from the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Inside your body, on a micro-level, your adrenal, thyroid, pituitary glands—glands responsible for regulating the stress response—also can’t function at peak capacity if their cells are depleted.
Low energy causes necessary biochemical reactions to drastically slow down. It’s no wonder you are chronically fatigued, moody, foggy, and prone to sickness.
In fact, the symptoms of adrenal fatigue and mitochondrial dysfunction are eerily similar.
And chronic inflammation and nutritional deficiencies, along with a prolonged stress response, can cause the mitochondria to malfunction.
Red light therapy has been shown in many studies to halt and even reverse mitochondrial dysfunction. Restoring normal cellular function has a positive effect on a much greater scale: in your glands and organs.
Improving normal cell functioning could therefore be the first and most important step in relieving your symptoms.
In addition to stimulating healthy cellular activity, photobiomodulation also reduces inflammation and improves circulation. As a result, cells aren’t under constant stress, and they receive the nutrients they need to generate fuel.
Again, it’s worth emphasizing that red light therapy is not guaranteed to reverse fatigue or related symptoms. However, it does promote overall healthy functioning of the body, which can improve well-being.
Acute or short-term inflammation is an immune response and part of the natural healing process. But if inflammation persists and becomes chronic, it can cause problems such as free radical damage, which is known as oxidative stress. Free radicals are oxygen-carrying molecules that are missing an electron; in an effort to stabilize themselves, they steal electrons from other molecules, causing damage to them.
Dr. Michael Hamblin, one of the world’s premier researchers on red light, published a research paper in 2017 about the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation. His paper states that photobiomodulation supports the acute inflammatory response during healing, but inhibits chronic inflammation, letting the body restore normal functioning quickly and reducing oxidative stress.
How does this relate to adrenal problems?
The thyroid helps regulate adrenal functions; thyroid problems, especially hypothyroidism, share some common symptoms with adrenal fatigue.
A 2016 study by researchers from Italy found that oxidative stress and inflammation (which go hand-in-hand) are associated with thyroid malfunctions.
A 2015 paper, which was published in the scientific journal Endocrinology, confirms the link between the thyroid and the adrenals. The paper’s author, Frederick Wondisford of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, states that the thyroid has a direct role in the development and functioning of the adrenal cortex, the part of the adrenal gland where cortisol is produced.
Wondisford suggests that adrenal deficiency could be linked to congenital hypothyroidism. While this study focused on the development of the adrenal glands, adult adrenal functioning is partially regulated by the thyroid; therefore, restoring thyroid function could potentially restore adrenal functioning.
Good circulation means healthy cells. If cells aren’t receiving nutrients or removing waste, they become toxic and stressed.
The circulatory system refers both to blood and lymph, which is the fluid that flows through the lymphatic system. Blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to cells, and lymph removes waste and toxins.
In a 2017 study on peripheral artery disease (PAD), red light was shown to have a vasodilating effect on healthy and diabetic blood vessels. This is great news, as red light therapy could increase blood flow to the thyroid and adrenals, supporting their normal functioning.
Balanced Melatonin Production
Photobiomodulation has been shown to increase melatonin production, which helps improve sleep. A 2012 study of a group of elite female Chinese athletes showed an increase in melatonin production when the athletes were exposed to red light at night. They experienced better sleep, and as a result, improved athletic performance.
How to Use Red Light Therapy
It’s important to have a blood test to ensure that the symptoms you’re experiencing (associated with adrenal fatigue) are not, in fact, a different condition. Once you have approval from your doctor, you can safely use red light therapy at home.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A red light panel, equipped with LED lights
A quality, high light energy output LED panel has the power and coverage area to deliver red light deep into your lower back (as mentioned earlier, the adrenals are located on top of the kidneys); and to your throat, which is the seat of the thyroid gland.
The pituitary gland is located deep within the brain, which means even near-infrared light waves may not reach it; but NIR light can help reduce systemic inflammation. On a side note, red light is a safe therapy for various brain ailments including TBI, stroke, and Parkinson's.
Red light therapy is best delivered via LED panels, which range from a tablet-sized panel ideal for spot treatment to full-body panels for overall wellness. Avoid hand-held wands, which are too weak to generate the deep absorption needed to reach the adrenals or thyroid.
- A panel that offers NIR wavelengths
Red wavelengths absorb into the layers of skin, where they stimulate normal cell functioning and reduce inflammation. These wavelengths, however, aren’t long enough to absorb into the adrenals or thyroid; for that, you need longer near-infrared wavelengths.
The PlatinumLED BIO series lets you choose between 660nm (red) or 850nm (NIR) wavelengths, or use them together in a 50/50 ratio.
The PlatinumLED BIOMAX series uses five different wavelengths of red/NIR light simultaneously for a systemic approach to treating inflammation and other root causes of various physical ailments.
- A commitment to consistency
Consistency is important. Three to five 15- or 20-minute sessions per week for several months, along with the lifestyle changes detailed below, can deliver amazing health benefits.
- Proper panel positioning
To target the adrenals, lean a panel against the wall and sit in front of it on a cushion or pillow. Or, you can lean the panel against the back of a couch and sit 6" in front of the panel.
To target the thyroid, prop a panel on a table and turn toward it with your face about 6" from the panel. Or, lie on your side, propping the panel on pillows so it shines on your throat.
Then, simply relax in the warm glow of the light. If you’d like, you can enjoy a short meditation while receiving the therapy, to relieve stress.
Adrenal-Friendly Lifestyle Modifications
Even though light therapy can not be considered as a treatment for adrenal fatigue, but it does show promise for alleviating related symptoms. Also, you’ll get the most satisfying results by adopting beneficial lifestyle habits while using red light therapy.
Nutrition and Hydration
Cut back or eliminate added sugar. Sugar is widely recognized as an inflammatory agent. Also, eat more nutrient-rich vegetables to give your cells great raw materials to work with.
Avoid supplements to boost adrenal function without a blood test to determine whether you actually have adrenal insufficiency and to identify nutritional deficiencies.
Reduce or eliminate caffeine. It’s understandable to rely on caffeine to get through the day when you're dragging, but it actually contributes to the problem by overstimulating the adrenals. Instead, drink more water. Hydration is key for the cells' ability to absorb nutrients and expel waste. Whenever you’re tempted to reach for a soda or coffee, reach for a glass of water instead.
Moderate daily exercise, meditation, yoga, hobbies, gardening, or walking the dog can relieve stress, relax the stress response and let the parasympathetic nervous system perform its functions.
Try Red Light Therapy Today
If you’re interested in trying out red light therapy, give PlatinumLED panels a try.
Looking to get more out of your LED panel? Red light therapy also combats the signs of aging, improves muscle tone, regrows hair, eases arthritis pain, and more! Browse through the articles on the PlatinumLED blog page to discover the many whole-body applications for red light therapy.
Frequently Asked Question
Q. What is the fastest way to cure adrenal fatigue?
Ans: Right food plays a vital role to recover from adrenal fatigue. A diet that balances protein, healthy fats, nutrient-dense carbohydrates and increased vegetable intakes along with food containing vitamin C can support healthy adrenal glands.