The title of this post is an actual question my patient Avery asked me sometime during our first appointment. She was showing some of the early signs of adrenal fatigue, and I wanted her to keep a close eye on things– and to start taking proactive steps towards improving her adrenal function now.
But Avery was feeling a bit overwhelmed by a bunch of transitions going on in her life at the time, and she wasn’t exactly excited about making what she worried might be a whole bunch of diet and lifestyle changes. So that was when she asked me: “Just how important are my adrenal glands?”.
The way she said it stuck with me, but the truth is that I’m asked some variation of this question just about every week. Does adrenal function really matter that much?
If you’ve been following me and my practice for any amount of time, you know how important I think it is for women to understand their adrenal glands, how they function, and what can happen when they aren’t functioning the way they should. (If you are new to my community, I encourage you to visit the adrenal health section of my health library; it’s a great resource for women wanting to learn more about their adrenals.)
But given all of the questions I get from my community about why adrenal balance matters so much, I thought it was time to write another article on the importance of adrenal health to make sure all your questions are addressed. In this article, you’ll learn about what the adrenal glands do and how they can impact your health when they aren’t working properly. Plus, I’ll give you some helpful tips on keeping your adrenals healthy long term!
What Are Adrenal Glands, and What Do They Do?
Your adrenals are small, triangular shaped glands that sit on top of each kidney. They are made up of two parts: the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. The cortex is the outside part of the gland, and it produces hormones you need to live, like cortisol and aldosterone. The inner part, called the medulla, produces hormones that aren’t essential to survival, but have important functions nonetheless. Adrenaline, which aids your body in responding to stress, is one example.
The adrenals (also called the suprarenal glands) are best known for their role in responding to stress. Many people know that adrenaline, which prepares you for action in stressful times, is made in the adrenal glands. Less known is the fact that even in the absence of stress, the adrenals manufacture some hormones that you literally can’t live without.
What Essential Hormones Do the Adrenal Glands Produce?
So let’s talk about these hormones you need to survive. What are they, and what exactly do they do? There are two primary groups of corticosteroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands: glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids.
The hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which prompts the pituitary gland to release adrenal corticotropic hormone (ACTH) which then lets the adrenal glands know it’s time to produce glucocorticoids.
These hormones include cortisol (hydrocortisone, sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone”), which helps manage the conversion of food to energy as well as helping regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular activity, and corticosterone, which works with cortisol to manage immune response and diminish inflammatory reactions.
The main mineralocorticoid is aldosterone, which helps control blood pressure and ensures the correct balance of salt and water in the body.
In addition to the primary hormones released by the adrenal cortex, this section of the adrenal glands produces small amounts of estrogen and androgens. This is often overlooked because the ovaries and testes release much greater amounts of these hormones. But when the adrenals aren’t able to produce these hormones, imbalances can occur, causing a range of issues.
DHEA is of particular importance because it is primarily secreted by the adrenals, and when the balance isn’t right, it can really wreak havoc on how you feel.
Because these hormones are vital to survival, problems in the adrenal cortex can be life-threatening if not addressed.
What About Those “Non-Essential” Hormones? Why Are They Important?
The hormones in the adrenal medulla may not be crucial to survival, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need balance. Quality of life is important, and these are the hormones that allow us to appropriately cope with both physical and mental stress.
Have you heard of the fight-or-flight response? Your sympathetic nervous system activates this process when you are faced with a stressful situation. And the hormones in the adrenal medulla play a role in this response.
Epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline) is the hormone most people have heard of. It responds to stressful events by elevating your heart rate and getting blood to the muscles and brain quickly. Blood sugar levels also rise due to adrenaline converting glycogen to glucose in the liver.
Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is epinephrine’s partner in responding to stress.This hormone can cause blood vessels to narrow, resulting in high blood pressure.
Can I Live Without My Adrenal Glands?
It’s the hormones that your adrenal glands produce that are essential to survival, not the glands themselves, so it is possible to live without your adrenal glands. If adrenal tumors are found, you may need to have one, or both, adrenal glands removed.
If only one is removed, you’ll likely have difficulty producing enough hormones for a while, but eventually the remaining gland should be able to make what your body needs. When both are removed, however, you’ll need to receive replacement hormones for the rest of your life.
Of course, adrenalectomy is only necessary in extreme cases such as when tumors are creating excess hormone production, or are suspected to be cancerous. And hormonal balance is essential, whether you need to have these glands removed or not.
How Does Adrenal Dysfunction Impact My Health?
Adrenal dysfunction can mean a lot of different things depending on who you’re talking to. People sometimes think that your adrenals are only talked about in natural or functional medicine, but there are some adrenal conditions that are well understood and recognized in conventional medicine.
When your adrenals don’t produce enough of a particular hormone, it’s referred to in the conventional medical world as adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease. The most common symptoms women experience when they lack these vital hormones are chronic fatigue, weight loss, muscle weakness, abdominal pain and lack of appetite.
Other symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are less common, but just as frustrating to deal with. These include vomiting or nausea; diarrhea; low blood pressure (particularly when standing up, which can cause dizziness or fainting); mood changes like depression or irritability; pain in joints; salty food cravings; irregular or missing menstrual periods; lack of libido; and hypoglycemia.
Sometimes, you can end up with the opposite problem — levels of these essential hormones that are too high. This is known as having overactive adrenal glands, which can lead to Cushing’s Syndrome.
