Adrenal Dysfunction...An American Epidemic
It’s 8:00 at night on a Monday evening and you’re just getting home from picking up the children at soccer practice. Long before this though you woke up at 5:30 am. You were able to get the kids ready for school, cleaned up the house, worked all day, managed to hit the gym afterwards, quickly rushed to the grocery to buy dinner, and THEN went to pick up the kids. Not to mention all the other events that had occurred within your day like dealing with your overbearing boss, or how you came home from work to a burst pipe and your basement was flooded. You get the picture. People today are overworked, burnt out, and stressed to the max. We go, go, go, all day long! In America, this is considered the norm. What does this mean for our health though?
Adrenal Gland Physiology
This is where our adrenal glands come into place. The adrenals are two triangular endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidney, one on each side. The medulla, which is the center of the gland, is responsible for secreting epinephrine and norepinephrine. The cortex, the outer part of the gland, produces hormones such as cortisone and aldosterone which are responsible for regulating fluid balance in the body and adjusting the stress response, also known as our “fight or flight”. Cortisol plays a major role in our sleep cycle, immune system function, and metabolic metabolism, while aldosterone is needed to regulate our blood pressure. The adrenals also secrete a small amount of sex hormones including estrogen and testosterone. Knowing all of this, it is easy to see just how important these tiny but powerful glands really are!
Adrenal Gland Disorders
There are several well-known disorders associated with the adrenal glands including Cushing’s syndrome, Addison’s disease, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and adrenal cancer. This article is going to focus on another modern epidemic, something known as “adrenal fatigue.” This is simply when our adrenals are maxed at, and functioning at a suboptimal level. Think about it this way, our ancestors were hard-wired to use their fight or flight, aka their stress response, hunting for food or running from a bear. Today we’re running on fight or flight all day long! In today’s society, we don’t stop from the minute we wake up, until the second we go to bed. Between managing our careers, raising a family, maintaining a social life, exercising, appointments, errands, and the list goes on, we don’t even stop to breathe sometimes. On top of this we’re waking up super early and going to bad extremely late. Our sleep cycles are a mess. Add to the mix environmental toxins, inflammatory diets, the pharmaceuticals we’re prescribed, and we have a recipe for disaster.
Adrenal fatigue can come about in many ways. The most common causes include chronic stress, childhood trauma, physical illness, and over-training at the gym. At first you can still thrive in the stress, but as time goes on eventually you feel “unwell” until the day you completely crash and burn. Many people are living in this “crash and burn” state today. Depending on where you are on the stress curve will determine which treatments you need. You may have excess cortisol being secreted on a daily basis, meaning your adrenals are still functioning, but working overtime, OR, on the other hand you may be in that “crash and burn” state also known as adrenal fatigue. The goal in this state would be to increase cortisol levels by treating the adrenals so that they can once again function properly.
Adrenal dysfunction correlates with many different areas in the body. For instance, I believe many of women’s menopausal symptoms stem from poor adrenal function. Once women stop ovulating and producing the high levels of sex hormones at the level of the ovary, it is the adrenal’s job to take over and produce hormones like estrogen. However, women today no longer even have this powerful gland to help them transition into menopause because it’s been burnt out from years of chronic stress and poor lifestyle habits. This exacerbates a woman’s symptoms of hot flashes, thinning skin, weight gain, and so forth. Basically, by treating the adrenal’s we can help balance a woman’s hormones and make menopause much easier. This is just one example of how by treating the adrenal glands, we can bring another part of the body back into balance.
Adrenal Gland Testing and Treatment
The first step to understanding exactly where you are on the stress scale is to run labs that are able to measure how well your adrenals are functioning. These tests include the salivary cortisol x 4 and the AM cortisol, serum. Your doctor can explain these labs in office. Also, since the thyroid and adrenals run hand in hand, thyroid labs should be done as well. The symptoms you’re experiencing will also help determine if you’re experiencing a cortisol excess or adrenal fatigue.
People experiencing high stress will be secreting high cortisol into their system. Symptoms will include insomnia, anxiety, irritability, sugar cravings, weakened immunity, abdominal weight gain, and much more. People who have entered that “crash and burn” state will be experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, reduced stress tolerance, insomnia, chemical sensitivity, dizziness, salt/sweet cravings, and much more. These are very common symptoms and most people never attribute them to adrenal dysfunction. However, this is an area that needs to be addressed and once treated can restore a person’s health.
Treatments include supplements like glandulars, herbs, lifestyle changes, and exogenous steroids. The protocols for treating adrenal dysfunction are highly researched and work. See your local naturopathic doctor to change your life today. We need to raise awareness to this tiny but powerful gland.