The Adrenal Glands
There is an old saying that how well you live depends to a large extent upon how well your adrenal glands function. We have two adrenal glands, each about the size of a walnut, that sit on top of each kidney. The adrenals are best known as our stress handling glands, mobilizing us for survival via our “fight or flight” reaction, but have other important functions as well.
The adrenal glands produce a variety of steroid hormones that are responsible for stress handling; reproduction; sex hormones; energy production; body repair and regeneration; healthy brain function, mood, cognition, and memory; controlling fluid balance; and stabilizing blood sugar.
Let’s start with stress. The ability to handle stress is critical to our survival. Our body was designed to deal with stress and the adrenal glands have that primary responsibility. This is better known as our “fight or flight” response. Or as I like to explain it – see the tiger and we need to run. It is important to recognize that this response is to all types of stress - be they physical, mental, or emotional.
Stress comes from a variety of sources. There are the ones that we plainly see such as our work and our personal relationships. Other stressors that affect us but are not as obvious include the general environment; the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis in our food and personal care products; air and water pollution; electromagnetic pollution; and this list goes on.
While our body was designed to handle stress, it was not designed to handle the constant stress that many people experience. Often people do not recognize their own stress level as they erroneously believe they are handling the stress, or it is how they always feel and do not notice a difference. Yet, their body is under constant stress from both conscious and unintended lifestyle and diet choices.
The key hormone you hear about in regards to stress is cortisol. When we are stressed it causes an increase in cortisol. Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands. If our body is constantly calling for cortisol production this puts an extra burden on the adrenal glands. In the long run this can lead to adrenal fatigue.
The key action of the stress response (the cortisol surge) is to run from the tiger. In order to run we need energy and to get energy we need an increase in our blood sugar levels. Cortisol causes blood sugar levels to rise. But, if there is no tiger, we are not running, and we now have excess blood sugar. The body does not like extra sugar in the blood. This causes the body to release the hormone insulin to move the sugar back out of the blood.
We are familiar with insulin from our previous carbohydrate discussions (http://brwellness.blogspot.com/2012/11/cut-carbs.html). As you remember excess insulin promotes fat storage. Insulin and cortisol move together. If one increases, the other does so as well. This puts the body in a fat storing mode. At the same time the adrenals are under stress to keep up the cortisol production. Again the body responds to protect the adrenals from overwork through lowering metabolism. Lowered metabolism also puts the body in a fat storing mode. I think you get the picture and can see the dynamic relationship between all the hormones as was previously outlined in Harrower’s Chart in the introductory article about hormones.
Following is a simple quiz to help you self-assess the state of your adrenals. Please note these are only some of the symptoms of low adrenal function. You will also note that many of them overlap with the symptoms we saw for low thyroid function. If you answer yes to a significant number of these questions, you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue.
· Do you have difficulty getting up in the morning?
· Do you have continuing fatigue, not relieved by sleep or rest?
· Do you feel lethargic and not have the energy to do daily activities?
· Do you have sugar cravings?
· Do you have salt cravings?
· Do you have allergies?
· Do you have digestion problems?
· Do you have a decreased interest in sex?
· Do you have a decreased ability to handle stress?
· Does it take you longer to recover from illness, injury, or trauma?
· Do you get light headed or dizzy when you stand up quickly?
· Do you have a low mood?
· Do you have less enjoyment or happiness in life?
· For women, is your PMS worse?
· Are your thoughts less focused? Do you have brain fog?
· Is your memory poorer?
· Do you not really wake up until after 10:00 AM?
· Do you have an afternoon low between 3:00 and 4:00 PM?
· Do you feel better after dinner?
· Do you get a “second wind” in the evening and stay up late?
· Are you less productive?
· Do you feel overwhelmed by all that has to be done?
· Does it take all your energy to do what you have to do and then have none left over for anything else?
Like the thyroid there is a self test you can do at home which can indicate weakened adrenal glands. It is the inguinal ligament test. The inguinal ligament attaches to the sartorious (which functions to hold the pelvis downward and forward). If the muscle goes weak the pelvis will tilt backwards pulling on the inguinal ligament on that side causing tenderness. If the muscle is tense or tender it indicates weak adrenals. The way to determine this is to palpate the muscle in its upper and lower sections for tenderness. The inguinal ligament goes from the point of the hip bone (ASIS) to the pubic bone along what I call the “crease” where the leg meets the torso. Be willing to use some force when palpating. There will be a difference to feel if push hard enough.
The next logical question is what can I do to improve the health of my adrenal glands? The simple answer is to look at your diet and lifestyle and make the necessary changes.
· Are you getting enough sleep?
· Are you getting enough exercise? Are you getting too much exercise? (Believe it or not there are quite a few people out there who over-exercise or engage in exercises that are increasing their stress response.)
· Do you know stress management techniques you can use to relax yourself and provide relief from the stress response?
· How is my diet influencing my blood sugar and insulin levels? (Remember insulin and cortisol move together, so too much sugar puts additional stress on the adrenal glands.)
In addition to dietary modifications and implementing stress reduction techniques natural solutions to adrenal fatigue are similar to that of the thyroid (and in fact a similar methodology is used for all endocrine issues). Natural solutions for low adrenal function include animal glandular extracts without hormones, specific nutrients, and herbal remedies. The nutrients will be targeted at the specific underlying cause. For example, where Vitamin C or copper is deficient it will be supplemented.
The purpose of the natural solution is to provide the nutrition the adrenal gland needs to resume and support proper function. Just providing hormones does not address the underlying deficiencies and ultimately the health of the gland. In the long run it may make things worse. The negative feedback loop employed by the body tells it there is sufficient hormone in the blood stream so the adrenal glands do not receive any signals to make hormones.
It is important to remember that the adrenal gland is producing a wide variety of hormones, so supplementing with specific hormones may throw the entire system even more out of balance, by creating additional communications challenges for the endocrine system. Therefore, except for extreme cases, it may be best to start with glandular and nutrient support and allow the body to bring itself back into balance naturally.