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Adrenal Glands – Endocrine System

Adrenal glands pump out key hormones into the entire endocrine system, which regulates how your body manages both internal and external events that may be life threatening. Everything from illnesses, injuries, emergencies, digestion, physical, mental and emotional events are perceived, identified, regulated and finally routine by the miracle of the endocrine system of glands. 

 Moreover, all glands are connected, interrelated, and affected by the other.  Without the smooth functioning of every element in the endocrine system, the body as a whole can malfunction.  The endocrine system is simply a group of filters that also produce life-sustaining elements (hormones) and passes them on to other glands in the system, much like what additives do to a car’s lubrication system.

Endocrine Human System

 The endocrine glands secrete a particular set of hormones directly into the bloodstream to regulate all body functions. It stems from the Greek words “endo” (inside, within) and “crinis” (secrete) and—like the nervous system—is an information signal system. However, unlike the lightning rapid responsiveness of the nervous system, endocrine-based hormones effects start slow (unless it’s an adrenaline crisis) and are delayed in their response from a few hours to several weeks.  Other primary endocrine glands in addition to the adrenals include the pituitary gland, pancreas, thyroid gland, ovaries, testis and the hypothalamus.  Each of these glands are all very interrelated and dependent on one another.  In addition to the specialized endocrine organs mentioned above, many other organs have secondary endocrine functions, such as the kidney, liver, heart and the reproductive organs. For example the kidneys secrete endocrine hormones including erythropoietin and renin.

The Amazing Adrenal Glands: Adrenal 101

Adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands) roles are widespread to numerous other functions, their biology and anatomy need discussion.  Anatomically they are actually two organs atop each kidney that watch over the body’s complex operational infrastructure. The adrenal glands are named for their location relative to the kidneys. The term “adrenal” comes from ad- (Latin, “near”) and renes (Latin, “kidney”). Similarly, “suprarenal” is derived from supra- (Latin, “above”) and renes.

The right adrenal gland is triangular shaped, while the left is crescent shaped.  As part of the endocrine system, they responsible for releasing more than 50 necessary hormones directly into the blood in response to stress.  Other hormone-releasing organs not part of the endocrine system discharge hormones more slowly through a system of ducts.  The reason why the release of hormones is more voluminous through the endocrine system rather than through smaller ducts, is because the body may require it in times of extreme stress.

The adrenals also synthesize corticosteroids such as cortisol and catecholamine’s, including epinephrine (a.k.a., adrenaline) a familiar hormone and a neurotransmitter known for its properties in its capacity to rapidly increase the heart rate, dilate air passages and contribute in the “fight-or-flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system.  An extreme phenomenon of this can be best illustrated by some well-known cases of people performing superhuman feats of strength under the influence of the well-known phrase “adrenaline rush.”  (Like the true story of a mother who lifted a car off her child.)

The adrenal glands also affect kidney function through the secretion of aldosterone, a hormone involved in regulating the concentration of blood plasma.  In general, all hormones are substances released directly from endocrine tissue into the bloodstream and travel to target tissue generating a response from outside stimuli. Among other things, they regulate disposition, growth and development, metabolism and tissue function.  The adrenals produce hormones essential to normal everyday functions, including sex hormones and the aforementioned cortisol, a highly effective stress responder.

There are two parts to each of the adrenal gland pair; the inner (medulla) part of the adrenal gland secretes a hormone (like adrenaline) which affects blood pressure, sweating and heart rate.  The outer (cortex) adrenal gland secretes a wide range of hormones that process fats, carbohydrates and proteins.   The cortex also secretes male sex hormones, and processes salts and potassium.  The cortisol hormone regulates nearly every type of organ and tissue within the body, including aldosterone.  In addition to its blood plasma function, aldosterone helps maintain appropriate proportions of water and salts within the body.

Adrenal Gland Disorders & Treatments

Adrenal gland disorders have the potential to affect every bodily function and are responsible for an extremely wide range of human body systems.  Their primary role is to produce necessary hormones that trigger numerous chemical processes throughout the body.  At birth some people cannot produce enough cortisol, resulting in adrenal tumors that can wreak havoc to the entire chain of the endocrine system, including the adrenals.  Also tumors in other parts of the endocrine system will have a telling negative effect on the adrenal glands. Adrenal infections or bleeding can be fatal without immediate treatment.  Some issues can be corrected with pharmaceuticals while others may require surgery.  Adrenal gland disorders (or diseases) may be congenital or acquired and may cause hyper function (overproduction) or hypo function (underproduction). Adrenal gland disorders are challenging to diagnose, but if left untreated, they can be life-threatening.  What follows are the most prevalent diseases and the myriad of symptoms involved.

Cushing’s syndrome

Pituitary tumors can overproduce corticotrophin in a condition known as Cushing’s syndrome.  The primary symptom is rapid weight gain mostly in the trunk, collarbone and puffing in the head—often referred to as “moon face.”  Other symptoms range from capillary dilation, thinning and hemorrhaging of skin tissue, bruising, general dryness, excess sweating, muscle weakness, excess hair growth or loss.  All endocrine glands react to problems stemming from other endocrine glands. The results can be insomnia, reduced libido, infertility issues, impotence and interference with a key enzyme in the biosynthesis of estrogens.  Due to the complexity of these conditions numerous treatment options have to be considered, including surgery, medication and even completely altering a patient’s entire previous medication regimen.  Medications previously prescribed for other medical issues problems may actually have negative side effects on the adrenal glands.

Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease is characterized by the insufficient production of steroidal hormones and although more rare, it often has more dreadful consequences than Cushing’s syndrome.  Its insidious nature makes it far more difficult to diagnose, and by the time it has been identified, its symptoms are far more unpleasant.  Headaches, sweating, muscle weakness, abdominal pain, fever, lightheadedness, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, mood and personality difficulties, joint and muscle pain, changes in skin tone and complexion.  Finally, a condition labeled as Addisonian crisis may occur, symptomized by alarmingly low blood pressure and the onset of a coma.  Diagnostic features may include hypercalcemia, hypoglycemia, hyponatremia, hyperlakemia, eosiniphilia, lymphocytes and metabolic acidosis.  In sum, these symptoms can be a medical nightmare.   Once diagnosed, however, treatment—although extremely involved—is generally successful.  However, the patient’s life will never be the same.  When traveling, the sufferer is required to bear an i.d. tag or bracelet plus a syringe and a supply of cortisol should always be on hand.   Otherwise, patients are always at risk of having an Addisonian crisis.  President John F. Kennedy is unquestionably the most well-known sufferer of Addison’s disease.

Adrenal fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is the most common adrenal problem, affecting millions worldwide.  Although adrenal fatigue has many of the same symptoms as Addison’s disease, it is not a disease, but is a lifestyle condition associated with intense periods of prolonged stress.  Today’s population suffers from this malady of diminished adrenal function more than ever. It brings with it substantial consequences in the form of reduced quality of life and overall health.  Dr. James Wilson, a leading practitioner in this field, has watched this phenomenon increase yearly, especially in stressed-out middle aged and older adults (Wilson, 2001).

WhatWilsoncalls a “symphony” of glands tends to weaken with age, especially during and after menopause for women and its male counterpart, andropause.  The body assigns the task to pick up the degradation of gender hormones through age to the adrenal glands, resulting in increased stress to these glands—glands ironically linked to longevity.  In their important function as glands of stress, with aging the adrenal glands work even harder and the cumulative effect leads to adrenal fatigue.  In other words, what is generally considered a mild to severe “nervous breakdown,” is actually adrenal fatigue.  Usually other lifestyle stress factors come into play, including sleep deprivation, lack of “down time,” compromised immunity, bad eating habits as well as other internal and environmental factors.  Diagnosing this condition is very difficult.  Fortunately, there are ways to recognize the problem, including the following (Veracity, D. (2006):

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue:

  • Morning fatigue.  It’s hard to “wake up” until 10 a.m., even if you’ve been awake since 7 a.m.
  • Afternoon “low” (feelings of sleepiness or clouded thinking) from 2 to 4 p.m.
  • Burst of energy at 6 p.m. — after an afternoon lull.
  • Sleepiness at 9 to 10 p.m. — However, you resist going to sleep.
  • “Second wind” at 11 p.m. that lasts until about 1 a.m., until the onset of sleep.
  • Cravings for foods high in salt and fat
  • Increased PMS or menopausal symptoms
  • Mild depression
  • Lack of energy
  • Decreased ability to handle stress
  • Muscular weakness
  • Increased allergies
  • Lightheadedness when getting up from a sitting or laying down position
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Frequent sighing
  • Inability to handle foods high in potassium or carbohydrates unless they’re combined with fats and protein

In addition to noticing these symptoms, adrenal fatigue can be identified by using the following three tests:

  1. Ragland’s sign (blood pressure test) — (Equipment required: Home blood pressure kit) Take your blood pressure while sitting down. Then, stand up and immediately take it again. The systolic (first) number should have raised 8 to 10 mm. If it dropped, it may be the result of adrenal fatigue.
  2. Pupil dilation exam — (Equipment required: Flashlight and a mirror) Look into the mirror and shine the flashlight into the pupil of one eye. It should contract. If after 30 seconds, it stays the same or, even worse, dilates, it may be due to adrenal fatigue.
  3. Pain when pressing on adrenal glands (located over kidneys)

Lifestyle remedies for adrenal fatigue*

  • Lying down during work breaks (preferably at 10 a.m. and again anytime from 3 to 5 p.m.)
  • Sleeping until 9 a.m. as often as possible
  • Laughing
  • Exercising
  • Minimizing stress
  • Eliminating negative people
  • Eating regular meals
  • Chewing well
  • Doing something fun each day
  • Combining unrefined carbohydrates with protein and oils
  • Avoiding junk food
  • Eating five to six servings of vegetables each day
  • Taking calcium and magnesium supplements
  • Adding sea salt to the diet
  • Taking 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams of vitamin C each day
  • Supplementing vitamin E with mixed tocopherols
  • Taking B-complex supplements that are high in B6 and pantothenic acid
  • Adding licorice root extract to the dietary supplement regimen

* As always whenever any condition exists, it is strongly urged that a competent physician should be consulted before trying any and all suggestions herein.  All adrenal gland issues are far too serious to rely solely on anything short of a complete allopathic medicine examination.

Other Adrenal Diseases & Treatments

Adrenal cancer, pituitary tumors, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, pheochromocytoma, hyperaldosteronism and virilization are other less frequent disorders that have many of the same symptoms as in Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease.  All other symptoms are pervasive and similar, but thankfully these disorders are all rare and require treatment protocols too numerous to list here.  In any case, since extensive testing is required, the best course of action is to consult physician.  By the time any of these symptoms have occurred, a physician should already have diagnosed them.  Treatment protocols are as numerous as each particular disorder, including oral medication, surgery, radiation (for cancer related causes), or a combination of all the above.

Summary

As it is with the entire endocrine system, when any single element on this physiological circuit system fails, it affects everything.  But especially with the failure of the adrenal glands and ignoring the warning signs, could lead to permanent health problems, causing other healthy organs to fail and compromising overall quality of life.  Consulting a physician should always be considered if any symptom detailed in this article is apparent.

by Michael H McClay

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