What are the adrenals?
The adrenals are two endocrine (hormone producing) glands located atop both of our kidneys. Although small in size, these glands have powerful effects on functions such as blood sugar control, electrolyte balance, immune and sex hormone balance, stress response, and many other important tasks. Unfortunately, there are multiple threats to the integrity of the adrenals that we are exposed to daily.
The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing 4 major classes of hormones. As mentioned earlier, they are integral to biological functions and responses (1).
Androgens: Primarily DHEA and androstenedione. These are converted to active sex hormones.
Glucocorticoids: Primarily cortisol and corticosterone which are important for stress response, metabolism, and immune suppression
Mineralcorticoids: Primarily aldosterone which help regulate electrolyte balance and blood pressure.
Catecholamines: Primarily adrenaline and noradrenaline which help the body respond rapidly to stress.
We can see how a disruption to these sensitive glands can cause body-wide effects which manifest in many and sometimes ambiguous ways. Regardless, it is important to know how to recognize when your adrenals are compromised and what steps you can take to restore a healthy balance. Particularly, I want to speak about cortisol and the concept of adrenal fatigue. We must first understand the process and character of this stress hormone.
What is the HPA-axis?
This is a pathway of communication and feedback between three important endocrine glands. The Hypothalamus, Pituitary (both located in the brain) and the Adrenal glands. Together, they form a sophisticated line of messages and signals to respond to changes in the body. The hypothalamus senses a physiological change in the blood and thus begins the signal cascade. After the hypothalamus releases corticotropin releasing hormone to the nearby pituitary gland the pituitary gland then releases adrenocorticotropic hormone which signals the release of cortisol in the body from the adrenals.
Cortisol is a life sustaining adrenal hormone essential to the maintenance of perfect balance in the body. It is called the “stress hormone” and it influences, regulates or modulates many changes that occur in the body in response to stress but not limited to: blood sugar (glucose) levels, immune responses, anti-inflammatory actions, heart and blood vessel tone and contraction, central nervous system activation (2).
Under normal conditions, the HPA axis is activated in response to one or more of the aforementioned stressors and cortisol is ultimately released to restore balance. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are under constant activation and release of cortisol, therefore, our bodies are never fully restoring balance. As a consequence, we are predisposing ourselves to chronic adrenal fatigue.
What causes adrenal fatigue? What are the symptoms?
Some common causes of adrenal stress (3):
Negative emotions like (depression, anger, fear, guilt, worry and anxiety), overwork (both mental and physical), sleep deprivation/ late bedtime, circadian rhythm disruption (light-cycle), surgery/ trauma, chronic inflammation/ infection/ pain and illness, toxic exposures, mal-digestion/ absorption, hypoglycemia, nutritional deficiencies.
We have become engrained in lifestyles that constantly stimulate the adrenals to compensate for these stressors. Although they are fantastic at restoring balance in the short term, chronic burdens begin to drain the adrenals. What follows is a manifestation of one or more symptoms (3):