They may be small, but the adrenal glands are mighty little buggers. Small and triangular-shaped, one gland is situated atop each kidney, like a king and his queen ruling their kingdom (which, by the way, is your entire body). You literally cannot live without the hormones secreted by your adrenal glands. Adrenal glands produce steroid hormones like cortisol and aldosterone. They also make precursors that eventually morph into the sex steroids androgen and estrogen. A completely different part of the adrenal glands makes adrenaline. So, what happens when the adrenal system is not functioning at optimal levels? Disease rears its ugly head.
Adrenal System 101
We already stressed the importance of the adrenal glands as integral to our biological functions and responses. Let us break it down a bit more to explain why they are so important.
Your adrenal glands produce hormones that regulate your blood pressure, immune system, and metabolism. They are made up of two parts, the cortex and the medulla. Each is responsible for producing different hormones our bodies need to function. If the adrenal glands do not secrete enough hormones, we can develop adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s disease.
Each zone of the adrenal cortex produces a specific hormone. Of these, there are four key hormones:
Cortisol comes from the zona fasciculata and controls the body’s use of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It suppresses inflammation, regulates blood pressure, increases blood sugar, and can decrease bone formation. It also controls the sleep-wake cycle. So, if our bodies produce too little or too much cortisol, the quality of our sleep suffers.
Aldosterone is produced by the zona glomerulosa and is vital to controlling blood pressure and certain electrolytes.
DHEA and Androgenic Steroids come from the zona reticularis and are considered weak male hormones. The ovaries in females convert them into estrogens while the male testes convert them into androgens.
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine come from the inner part of the adrenal gland known as the adrenal medulla. These hormones control heart rate and contractions, blood flow to the muscles and brain, and metabolism.
Signs the Adrenal System is Over-Taxed
Adrenal fatigue is the buzzword healthcare practitioners and wellness gurus use to describe what happens when your adrenal glands are misbehaving. When you push your body into a state of chronic stress and adrenal insufficiency, it has difficulty regulating cortisol production. So, why is this such a big problem, you ask? Cortisol is a hormone our body releases when it is in “fight or flight” mode. Since most of the cells in our bodies have cortisol receptors, this means cortisol is used for a variety of things in our bodies. Among the most important:
Blood sugar regulation
Reduction of inflammation
When the body produces too much cortisol, it can throw the entire body out of whack. Some of the more unpleasant symptoms include weight gain, acne, thinning skin, muscle weakness, irritability, headache, and high blood pressure. If your body continues to deal with higher-than-normal levels of cortisol, it is known as Cushing Syndrome. Unfortunately, women are three times more likely to develop Cushing’s than men, according to the National Institute of Health.
When your adrenal system has reached its limit, it will send warning signs. Here are some of the most common ones:
Low blood pressure
Adrenal fatigue is not the only complication of an over-taxed adrenal system. Something known as adrenal insufficiency also is a repercussion. Some of the symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are similar to adrenal fatigue, such as chronic fatigue. But other symptoms generally point to adrenal insufficiency. They are loss of appetite, stomach pain, muscle weakness, and unexplained weight loss.
If your adrenal system is screaming out for help, now is the time to take action. Show them some much-needed love and appreciation to get things back on track.
How to Show Your Adrenal Glands Some Love and Appreciation
If your adrenal glands are sending you an S.O.S., there are steps you can take to let them know you care and to get them back in optimal working condition.
Toss the toxic garbage Our environments are full of toxins and other harsh chemicals that can stress the adrenal system. If you are drowning yourself in pretty-smelling perfumes, you may want to back off for a bit. The same goes for extra-smelly household cleaners, room fresheners, or anything that gives off gasses. While some of these things may trigger our olfactory senses and trick us into thinking we have a clean and fresh environment, what we are instead doing is creating toxic air that can affect how our adrenal system functions. Adding some large plants to help clean the air, as well as running a few air purifying systems in your living space, can help. Some essential oils also can help clear the air when diffused. One last tip: cut back on the amount of perfume and scented personal care products you are using on your body each day.
Get enough sleep We have all heard the recommendations before: adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night to maintain health and well-being. When we fail to give our bodies proper rest, it affects the adrenal system in some bad ways. For starters, it taxes our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illness and disease. It also can cause our bodies to over-produce cortisol, which affects our metabolism (and not in a good way). People who do not get enough sleep can find themselves not only exhausted, but they also may find a few extra pounds creeping around their mid-sections. If you are having difficulty sleeping, avoid using technology for an hour before bedtime, make your bedroom as dark as possible, and consider diffusing some essential oils like lavender or clary sage.
Reduce caffeine and sugar intake We know. How dare we suggest you cannot have caffeine and sugar? The sad truth is, consuming too much of either mess with the adrenal glands. Both sugar and caffeine increase cortisol and epinephrine while our bodies are supposed to be at rest. The unpleasant result is our bodies feel stressed when they are supposed to be relaxing, triggering the kind of fight-or-flight response that releases excess amounts of cortisol. If our bodies release cortisol when we do not need it, we end up dealing with cravings that lead to that spare tire look that is difficult to shake. While you do not have to cut out caffeine and sugar completely, it is a good idea to reduce intake to one cup of coffee or other caffeinated drink per day and to get your sugar from natural sources (think fruit instead of baked goods).
Consume adrenal-friendly foods Not all foods are created equal. If you lean toward consuming foods that are high in saturated fats, artificial sweeteners, and other “fillers,” you may push your body into adrenal fatigue. Eating a diet that is rich in high-protein foods, vegetables, and whole grains is the best way to help your adrenal glands increase your energy levels naturally. Some foods should be restricted if you wish to keep your adrenal glands living their best lives, as they are demanding on the adrenal system. They include artificial sweeteners, white sugar and flour, alcohol, caffeine, soda, fried foods, overly-processed foods, and fast food. Again, you do not have to totally eliminate these foods, but they should not be consumed daily, either. Treat yourself once in a while.
Engage in gentle exercise Yes, we know this goes against the grain with what is sometimes recommended by exercise gurus and healthcare professionals. But when your adrenal system is struggling, vigorous exercise can cause more harm than good. When you engage in endurance exercises and intense cardio, the body processes it as a stressor. And we know what happens when our bodies feel stressed: they release cortisol. Do not get us wrong. We are not suggesting you should never exercise. Just do not engage in high-level exercises every time. Overtraining can have devastating effects on the adrenal system. Walking, yoga, tai chi, and stretching are all good gentle ways to exercise without overstimulating your adrenal glands.
If you try all of these suggestions and nothing seems to get your adrenal glands working properly again, it may be time to consult a healthcare professional. They can rule out contributing factors and help find solutions that work best for your body.
The Skinny on the Adrenal System
In case you have not figured it out yet, the adrenal system is pretty important. It deserves your undying devotion – and attention – to ensure your body stays in tip-top condition. A poorly-functioning adrenal system can cause more than just a spare tire. It can wreak havoc on your entire body, weakening your immune system, and making you susceptible to disease. Do not wait until your body cries out for help. Take the necessary steps to keep your adrenal glands and system working at 100 percent.
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