Adrenal glands are triangle-shaped, orange-colored endocrine glands that sits on top of the kidneys. They measure almost one-half inch in height & 3 inches in length and are the part of the body responsible for releasing 3 different classes of hormones. Their name directly relates to their location (ad—near or at, renes—kidneys). They are responsible for production & secretion of hormones & aid the body’s reactions to stress & danger.
Each gland consists of a medulla (the center of the gland) which is surrounded by the cortex. The adrenal cortex & adrenal medulla have very different functions. The main distinctions between them is that the hormones released by the adrenal cortex are necessary for life; those secreted by the adrenal medulla are not. The outer part of the adrenal gland called the cortex produces steroid hormones necessary for fluid and electrolyte (salt) balance in the body such as cortisol (which helps regulate metabolism and helps your body respond to stress), aldosterone (which helps control blood pressure) and testosterone (sex steroid). The inner part of the adrenal gland called the medulla produces nonessential (that is, you don’t need them to live) hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are commonly called adrenaline (which helps your body react to stress) and noradrenaline. The adrenal glands are also an important source of sex steroids, such as estrogen and testosterone. Under normal circumstances, the highest levels of stress hormones are released in the morning and lower levels are released at night. Cortisol participates in the metabolism of carbohydrates & regulates blood sugar. Adrenaline increases metabolic rate & makes other physiological changes to help the body respond to danger. When the body experiences stress or danger, the adrenal glands release adrenaline & cortisol. Adrenaline hormone increases alertness, while cortisol hormone converts protein into energy and releases stores of glucose for energy to meet the demands of a stressful or dangerous situation. The adrenal response speeds up heart & respiratory rates and raises blood pressure. Muscles tense and digestion slows down. Every adrenal gland function prepares the body for attack and each is an ancient human response. Adrenal functions restores normal levels of activity & hormones when stress passes.
These hormones control many important functions in the body, such as:
- Maintaining metabolic processes such as managing blood sugar levels & regulating inflammation
- Regulating the balance of salt & water
- Controlling “fight or flight” response to stress
- Maintaining pregnancy
- Initiating & controlling sexual maturation during childhood & puberty
Adrenal Gland Disorders
There are multiple reasons why the adrenal glands might not work as they should. When adrenal function is impaired, serious disorders can arise. When these glands produce more or less hormones than your body needs, you can become sick. The problem could be the adrenal gland itself or the root cause may be due to a defect in another gland. Fatigue is a primary symptom of adrenal glands impairment. Symptoms such as weakness, headaches, allergies & blood sugar issues can indicate impaired adrenal function. If the adrenal cortex is underactive, serious illness can occur. Below are the most common disorders and diseases of the adrenal glands:
- Addison’s Disease – This rare disorder may affect anyone at any age. This disease develops when the adrenal cortex fails to produce enough cortisol and aldosterone hormones.
- Cushing’s Syndrome - Cushing’s syndrome is an uncommon condition that is essentially the opposite of Addison’s disease. Its caused by the overproduction of hormone cortisol in the body. For example, adrenal tumors can cause the body to produce too much cortisol. In some cases children are born with a form of adrenal hyperplasia that leads to Cushing syndrome. Or, certain medications can cause the body to make too much cortisol.
- Adrenal Cancer – Adrenal cancer is a rare aggressive cancer. Malignant adrenal tumors are rarely confined to the adrenal glands—they tend to spread to other organs and cause adverse changes within the body because of the excess hormones they produce.
- Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia - This is a genetic disorder of adrenal gland deficiency in which the body doesn’t make enough of the hormone cortisol. People with congenital adrenal hyperplasia may also have other hormone imbalances such as not making enough aldosterone (which maintains a balance of water and salt), but making too much androgen.
- Pituitary Tumors -The pituitary gland is located in the brain and helps to regulate the activity of most other glands in the body including the adrenal glands. In rare cases, benign (non-cancerous) tumors may grow on the pituitary gland, which may restrict the hormones it releases.
When a person is always in stressful situations, their hormone levels stay raised and create loss of energy. Proper rest is essential for adrenal health. Wise dietary habits also are necessary. Eat small meals and snacks frequently throughout the day. This helps regulates blood sugar and lightens the effects of hunger-induced stress on the adrenal system. Eat plenty of fresh organic fruits & green leafs. Brewer’s yeast, brown rice, legumes & whole grains are essential for adrenal health. Garlic, onions, shiitake mushrooms & pearl barley are especially helpful for their germanium, which may stimulate the immune system. Alcohol, caffeine & fatty foods are toxic to adrenal and the other glands. Adrenal gland disorder treatments depends on the specific disorder or the specific cause of the disorder. For example:
- The treatment for Cushing’s syndrome depends on the cause. If excess cortisol is caused by medication, your care provider can change dosages or try a different medication to correct the problem. If Cushing’s syndrome is caused by the body making too much cortisol, treatments may include oral medications, surgery, radiation or a combination of these treatments.
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia cannot be cured, but can be treated & controlled. People with congenital adrenal hyperplasia can take medication to help replace hormones their bodies not making. Some people with congenital adrenal hyperplasia only need these medications when they are sick, but others need to take them every day.
- Doctors can successfully treat most pituitary tumors with microsurgery, radiation therapy, surgery, drugs or combination of these treatments. Surgery is the current treatment of choice for tumors that grow rapidly especially if they threaten or affect vision. The treatment for other pituitary tumors differs from the type & size of the tumor.
The adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands) produce their hormones in response to stress. And rightly so—the adrenal glands are arguably best known for secreting the hormone adrenaline which rapidly prepares your body to spring into action in a stressful situation. They are responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response. In stressed situations, they raise blood pressure, transfer blood from intestines to extremities, increase heart rate, suppress your immune system and increase your blood’s clotting ability. People with weak adrenal glands frequently crave coffee & sugar, as well as salt. Sugar and caffeine stimulate the adrenal glands. To effectively treat the adrenal glands, you must eliminate as much stress from your life as possible. But the adrenal glands contribute to your health even at times when your body is not under extreme stress. In fact, they release hormones that are essential for you to live.