Like the thyroid gland, the adrenal glands are members of the endocrine system. Each person has two adrenal glands, which are triangular shaped and perched on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands work closely with the thyroid gland and actually perform some of the same functions in the body as the thyroid gland. Energy levels, weight maintenance, sleep patterns, libido and mood are all influenced by both thyroid and adrenal glands.
Several hormones are produced by the adrenal glands. Each adrenal gland has two parts: the outer area is called the adrenal cortex and the inner area is called the adrenal medulla.
The adrenal cortex produces hormones that effect metabolism, inflammation, blood function and pressure, kidney function and minor sexual hormones. Specifically, hydrocortisone (also known as cortisol), corticosterone, aldosterone and androgen are the hormones produced by the adrenal cortex.
The adrenal medulla produces hormones that assist individuals to cope with physical and emotional stress. The classic “fight or flight” hormones are produced in the adrenal medulla: epinephrine (also know as adrenaline) and norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline). These hormones increase the heart rate, facilitate blood flow to muscles and increase blood pressure when needed.
Under optimal circumstances, the adrenal glands produce hormones in response to messages sent by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus gland when the body senses a need. One of the primary functions of the adrenal glands is to help the body deal with both physical and emotional stress. We have all felt that surge of adrenaline that floods the body when we under severe stress. An argument with a co-worker, a wrong committed against a child, or physical injury can cause the adrenal glands to become active.
Problems arise when we experience continued stress such as a prolonged or chronic illness, feeling trapped in a difficult job or relationship, or the everyday overscheduled, hectic lives so many people are living. A poor diet, overuse of caffeine, and too much sugar can also negatively impact the health of the adrenal glands.
Eventually the adrenal glands lose their ability to respond appropriately. Instead of sending a burst of hormones – like a hose that has been kinked and is allowed to flow freely – they send a constant trickle of hormones – like a hose on a constant slow drip. As a result of the continued release of cortisol hormones into the blood stream, people develop high blood sugar (beware of diabetes), insomnia, increased fat stores in the body (particularly around the mid-section of the body), slow healing and osteopenia (weakening bones).
Doctors are beginning to recognize the symbiotic relationship of the adrenal and thyroid glands. Conservative estimates suggest at least half of all people diagnosed with hypothyroidism, are also suffering from adrenal fatigue. Therefore, it is not enough to treat the thyroid alone – the adrenal glands must also be restored to optimal performance. If the adrenal glands are fatigued, no amount of thyroid medication will completely eliminate the symptoms of fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, anxiety and overall malaise.
Adrenal gland function is best tested through a saliva test - not blood tests. Blood tests will determine that adrenal hormones are present in the blood (as they are being continually pumped into the bloodstream even in the depleted state), but not if the adrenal glands are capable of sending the burst of hormones that are needed to deal with individual stressful events.