Symptoms of Cushing’s Syndrome include severe fatigue; obesity in the upper body, round face, and excess fat around the neck or between the shoulders; thin, fragile skin; bone and muscle weakness; high blood pressure; high blood sugar; irritability and anxiety; excess hair growth in women; and irregular menstrual cycles.
Did you notice the crossover in symptoms? It can be really confusing to determine just what’s going on without the proper hormone testing, since these (and many other) conditions can have many similar symptoms.
What About Adrenal Fatigue and Other Adrenal Imbalances?
I work with adrenal dysfunction all the time, but usually, I’m not seeing women with Addison’s disease or Cushing’s Syndrome. In my practice, I typically work with women who have adrenal imbalances or issues on the less severe end of the spectrum. But don’t get me wrong: these women experience real symptoms, and addressing their adrenal function makes a huge difference when it comes to their health.
This brings me to one of the biggest problems when it comes to recognizing adrenal imbalance. Often, conventional medical practitioners don’t consider adrenal function until symptoms reach an extreme. The “normal” range for hormone levels is quite wide, and when levels are at the top or bottom of that “normal” range, I believe we need to explore further.
There’s a lot of debate in the medical world about the use of the term “adrenal fatigue.” I can understand the semantic issue — your adrenals don’t simply get tired and take a little break. That’s why I favor the terms adrenal imbalance or adrenal dysfunction.
What I can’t understand, however, is the reluctance of the medical community to acknowledge the possibility that levels that fall within the “normal” range, but aren’t in the ideal mid-range, could be causing these troublesome symptoms. Why would they want to wait until someone is in a full blown disease state to treat the problem?
That’s why I listen so closely to what women are telling me about their symptoms, do any testing that could give us the information we need, and treat every woman as an individual.
How Adrenal Dysfunction Can Affect You
There are so many ways in which even mild adrenal dysfunction can disrupt your life. These are the symptoms and issues I see every day in my practice– in women who have often been dismissed by their doctors and told that everything is totally fine, or that they don’t know what the problem is.
Adrenal dysfunction can…
- Cause or contribute to persistent fatigue and brain fog
- Make you feel more irritable or moody
- Lead to weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- Cause digestive symptoms
- Make it harder for you to fall asleep and/or wake up rested
- Disrupt your overall hormonal balance
- Lead to autoimmune conditions
- Cause or contribute to insulin resistance
- Affect your reproductive health
… and that’s not even a complete list. Everything in the body is connected, and when your adrenal health suffers, just about everything you can think of can be affected.
I’m not telling you this to scare you at all– in fact, it’s the opposite! Because the truth is, it’s very possible to restore your adrenal function and improve your overall health with the help of a few natural strategies. But it all starts with understanding that your adrenals are important! So now that I’ve made my case, let me walk you through some of my top tips for keeping your adrenals healthy.
5 Ways to Keep Your Adrenals Healthy and Balanced
There are many things you can do to support your adrenals and help keep hormone levels well balanced. Here are five tips that I think can benefit anyone – both in supporting adrenal function, and in maintaining overall good health!
1. Make Sure Your Nutritional Needs Are Met
I’ve said it over and over, and I have numerous articles about the impact of good nutrition on your health, including on eating to support your adrenals. Real, whole foods really are the best medicine we have available. Your body has to work much harder than necessary if you fill it with processed foods and refined sugar. Be sure you’re getting a variety of fruits and vegetables daily, keep yourself well hydrated by drinking plenty of water, get plenty of essential fatty acids, and avoid foods that you may have sensitivities to – including gluten, dairy, and sugar.
2. Address Stress and Find Ways to Relax
The quickest way to make your cortisol levels skyrocket is to expose your body to constant stress. There are plenty of things in our lives that we cannot control, and you won’t always be able to avoid stressful situations. But you can make time to relax and recharge a priority. Turn off electronics and make yourself unavailable to the outside world – even just a few minutes a day can make a big difference!
3. Make Quality Sleep a Priority
The impact that sleep deprivation has on health is well documented. Sleep allows your body to rejuvenate so you want to be sure to get at least seven hours of high quality sleep per night. Set a calming bedtime routine that includes turning off electronics at least an hour before settling down to sleep. Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature, avoid alcohol before bed, and if you simply can’t get to sleep easily, consider trying a natural sleep aid like my Sleep Support Formula.
4. Play More and Find Joy in Your Life
Have you ever noticed how quick we are to take on responsibilities that drain us, and how often we put off doing the things that bring us great joy? We deserve to spend our time on things that feed our soul, not just drain our energy! Play isn’t just for children either! There are so many ways you can play – go out dancing, walk on the beach, meet up with friends, visit family, go for a hike – the possibilities are endless! There’s no need for guilt – joy is an essential part of life.
5. Give Your Body a Boost with Nutritional Supplements
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you need a little help. If your adrenal glands have been stressed for any amount of time, your body might require some extra support to get the back to optimal functioning. My adrenal support formula and adrenal metabolism support are specifically formulated to help you heal.
Nutritional supplements can keep all of your body’s systems working well. It’s so hard to get what you need nutritionally from food alone in our modern society, with industrial food production. I recommend that all women take a quality multivitamin daily.
Healthy Adrenal Glands Allow You to Enjoy Life Fully!
Maintaining peak performance of your adrenal glands will allow you to spend your time doing the things you love instead of exhausted on the couch. And isn’t that what life is all about?
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD