What are the adrenal glands? - from the blog of Dr. Lauren Gouin, ND

What are Adrenal Glands?

Adrenals: Your Stress Organ

Modern day lifestyles exacerbate a myriad of conditions and are potential causes for many symptoms. Our bodies and organs are receiving challenges our ancestors never saw. Digestion is often compromised with poor eating habits. Respiration is under stress with poor air quality and daily shallow breathing. Some of the most stressed organs, the adrenals, are rarely examined by conventional medicine, but can be linked to many health conditions.

Function

The adrenal glands, sitting right near our kidneys, are responsible for the production of numerous hormones in the body, including cortisol, our primary “fight or flight” response hormone. They also make a small amount of sex hormones as well as a hormone responsible for balancing sodium and potassium in the blood. All of these hormones fluctuate with stress, which are a mechanism our ancestors used to either run from a bear or other threat, or try to fight it. With our modern lifestyle, the threat of bear attacks may be diminished but we frequently encounter stressful situations that provoke our adrenals to a response.

Whole Body Impact

Cortisol readies the body for action, which includes several functions:

  • Increases blood sugar by counteracting insulin
  • Promotes water retention
  • Quiets the Immune system
  • Lowers bone formation
  • Increases blood pressure
  • Reduces serotonin in the brain but increases liver detoxification

All of these functions are important for acute situations, where the body needs to be focused on survival; however, chronic stress can leave cortisol constantly elevated, which could have a negative impact on digestion, bone health, immune function, blood sugar control and mood.

Chronic Stress

The adrenal glands are not designed to produce high amounts of cortisol constantly, and the body is not designed to see elevated cortisol levels chronically. The outcome of sustained high stress levels is that eventually the adrenal glands become fatigued and are unable to produce adequate levels of hormone. At this point however, immune function may be impaired, bone density compromised and the person may be experiencing mood disturbances, insulin resistance, insomnia or other conditions associated with chronic stress. Often times, people experiencing the effects of chronic stress have the symptoms of acute stress with extreme fatigue. This is a classic syndrome seen by naturopathic physicians and has been termed “adrenal fatigue”. Adrenal fatigue can be clinically determined through the use of simple blood tests, evaluating stress hormones including cortisol as well as electrolyte balance.

Solution to Modern Day Stress

“Don’t be so stressed” is a common suggestion to the all of us managing families, careers and finances. Managing stress and establishing normal cortisol levels requires more than just will power; rather multiple levels of intervention are necessary. Lifestyle changes, adequate sleep and nutrition as well as supplementation with specific herbs and nutrients to replenish the adrenals are all part of a well rounded approach to balanced adrenal function.

Appreciating the impact of stress on the body and the importance of a healthy lifestyle can help prevent many of the chronic conditions found in modern society. Adrenal health may be a concern related to many conditions and should be considered in the treatment of chronic disease.

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