Help! My Adrenal glands are Stressed Out!
January 27, 2014
What are the Adrenal Glands?
The two adrenal glands are small 1.5cm by 7.5cm glands that sit on top of the kidneys. These small glands play a spectacularly important role in the endocrine (hormonal) system.
The adrenal glands produce a number of hormones including: the stress hormones - epinephrine (previously called adrenaline - which is how they got their names), nor epinephrine, cortisol (a steroid hormone), another steroid hormone called aldosterone, and some sex hormones - estrogen and progesterone.
What is their Function?
The secretion of cortisol is probably one of the most widely known functions of the adrenal glands. Cortisol is often dubbed the "stress hormone". It is secreted in a regular diurnal rhythm over the day - highest in the morning to help us get up and moving and decreasing throughout the day. Small increases in cortisol secretion can be beneficial to help our body deal with any immediate stressors - like "oh my, I just stepped out in front of a car". It constricts our core blood vessels to send more blood to the muscles so that we can fight or run from danger if we need to. Small elevations in cortisol can improve mental alertness and give us a hit of energy - ever wondered how caffiene actually causes that effects - well if gives the adrenal glands a punch so they secrete cortisol.
Why are North Americans prone to Exhausting their Adrenal Glands?
Cortisol is more of a problem when it is released in large quanitites and over a longer period of time. This is what happens very commonly in our typical North American lifestyle. We encounter stressful events daily without reprieve, which puts our adrenal glands in a constant state of high alert.
Think about this situation: You wake up in the morning suddenly, realizing that your alarm clock didn't go off and you are late. You rush to wake up your children and call out instructions to them to get dressed and eat breakfast while you scramble to make lunches for them. By now they have missed the bus, so you need to drive them to their school which puts you at work late. You get to work and grab one of the coffees that your co-worker brought in and rush to get a few last minute preparations done before the meeting you have. Lunchtime comes and you realize that you didn't pack yourself a lunch, so you grab a carbohydrate-rich sandwich at the local coffee place and another coffee because you know that you will get dozey in the afternoon after this kind of lunch. You drive through traffic to get home, grabbing the mail as you pass the mailbox to find a stack of bills. Now you must make a quick dinner for your family because one child has swimming lessons and the other has basketball. You argue with them that they really should be doing homework not playing computer games. You get everyone off to their extracurricular activities and have a few minutes to grab some groceries before they need picking up. It is dark when you get home, you walk in the door, to see that the dog has vomited all over the welcome mat - oh well at least you still have laundry to do.
This situation may sound a bit extreme, but this is the reality for a number of families. Stressors like these put the adrenal glands in a constant state of over-producing cortisol.
How does Cortisol affect me?
Cortisol raises blood sugar levels while inhibiting insulin production. It is any wonder that we have seen a tremendous increase in Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes (NIDDM)?
High cortisol can lead to weight gain by increasing fat storage especially in the central parts of the body - belly, waist and chest. This not only increases weight, but also increases cardiovascular risk by taxing internal organs.
Elevated cortisol levels can impact the cardiovascular system in another way as well. Cortisol causes vasoconstriction - this means that the muscles of the blood vessels tighen - which adds pressure to the system resulting in High Blood Pressure. It always amazes me when MDs are using medications for high blood pressure which cause the heart to not pump as hard or the kidneys to take more water out of the blood - when these 2 organs could be absolutely healthy and what should be addressed is the stress in that patient's life which is contributing to increased levels of cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands. Serenity Now!
High cortisol impacts the gastrointestinal tract causing spasms, constipation, loose bowels and food sensitivities. Sounds a lot like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) doesn't it? Stress is a huge component of IBS.
High cortisol levels impact the immune system contributing to allergies to foods and environmental components, the development of autoimmune (AI) diseases and flares of existing AI conditions.
How can you find out whether your adrenal glands are functioning well or are exhausted?
There are a few ways to test your adrenal health. Blood tests are almost completely useless except to determine whether you are in major excess or major deficiency of cortisol - which, even under super stressful conditions, usually comes back "normal"
Koenisburg testing - A urinary test for adrenal insufficiency. It requires a first morning urine sample and can be performed in your Naturopathic doctor's office. This is a fundamental test to assess health changes, as this is the first gland that will tend to be affected in a decline of health. The procedure assesses for urinary chloride
Salivary Corisol testing - The diurnal variation of cortisol is readily mapped by using saliva testing since collection is easy to do at home or at work. Four specimens are obtained: on waking, before lunch, before supper, and before bedtime. The cortisol levels for each point are graphed according to the reference range for that time period. Saliva is an excellent medium for measurement of cortisol because, unlike blood and serum where the blood draw itself can cause an anticipatory rise in cortisol, collection of saliva does not. An adrenal function panel can help motivate patients to make lifestyle changes. Many people recognize that they are under stress, but having a comparison to ‘normal’ can be a strong motivator to learn new coping skills.
How can you help your poor little adrenal glands?
1) Recognizing stressors and trying to do what you can to reduce your exposure to stess is the most important first step.
2) Balancing stress by incorporating relaxing acitivities in your life - meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, etc. are all very effective tools to help our body manage the effects of those other stressful events.
3) Help from herbs - there is a class of herbs called "Adaptogens" which have a long history of use. These herbs help to support our adrenal health, by reducing cortisol levels, enhancing mood and reducing anxiety and stress responses. These are particularly helpful for those who are unable to remove all stressors from their daily lives. Adaptogens are generally safe, however, they must be used carefully in the presence of medications, and in those with high blood pressure.
4) Serenity Now!