About a week ago we discussed the concept of stress as it impacts our body, and one of the most important organs for dealing with stress is our adrenal glands. These small glands sit right above our kidneys, and are a part of the body that most people aren’t too familiar with. So today we are going to dive into what our adrenal glands do every day, and how that can impact us if things don’t go properly.
Adrenal Gland Functions
Inside our bodies, sitting right on top of our kidneys, each of us have two little pyramid shape glands called the adrenal glands. These organs serve as small factories for multiple different hormones that play a vital role in our body’s response to stress. The adrenal gland has two functional parts and the first part is the adrenal medulla, or the inside part. This is where the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are made. These hormones are released into our bloodstream when we are experiencing a stressful event. They impact the whole body, doing things like dilating our pupils, opening up our airways, making us sweat, and raising blood pressure. They are our fight or flight, survival response to stress. The other major part of the adrenal gland is on the outer aspect and is the adrenal cortex. This part of the gland makes our steroid hormones. Steroid hormones include names like aldosterone and cortisol, and also have wide impacts on our bodies. Their functions include regulating kidney function, immune response, blood pressure, fat growth, and even puberty. For both the adrenal medulla and adrenal cortex, because the hormones produced travel around our entire body through our blood stream, the adrenal gland becomes an important player when holistically viewing health.
There are a multitude of different disease processes that can arise when the adrenal glands are not able to sufficiently produce the hormones our bodies requires. Autoimmune diseases and pituitary disorders can greatly impact how our adrenal glands function. Two of the most well-known presentations of adrenal disorders are Cushing syndrome and Addison disease. In Cushing syndrome our bodies have significant changes from a prolonged exposure to too much of the steroid hormone cortisol. This leads to obesity and fat deposits around the face, skin changes, excess sweating, and a fat deposit between the shoulder blades. In Addison disease the adrenal glands are not able to make a sufficient amount of the steroid aldosterone. This leads to dehydration, dizziness, fatigue, and sometimes darkening of the skin. Both Cushing syndrome and Addison disease are serious endocrine disorders that would warrant treatment from a specialist, but are directly related to how our adrenal glands are functioning.
Adrenal fatigue is a relatively controversial idea, which comes from examining what can happen if our bodies are have been in a state of prolonged stress leading to the point where our adrenal glands become exhausted. It is hypothesized that when the adrenal glands have been producing stress-related hormones at an excessive amount for an excessive amount of time, the gland can start to function inadequately. Some proponents of the idea also believe that this leads to a depletion of nutrients required to make steroid hormones. This is different than the disease processes listed above where the cause is an underlying disease, and where controversy in healthcare communities arises. Many common medical publications openly reject the idea adrenal fatigue because the milder form of adrenal insufficiency is not measurable on blood tests and state that it is an inadequate diagnosis. With that being said, the research on health concerns involving prolonged periods of stress is abundant. Stress has been linked to chronic pain, cardiovascular changes, digestive disorders, insomnia, mood disorders, obesity, and diabetes. It is not unreasonable, to think that a gland placed under abnormal conditions would be altered in function. Our adrenal glands are massively important in producing the hormones for both short and long term stress responses, and ignoring their role in seeking a holistic health approach would be an oversight in our opinion.
Healthy Activities for Our Adrenals
While doing research on the adrenal glands it can be easy to get caught up in the many disorders resulting from their inadequate function, but how can we keep them healthy and maintain them in the absence of these conditions? I want to end this article with two simple health tips for keeping our adrenal glands and stress response healthy. The first is to eat healthy fats! The adrenal cortex is where our steroid hormones are produced, and the first building block of all steroid hormones is cholesterol. In our culture, many times people are afraid of eating fat and cholesterol, but it is important to remember that there are good fats and cholesterols that our bodies need. Some excellent foods for this would be oats, salmon, chia seeds, walnuts, and even avocados all contain healthy forms of fats which our bodies need to regulate inflammation and produce appropriate hormones. The next health tip is to get a good night’s sleep! Our stress hormones, in particular cortisol, are very intimately related to our sleep cycle. As we sleep less, our circulating cortisol goes up, leading to things like difficulty losing weight, and decreased immune functions. Many patients that we interact with do not prioritize sleep near as much as they should. Many understand that eating healthy and exercising regularly are important for health, but getting adequate sleep is equally so. So get a good night’s sleep and give your adrenal glands a break!