So, what are adrenal glands, really, and what do they do? The human body has two adrenal glands and one sits on top of each kidney and each gland weighs 4-5 g in an adult. Adrenals are first detected at 6 weeks' gestation. Each adrenal gland is composed of two distinct parts. The outer part called the adrenal cortex and the inner part the adrenal medulla. The adrenal glands secrete different chemical messengers. These hormones travel through the bloodstream and act on various body tissues which enable them to function properly. All adrenocortical hormones are steroid compounds derived from cholesterol.
The adrenal cortex produces three hormones:
Mineralocorticoids: The most important of which is aldosterone. This hormone helps to maintain the body’s salt and water levels which, in turn, regulates blood pressure. Without aldosterone, the kidney loses excessive amounts of sodium and, consequently, water, leading to severe dehydration.
Glucocorticoids: This is predominantly cortisol (the hormone you probably equate with stress and weight gain). So it is probably no surprise that this hormone is highly involved in the stress response and also helps to regulate you body's metabolism. When our adrenal glands are constantly required to sustain high cortisol levels, they eventually become impaired in their ability to respond appropriately. The resulting dysfunction not only affects our short-term response to stress, but it also impairs our adrenals’ ability to produce and balance other hormones. Cortisol stimulates glucose production by mobilising amino acids and free fatty acids. Cortisol also has significant anti-inflammatory effects. So in short, we need cortisol to be healthy but an imbalance will wreak havoc on our bodies; especially in middle age.
Adrenal androgens: These are male sex hormones, mainly dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone. All have weak effects, but play a significant role in early development of the male sex organs in childhood, and in women during puberty. These are mainly involved in creating and maintaining the differences between men and women.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone or (ACTH) is secreted by the anterior pituitary primarily affects release of glucocorticoids and adrenal androgens by the adrenal and to a lesser extent, also stimulates aldosterone release.
The adrenal medulla produces catecholamines:
Catecholamines include adrenaline, noradrenaline and small amounts of dopamine - these hormones are responsible for all the physiological characteristics of the stress response, the so called ‘fight or flight’ response.
In some cases, the adrenal glands can become either overactive or underactive, but typically when your adrenals are not functioning properly it is due to exhaustion. The 2 most common results of malfunctioning adrenal glands are Cushing’s syndrome and Addison's Disease
Cushing’s syndrome is due to overactive adrenal glands from excessive production of cortisol. The clinical findings include thinning and bruising of the skin, obesity, diabetes, psychiatric disturbances, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, osteoporosis, excessive facial hair and irregular periods in women. It can result in growth failure in children. Patients with cortisol excess also have impaired wound healing and an increased susceptibility to infection.
Addison’s disease is mostly due to underactive adrenal glands and is generally associated with insufficient hormone levels (production). Adrenal insufficiency may be acute or chronic. Acute adrenal insufficiency results when an acute stress is superimposed on chronic adrenal insufficiency of any type. This is the most dangerous and must be diagnosed and treated immediately. Unfortunately, allopathic medicine tends to overlook these common symptoms resulting in major complications. Symptoms of chronic adrenal insufficiency include low blood pressure, fatigue, weight loss, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, salt craving and low blood sugar. Skin and mucous membranes may show increased pigmentation. The loss of secondary sex characteristics is seen only in women with the disease.The hallmarks of acute adrenal insufficiency are circulatory collapse with abdominal pain and low blood sugar.
Rarely, overproduction of aldosterone can occur, which causes a condition known as hyperaldosteronism. This causes high blood pressure, which is resistant to conventional blood pressure control tablets, and salt disturbances. High blood pressure may cause headaches and visual problems. Overproduction of androgens is also rare but may result in excessive hair growth and menstrual period disturbances.
Tumors of the adrenal gland are mostly benign and do not result in over or underproduction of adrenal hormones. Most tumours are discovered incidentally. Adrenal cancer is very rare. Adrenal tumours may require surgery only if they are large or overproduce hormones.
So, assuming you have fully functioning adrenals (meaning they would be functioning correctly without toxic burden or inundated with stress-hormones...) then how could my symptoms possibly be related to adrenal function?
First we must look at the most common symptoms:
1. Exhaustion: This can range from feeling sluggish to lethargy depending on the person, as well as, the cause.
2. Cognitive Impairment- Racing thoughts, circular thinking, feeling fuzzy or inability to focus.
3. Sleeplessness: Inability to fall asleep or falling asleep well but waking up nightly. Sleeping soundly but waking up exhausted. Do you get an afternoon slump, only to perk up around 6 or 7pm, and then get a second wind around 9:30? Also, getting your best rest between 5am and 9am is a sign of adrenal fatigue.
4. Mood disturbances and inability to cope: Overly emotional or unusually snappy? This is HUGE. The reason being, that anti-depressants are regulary prescribed and further fatigue the adrenals by adding enormous toxic burden!
5. Anxiety and Panic: Again, misdiagnosis will severely complicate the situation and MANY anti-depressants increase panic attacks instead of helping them because they are a mis-cued stress response and highly responsive to adaptogens not anti-depressants.
6. Immune Response- Frequent infections or inability to heal, as well as, suddenly developing an auto-immune disorder (ie. psoriasis or dyshidrosis)
7. Libido: Low or non-existent libido or severe PMS symptoms
8. Weight Gain: Weight gain that is not condusive to diet or lifestyle (especially in the abdomen and thigh areas)
9. Cravings: Uncontrollable salt and sugar cravings. You may also have a hard time handling foods high in potassium or carbohydrates unless they’re combined with fats and protein?
10. Blood Pressure-High or Low: ...but generally high given that many of the other symptoms lend to this side effect, in addition, to the stress response.
The rest of the week I will be covering 2 of these symptoms per day along with the best natural cures and treatments for each of these symptoms! Until then, Be well!!