What do Adrenal Glands do? Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment
Anatomy and Physiology:
The adrenals sit on top of the kidneys in your lower back, they are two glands combined as one. The purpose of the adrenal glands is to manage the stress in the body. Stress comes as a result of infections, external factors, heavy metals, chemical stressors, etc. These causatives begin to stress the body’s overall function and the adrenal glands respond to the stress on the system. The center of the gland generates adrenaline or epinephrine and is managed by the autonomic nervous system. The outer part of the gland, the cortex, produces the many hormones to manage stress such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, testosterone, estrogen, pregnenolone, aldosterone, and progesterone; to name a few hormones that are related to the adrenal glands.
Cortisol raises blood sugar as well as blood pressure levels while modulating immune function. Cortisol levels if low create fatigue, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, increase in allergies, and an inability to deal with stress. This hormone also relates to weight gain for many individuals.
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine is the stress response and often can be triggered based on emotional as well as mental stressors. These are often perceived threats from the outside world. These can be small perceptions of stress, prolonged stress as well as short-term stressors. In the event of acute stress the body, the body prepares for fight or flight mode which can raise heart rate as well as blood pressure while blood is being diverted from less needed areas such as the digestive system, the heart, the brain, etc.
The primary hormones released by the adrenal glands are glucocorticoids, which can shift biological functions of the body. These hormones mobilize proteins, fatty acids while increasing the liver’s ability to process glucose. These actions primary end result is to raise blood sugar. When stabilizing the health of the body it is imperative to have stable adrenal glands and thus stable blood sugar. Without the stabilization of these two organs, it is very difficult to build health.
The sympathetic nervous system continues to respond to the stressors thus now triggering the pituitary gland to begin secreting ACTH, which drives DHEA. The body attempts to respond to the excess cortisol production and thus begins to downregulate the sensitivity to cortisol. This can lead to a whole host of symptoms. Some common symptoms include insulin resistance, obesity, hypertension, elevated triglycerides, and elevated lipids in the bloodstream. Excess fatigue, depression, headaches, inability to tolerate alcohol, sensitivity to carbohydrates, and inflammation in the body are all additional signs of adrenal hyperfunction.
- Recurrent Infections
- Recurrent Sore Throats
- Crashing during stress
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness upon standing
- Chronic Fatigue
- Thyroid Imbalances
Prolonged external stress factors such as excessive work, marital problems, relationship concerns, financial stress, divorce, etc
Chronic infections such as bacteria, viruses, molds, yeasts, and parasitic infections untreated or underlying
Lifestyle factors such as not getting enough sleep, hydration, and food. Also eating heavily processed foods, and drinks, artificial sweeteners, and chemical foods.
Heavy metal as well as toxic chemical exposures from our environment. We are littered with numerous endotoxins to which create imbalances in the system both mentally as well as biological
Some would consider that adrenal fatigue does not exist. HPA dysregulation, physical overload emotional overload, fatigue, and burnout are all symptoms relating to an underlying cause. The adrenal glands are responding to the underlying imbalances in health so stabilizing these although important is not the underlying cause of why the adrenal glands are hyperfunctioning. As we get those stabilized, temporarily, we are able to center the body to allow for deeper understanding to be had, in terms of causative. Sometimes just the stabilization of electrolytes and mineral balances can stop the body from spinning long enough to catch clues as to what is going on deeper in the tissues. Even if a person is unconscious to the adrenal imbalances doesn’t mean that they do not exist. People that often are type personalities, always doing and seldom being, fast-paced, and imbalanced are also not immune to underlying causes that can be driving their health in the opposite direction towards disease. The disease is the breakdown and accumulation of imbalances and not a destination. One does not wake up and have a disease but merely generates it over time through a series of imbalances in health.
