What Does Adrenal Insufficiency Have to Do with the Flu?


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Most overall healthy adults, especially those who have received the flu vaccine, are able to weather even the worst of flu symptoms and recover in a relatively short period of time.

So when 27-year-old personal trainer Jeremy Westerman, who was exceptionally fit and passionate about staying healthy, succumbed to the disease, it did not go unnoticed and left a lot of people wondering how something like this could happen to such a healthy, young man.

According to his friends and family, Westerman started to feel ill and quickly developed a high fever and congestion. And, as so many of us do, he decided to not see a doctor, took some over-the-counter cold medicine and tried to sleep it off.   

Tragically, this decision ended up costing him his life.

Even during a minor outbreak, the flu kills about 12,000 Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates.

In a severe season, such as the one the U.S. is currently experiencing, it can kill upwards of 56,000. While many of these deaths are among the elderly or very young (like infants), the flu can be fatal to young or middle-aged adults who have underlying health problems such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or immune disorders.

In the case of 27-year-old Westerman, the coroner reported that in addition to having the influenza type A virus he also had adrenal insufficiency, which likely made him more vulnerable to the infection. And in someone who is battling an infection, the added stress this causes to the body may trigger additional adrenal insufficiency symptoms which, in and of themselves, could also prove to be fatal if not addressed quickly and adequately.

Unfortunately, this young man is not the only person whose adrenal insufficiency was probably made worse by having an illness such as the flu. Reportedly, the severe flu epidemic during the last century that killed millions worldwide, almost 80 percent of representative autopsies, showed that the adrenal glands had been impacted. In fact, it was theorized that in many cases adrenal exhaustion may have been the cause of death rather than the flu itself. In another study about the same epidemic, people taking adrenal extracts fared much better throughout the course of the disease than those who did not.

So what are these adrenal glands?

While perhaps not as well-known as other glands in your body, such as your pancreas or thyroid, the adrenal glands are critical to maintaining good health. Located just above your kidneys, they release important hormones, like cortisol and aldosterone.

These hormones play important roles such as regulating the fluid balance in your body, blood pressure, metabolism and blood sugar balance. They also play a key role in allowing our bodies to deal with emotional and physical stress as well as slow the immune system’s inflammatory response to disease and infection.

Another adrenal hormone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), is used to make testosterone,  estrogen and progesterone - male and female sex hormones.

Adrenal Insufficiency

If you have adrenal insufficiency (also sometimes referred to as Addison’s disease), this simply means that your adrenal glands are not producing enough of these key hormones, or that the levels they do produce may be sufficient when your body is not dealing with stress but  are not enough to adequately deal with the types of stress caused by illness, such as the flu, or during stressful circumstances, like having surgery or going through something emotionally taxing.

Activities like too much exercise, consuming excess caffeine or sugar and taking certain drugs may also affect the optimal performance of your adrenal glands.  

The symptoms of adrenal insufficiency appear and worsen slowly over time and include:

  • Chronic, worsening fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness, fainting
  • Skin changes such as darkening

Since you may only have some of these symptoms and they mimic symptoms of other diseases, many people are not even aware of having adrenal insufficiency and tend to ignore the symptoms. In fact, almost a quarter of people with adrenal insufficiency may not learn of it until they experience “acute adrenal insufficiency,” which may be triggered by an infection such as the flu or others illnesses.

These are the symptoms that require immediate medical intervention:

  • Sudden, penetrating pain in the lower back, abdomen or legs
  • Severe vomiting or diarrhea and accompanying dehydration
  • Low blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness

How can you be proactive?

It is important to protect your adrenal glands, because they are one of the “first responders” to diseases such as the flu as well as emotional and physical stresses of everyday life. You may have adrenal insufficiency without even knowing it.

One of the best things you can do is ensure that your body is nutritionally balanced so that it can support the healthy functioning of your adrenal glands. Nutritional testing can help you determine if your body is absorbing the right amount of nutrients, such as the vitamins, minerals, fats and amino acids, that may promote good adrenal gland health.

These nutrients include:        

You can also help your adrenal glands do their job better by making sure you are following a healthy diet that avoids foods and drinks high in refined, processed sugar and unhealthy fats. Also make sure you are getting a good balance of protein and nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, strawberries, lentils, quinoa and apples.

If you have any symptoms of adrenal insufficiency, talk with your healthcare provider who can request specific tests to see how well your adrenal glands are functioning. This step is important, because adrenal insufficiency cannot be diagnosed based on symptoms alone.  Based on your test results, you may be prescribed medications and have to make certain lifestyle changes to manage this insufficiency and prevent an acute adrenal insufficiency episode.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.



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