Why are the Adrenal Glands so important for good health and wellness?
Adrenal glands produce the stress response hormones. They play a major role in our “fight or flight” response, heart rate, blood pressure and other critical body functions.
While not all stress is bad, it can be a triggering or aggravating factor for many diseases and conditions. It is therefore vital to have healthy adrenal gland function.
If the stress response goes on for too long or becomes chronic, adrenal glands have to work overtime, which may lead to adrenal dysfunction. When this happens, the adrenal glands produce too little or too much cortisol to compensate and preserve homeostasis in the body.
Unfortunately, the statistics1 of stress in the US are very concerning: 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress and 73% experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. A third feel they are living with extreme stress.
1 The American Institute of Stress
Physical symptoms of stress are usually fatigue, headache, upset stomach, muscle tension, change in appetite (cravings), change in sex drive.
Psychological symptoms include mood changes, irritability, anger, lack of energy.
“Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress can harm your health. As individuals and as a species, we must recognize the signs, adapt and take action to manage stress better.”
-Karine Romain, APRN
What is Adrenal Dysfunction?
To understand what Adrenal Dysfunction really is, one must understand what adrenal glands are and do for the body. Adrenal Dysfunction – aka Adrenal Fatigue or Adrenal Hypofunction – occurs when the adrenal glands produce too much or too little hormones. Not to be confused with Adrenal Disorders, such as Addison’s Disease and Cushing’s Syndrome, Adrenal Dysfunction, also known as Adrenal Fatigue or Hypoadrenia is a known syndrome but is not an official diagnosis due to its complexity.
Because adrenal fatigue is not caused by some physical damage of the adrenal glands or some endocrine malfunction, there is no “official” diagnostic for it and therefore, the condition is not treated. People are told they either have normal endocrine function or failing endocrine function, like in Addison’s Disease. We believe that adrenal fatigue is a syndrome that is between the binary normal/failing approach. Just because the adrenal glands are not failing does not mean their function is optimized. If a car’s engine was running in the red line for long periods of time, it would eventually break down. Functional/integrative medicine thinks it is the same for adrenals. Being within the “normal range” defined by mainstream medicine does not help people who have clear symptoms.
Regardless of an “official diagnostic” or not, positive lifestyle changes and chronic stress reduction can only help.
Where are the Adrenal Glands located?
The “Adrenals” are 2 glands located on top of your kidneys.
The Brain / Adrenals connection
Part of the endocrine central nervous system, the Hypothalamus and Pituitary Gland are located in the brain but also work with the adrenal glands to regulate the stress response.
Because Adrenal Fatigue is linked to stress, it is important to understand how the stress response system works.
How does the Stress Response System work?
When we feel stressed, the Hypothalamus is activated and sends signals (CHR, Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone) to the Pituitary Gland, which secretes another hormone called ACTH (AdrenoCorticoTropic Hormone). This triggers the production of cortisol by the Adrenal Glands. Cortisol then enables the body to maintain steady level of blood sugar, which helps the body cope with the stressors.
When the adrenal cortex releases cortisol, it releases stored glucose from the liver. However, the immune system is suppressed while this happens.
This is why chronic stress can be so damaging to our general health.
What do Adrenal Glands do?
Adrenal glands secrete hormones that help regulate critical body functions such as your metabolism, blood pressure and other essential functions.
Some of the hormones produced are cortisol, cortisone, estrogen, progesterone and steroids. The adrenals also produce chemicals such as adrenaline, nor-epinephrine, and dopamine. Here are the basic function of these hormones and chemicals:
- Cortisol – This is your body’s main stress hormone.
- Estrogen – Primary female sex hormone, estrogen is responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system.
- Progesterone – This steroid hormone is involved in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and embryogenesis.
- Steroids – Anabolic steroid hormone.
Impact on the Immune System
The impact of stress on the body’s defenses against illnesses is three-fold:
- Stress increases the heart rate and blood pressure.
- Stress hormones suppress the immune system.
- It disturbs the digestive system.
The combination of these 3 factors increase the risk of illness, especially if the stress is chronic.
While short-term suppression of the immune system may not be dangerous, long-term suppression makes our body vulnerable to diseases, infection and other ailments.
How Stress Affects Other Systems In Your Body
Beyond the effects on the central nervous and endocrine systems, stress can greatly impact the following systems:
- Respiratory and cardiovascular systems – Under stress, we breathe faster so that oxygen-rich blood can distributed to the body. The stress response also increases our heart rate, restricts our blood vessels and therefore raises the blood pressure, which raises the risk for stroke or heart attack. Chronic stress puts constant stress on the heart.
- Muscular system – As part of the stress response, our muscles contract. This muscle tension can lead to headaches and body aches.
- Digestive system – Because everything is connected, the digestive system can also be upset by stress and the increased production of blood sugar by the liver. A constant over-production of glucose may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Sexuality and reproductive system – With chronic stress, testosterone for men can decrease, which can affect sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction. For women, it can affect the menstrual cycle. There is also a mind component since stress can be mentally exhausting.
Because stress is a fact of life, it affects everyone. The difference is in the level of stress, acute or chronic and each person’s ability to deal with stress.
Some people may have a predisposition to manage stress less effectively due to genetics and other factors. What something may be stressful for one person is not to another.
The symptoms of stress and adrenal dysfunction will vary from one person to another. For example, some may have headaches, while others may experience digestive issues or insomnia.
Chronic stress is likely to cause more frequent and severe infections.
Regardless of the severity of stress, nearly everyone is affected and it is important to be as resilient as possible.
Generally speaking, if you feel constantly stressed, chances are you have some of the following symptoms and adrenal fatigue.
- Constant stress
- Crash of energy
- Reliance on caffeine and energy drinks
- Frequent lengthy infections
- Racing mind at bedtime
- Waking up in the middle of the night
- Body aches
- Joint pain
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Low blood pressure
- Craving salty foods
- Craving carbs
- Hair hair
- Brain fog
- Skin discoloration (hyper-pigmentation)
- Acute stress: The body experiences or perceives an immediate threat and responds with the fight or flight. Typically, this lasts about 90 minutes, then the metabolism returns to normal.
- Chronic stress: The body experiences constant and cumulative stress from recurring situations or conditions. It is usually associated. Some examples of chronic stress are:
- Lack of work-life balance
- High stress job
- Financial hardship
- Conflicts in relationships
- Daily stressful situations such as being stuck in traffic
- Dealing with a chronic illness yourself or helping someone with a chronic illness
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Before any treatment can start, obviously some testing must occur. Due to its complexity, a holistic approach is needed and diseases must be ruled out first. A thorough assessment and blood panel will be recommended and salivary testing will follow among other tests to establish baseline and deficiencies.
The treatment usually consists of correcting 5 main components:
- Nutrition / diet
- Supplements to correct underlying deficiencies
- Exercise routine
- Stress reduction techniques
- Lifestyle changes
If fatigue is a daily struggle and mainstream medicine or home remedies did not improve your condition, it is time to give your adrenals the attention they deserve. To get started we recommend scheduling an appointment to get a thorough holistic assessment and comprehensive testing.
Adrenal fatigue is not easily recognizable because chronic fatigue can be related to other conditions. However, studies have shown that high/low cortisol levels found in a saliva test are associated with a suppressed immune system, increased blood pressure and heart rate.