Childhood trauma and experiences also contribute to a person’s adrenal gland imbalance. Often high DHEA and off-centered cortisol and epinephrine, as well as norepinephrine tests, can reveal the long-term effect of childhood trauma. Through shifting one’s perception from a place of fear, and trauma to a place of freedom and joy a person can then shift their biochemistry. The adrenal glands are to help us cope and survive stress and therefore secrete precise, minute, balanced, steroid hormones. They are programmed to respond to inner physical, emotional, and psychological environment which is based on perception and not always reality. It is very subtle and therefore modern medicine does not acknowledge its existence because it occurs subclinical and is based on contributing factors such as chronic infections, environmental stressors, etc.
People with adrenal fatigue often use coffee or colas to get through the day with a feeling of unwell or “gray” feelings. It then creates the foundation for other conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, hypoglycemia, diabetes, allergies, etc. These people may appear lazy or unmotivated but in actuality are having to push themselves much harder in order to complete day to day tasks. The hypoadrenal function can create anxiety as well as depression generating increased fears, apprehension, confusion, concentration difficulties, with less memory recall. A person may have all or just a select number of these symptoms. Erratic or abnormal blood sugar also ensues in addition to tendencies towards more arthritic pain and decreased immune response.
Those driving him or herself constantly who does not get enough rest as well as relaxation to enjoy life can be subject to this condition. Perfectionists or those who are never satisfied under constant pressure can also lead to adrenal imbalances. People who feel trapped and helpless, who feel overwhelmed by many difficulties, who experience severe or chronic emotional or physical traumas also have some degree of adrenal imbalances.
Many lab tests are available to measure the adrenal gland function. I prefer salivary cortisol panels over blood as salivary panels are considered the gold standard when testing hormone function. Basic lab work can also give indications as to imbalances in the adrenal glands.
Chronic elevated or depressed WBC (white blood cells) can indicate chronic infections. Low-grade infections are chronic stress to the body and can be in the form of bacteria, viruses, molds.
RBC or low red blood cell counts can indicate chronic iron deficiencies from diet or malabsorption issues such as SIBO, Chrohns, Colitis, etc
Low level of platelets can point to heavy metal toxicities, vitamin d deficiencies, as well as potential autoimmune conditions.
High levels of liver enzymes such as AST and ALT can point to etiology in the liver
High levels of BUN or creatinine can also point to etiology in the kidneys
The kidneys and the liver both are primary filters for the body and stress on these organs can indicate heavy metal or chemical stressors.
Treatments vary depending on the person, the causes, and particular case history. These recommendations are made not to replace a trained healthcare professional, yet only to enlighten the individual on the possibilities of natural healthcare options. Rebalancing the adrenal glands is a bit of an art and is very different for everyone. A type a person is going to be treated very differently than a person to which internalizes stress.
Diet begins everything. Eliminating processed sugars, dyes, colors, additives, etc is key. Decreasing stimulants while increasing fresh fruits and veggies is critical to building anyone’s health. Supplemental support may be necessary for terms of Vitamin C, Electrolytes, Minerals, B6, Pantothenic acid, etc.
While some botanical medicines such as adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Rhodiola are also beneficial for balancing the adrenal glands overall health.
Lifestyle factors such as getting to bed by 10 pm at night; sleeping until 9 am whenever possible or at least maintaining 8 solid hours of sleep is critical. Moving the body as well as breathing deeply can also be beneficial while managing stress.
Keeping a journal, meditation, tapping, and exercise are all great things in order to do in order to manage chronic stress responses in the body.
Avoiding being harsh or criticising oneself, getting overtired, coffee, pushing yourself and being around those that are emotionally or energetically draining are also contributing factors to adrenal fatigue and adrenal imbalances.
We often work with people with a multitude of stages of adrenal fatigue and guide them through a process and journey of self-healing. It truly takes time and effort in order to restore these glands. It is a practice and one that can be overwhelming to begin, however, Dr. Erica Steele, Naturopathic Doctor, and Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner has trained both in the science as well the art of healing in order to help you to get back to your path to recovery. We encourage you to attend one of our seminars or come in for a 15-minute complimentary wellness visit in order to discover how natural healthcare can change your life for the better.
All information contained in this blog post is intended for informational and educational purposes only, and is neither intended nor suited to be a replacement or substitute for professional medical treatment nor for professional medical advice relative to a specific medical question or condition.