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Adrenal Glands: Understanding Their Function
Long-term High Cortisol Tears You Down
Your adrenals are small glands (about the size of a Brazil nut) located on top of your kidneys. Their basic task is to rush your body into “fight or flight” mode when required by stresses, by releasing specific hormones.
The release of hormones is a primitive, instinctive response. Healthy adrenal glands will instantly increase your heart rate and blood pressure, release your stored energy, slow your digestion, and sharpen all your senses. These functions have priority over all other body functions (to ensure survival) and if your body is healthy, the effects do not last very long.
These days, we don’t have to worry about being eaten or trampled in the wild. But our bodies automatically react in the same way when under physical, emotional or mental stress.
And many of us live with this constant stress, to the point of exhaustion. Instead of the traditional, occasional stresses that are followed by rest, many people are constantly overworked and undernourished, with inadequate rest. Every challenge to your body and mind creates a demand on your adrenal glands.
Over time and with repeated stresses, the function of your adrenal glands becomes impaired. Adrenal fatigue usually throws a person into “survival mode”, reacting as if they are under attack, and being disconnected with their physical body.
Adrenal dysfunction may be a factor in many related conditions, including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, premature menopause and others. It may also produce a host of other unpleasant symptoms, from acne to hair loss.
The first step is to have a complete physical examination, to rule out disease or other factors. With clear, focused effort and intention, the adrenals can be restored to health.
Hormones Produced by Your Adrenal Glands
The center of your adrenal glands produce adrenaline, and is under the control of the autonomic nervous system.
The outer part of the adrenal gland (the cortex) produces many important hormones, including:
This hormone helps to keep salt and water balanced in the body.
Estrogen and testosterone:
Your adrenals (as well as ovaries & testicles) produce these hormones in small (but significant) amounts. Half of a woman’s testosterone is produced in the adrenals.
The adrenal glands increase their production of cortisol in response to stress. Among other things, cortisol raises your blood sugar, pressure, and moderates immune function. If cortisol is low, you have fatigue, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, poor immune function, an increased tendency to allergies, environmental sensitivity, and an inability to deal with stress. Cortisol helps you meet stress challenges by converting proteins into energy, releasing glycogen and counteracting inflammation. In the short term, this is normal and healthy.
The Destructive Side of Cortisol
When high levels of cortisol are sustained for long periods of time (usually due to high-stress lifestyles), it begins to tear down your body. Sustained high cortisol destroys healthy muscle and bone, slows down healing & normal cell replacement, impairs vital hormone production, digestion, metabolism, mental function, interferes with healthy endocrine function, and weakens your immune system.
What Cortisol Does
- Mobilizes and increases amino acids, the building blocks of protein, in the blood and liver.
- Stimulates the liver to convert amino acids to glucose, the primary fuel for energy production.
- Stimulates increased glycogen in the liver. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose.
- Mobilizes and increases fatty acids in the blood (from fat cells) to be used as fuel for energy production.
- Counteracts inflammation and allergies.
- Prevents the loss of sodium in urine and thus helps maintain blood volume and blood pressure.
- Maintains resistance to stress (e.g., infections, physical trauma, temperature extremes, emotional trauma, etc.).
- Maintains mood and emotional stability.
- Diminishes cellular utilization of glucose.
- Increases blood sugar levels.
- Decreases protein synthesis.
- Increases protein breakdown that can lead to muscle wasting.
- Causes demineralization of bone that can lead to osteoporosis.
- Interferes with skin regeneration and healing.
- Causes shrinking of lymphatic tissue
- Diminishes lymphocyte numbers and functions
- Lessens SIgA (secretory antibody productions). This immune system suppression may lead to increased susceptibility to allergies, infections, and degenerative disease.
Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S):
The most abundant hormone produced by the adrenal cortex.
If it’s low, you feel poorly. There are numerous illnesses with low levels of both DHEA and magnesium, therefore a possible connection between these essential chemicals emerges. With few exceptions, low or deficient DHEA is found in every illness.
Patients often feel dramatically better when their DHEA-S levels are brought to the mid-normal range (for a 29 year-old). DHEA-S levels normally decline with age, and appear to drop prematurely in chronic fatigue patients.
Functions of DHEA
- Functions as an androgen (a male hormone) with anabolic activity. Anabolic refers to the building or synthesis of tissues.
- Is a precursor that is converted to testosterone (a male hormone). Is a precursor to estrogen (a female anabolic hormone)
- Reverses immune suppression caused by excess cortisol levels.
- Improves resistance against viruses, bacteria and Candida albicans, parasites, allergies, and cancer.
- Stimulates bone deposition and remodeling to prevent osteoporosis.
- Improves cardiovascular status by lowering total cholesterol and LDL levels, thereby lessening incidences of heart attack.
- Increases muscle mass. Decreases percentage of body fat.
- Involved in the thyroid gland’s conversion of the less active T4 to the more active T3.
- Reverses many of the unfavorable effects of excess cortisol.
- Improves energy/vitality, sleep, premenstrual symptoms, and mental clarity.
- Accelerates recovery from any kind of acute stress (e.g., insufficient sleep, excessive exercise, mental strain, etc.).