All of us have heard about the adrenal gland, but it is likely that there is more to it than you know.  For such a small part of the body, it is very powerful and important. One of the more commonly known facts about the adrenal gland is that it is responsible for the “fight or flight” response of the body. When we encounter a stressful or dangerous situation, the gland is primarily responsible for preparing the body to either physically defend itself or to run away. Adrenal glands produce the hormones for this immediate effect and also for a more prolonged response to various stressors. 

The adrenal gland itself sits atop the kidneys and consists of 2 types of tissue; the outer part known as the cortex and the inner part, or medulla.  The medulla produces catecholamines such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine and it is these hormones which are responsible for the almost instantaneous increase in blood pressure, heart rate and mental awareness due to a perceived threat. This is the “fight or flight” response.

The cortex of the adrenal gland is responsible for 3 types of hormones; mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, and androgens which control the longer term response to stresses, either acute or chronic.

Mineralocorticoids, as you might guess from the name, are responsible for regulating salt and other minerals and thus also affect blood pressure. The primary mineralocorticoid is aldosterone and its function is to cause the body to reabsorb minerals like sodium and potassium as they go through the kidneys. If these minerals were not reabsorbed they would pull out too much water, causing dehydration rapidly. This also regulates blood pressure.

Glucocorticoids (primarily cortisol) are responsible for the response to illness and any other type of stress and for regulation of metabolism. It causes production of glucose from stored fat in normal stress levels, and is also anti-inflammatory (it suppresses the immune system).  

Adrenal androgens are the hormones DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and testosterone. While we think of these as primarily male hormones, they are also produced in women.  The DHEA is primarily produced by the adrenal glands to be a precursor (or building block) hormone to testosterone and estrogen.  

The most common problem associated with the adrenal system is with cortisol.  Many of us have problems with adrenal glands being overworked from chronic stress.  There are multiple stages of this problem, starting with stress causing high levels of cortisol all day, rather than the usual pattern of being high in the morning and declining throughout the day. For an acute stress, this is a normal reaction, but if the stress doesn’t go away, (it becomes chronic) the high cortisol levels become a problem. These high cortisol levels lead to weight gain, sleeplessness, and other problems. The next step of problems from this chronic stress would be that the cortisol levels are low all day and do not fluctuate up and down as normal.  This is called Adrenal Fatigue, or Adrenal Insufficiency, and is a major problem to the body.  Without the cortisol on board, the body can’t respond properly to stress and we start having problems with fatigue, muscle weakness, depression and other symptoms. This problem is explored in more detail in an earlier blog. 

As we see, the adrenal glands are vitally important to the body’s proper function in multiple areas.  If you are experiencing symptoms which resemble these, you should seek treatment.