Your adrenal glands are small walnut-sized glands that sit on top of each kidney. Though they only weigh three to five grams, they’re responsible for producing hormones to provide your body with sufficient energy, balance blood sugar, fight inflammation, regulate electrolytes, maintain libido, sustain blood pressure, and provide your body with a host of other vital hormonal functions.
The adrenal glands essentially help your body handle stress, whether acute or chronic, so they play a huge role in overall health, fitness, and well-being. Unfortunately, many people suffer from some type of adrenal gland dysfunction which can and will result in a variety of health issues especially those related to daily energy requirements – both mental and physical.
In this four-part series on the adrenal glands, we’ll learn about how important, yet undervalued, the adrenal glands are. We’ll learn common signs and symptoms of adrenal gland problems, their interaction with other systems of the body, and how to recover from any adrenal gland dysfunction to restore your overall health.
Functional vs. Pathological Health Problems
Conventional medicine rarely addresses adrenal gland dysfunctions. Allopathic doctors feel as though a person only has an adrenal gland problem if they have some type of hormonally-related disease or condition to these glands, such as Addison’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome. President John F. Kennedy had Addison’s disease. Though these diseases do occur and should not go untreated, there are far many more individuals who suffer from a non-pathological condition of the adrenal glands which is significantly impairing their health.
Functional health problems are those in which an organ is not working optimally yet there is no known or diagnosed pathological (disease) condition. Functional health problems are much more common than pathological problems and if left untreated, can result in pathology to an organ or any related system of health.
If you’re under any sort of stress, or have ever been under any stress, (that’s everyone), either chronic or acute, your adrenal glands have helped get you through it. Some people never quite recover from a stress. Years of eating poorly, living in an unhealthy environment (emotionally or physically), or trauma to the physical body, such as an accident, illness, or exercising too intensely for too long, often lead to poor adrenal gland function. This results in the individual never being able to get their zest for life back due to the adrenal glands being impaired.
Adrenal Hormones and Your Health
Let’s take a quick glance at these glands to get a basic understanding of their function and value in your overall health. The adrenal glands are actually composed of two separate functional entities, the outer cortex and the inner medulla.
The Adrenal Cortex
The cortex is the outer zone of the adrenal gland which secretes three hormones – cortisol, DHEA-S, and aldosterone. Cortisol is the major adrenal hormone that is released in response to blood sugar changes, inflammation, and of course stress. When there is stress to the body, either good, (you’re exercising vigorously or you won some money), or bad, (you’re living off caffeine or just lost some money), it’s cortisol that helps you deal with this stress by sparing glucose availability in the brain so you can keep some sort of focus (hopefully).
DHEA is the precursor to our sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen, and it’s also important for the immune system, cardiovascular system, and overall muscular health.
Aldosterone is the hormone which helps regulate you electrolyte levels, (sodium and potassium); therefore it’s important for maintaining and regulating blood pressure. It’s aldosterone that can cause you to lose a lot of salt when you sweat resulting in fatigue and muscle cramps.
The Adrenal Medulla
The medulla of the adrenal gland is the inner zone, (10-20% of the total gland), which secretes adrenaline and noradrenaline, (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine). These hormones help to regulate blood sugar levels, heart rate, nervous system and cardiovascular function, and they even affect your brain – specifically concentration and overall alertness and mental acuity.
Adrenal Glands and Stress
The interaction, or perhaps I should say relationship, between cortisol and DHEA is important to understand when discussing the adrenal glands role in overall health. The adrenal glands release their hormones in a circadian rhythm, which is a 24-hour cycle. The hormonal levels should normally be highest in the morning around 6-7am and lowest at night around 11pm-12am which allows for restful sleep. So it’s normal for your hormonal levels to fluctuate throughout the day; actually if they don’t then you’ll have problems. If you’re under high levels of emotional or physical stress, not sleeping well, exercising intensely, or eating poorly, (especially high sugar and/or caffeine intake), then your adrenal hormones could be significantly altered, maybe even to the point where they can no longer respond to stress in an appropriate manner.
Initially, under acute stress, the normal response of the adrenal glands is to secrete higher amounts of cortisol so you can deal with the stress at hand. So if someone almost runs you over while you’re walking into Whole Foods (not uncommon), then your adrenalin levels will spike temporarily and they will soon be followed by a spike in cortisol which will often remain elevated for several hours after your parking lot experience. If there are continuous other types of acute stress such as this, then eventually your DHEA levels will being to rise too along with cortisol to help support the stress. If the stress or stressors are not resolved, as is often the case of chronic, multiple health stressors, then cortisol levels will continue to creep up and up while the DHEA level will go the other direction and plummet.
This inverse relationship between cortisol and DHEA is what causes a lot of health problems and is also the result of many chronic health problems. Eventually, much like the fable “The Boy Who Cries Wolf”, the body no longer pays attention to the high levels of cortisol so the body must make more and more just to get the once-desired effect. This is called receptor down-regulation and it’s exactly what happens when a person becomes a Type II diabetic – their body is making too much insulin but no longer paying attention to it, so it must make more and more. For your body, it’s like “whipping a tired horse.” You’re struggling to make it through the day and have to push yourself harder and harder at the expense of your health and adrenal glands. Eventually, if the health problems persist, then the cortisol levels will eventually drop along with the DHEA (and aldosterone) as the glands are too fatigued to produce the appropriate levels of hormones necessary for even mediocre health. Chronic fatigue, depression, immune system problems, persistent pain, and a host of other health problems can be associated with this type of adrenal fatigue.
In Part II I discuss testing for adrenal gland problems and you’ll see why so many people aren’t thought to have, (or are diagnosed with), adrenal gland issues. I’ll also go through many common signs and symptoms of adrenal gland problems.