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What do your adrenal glands do?
The adrenal glands are two walnut-sized structures situated above each of your two kidneys. They consist of two separate regions: an inner adrenal medulla surrounded by an outer adrenal cortex.
The function of the adrenal glands is performed by a wide variety of hormones released by these structures and is mostly directed at the physiological response to stress. The medulla is responsible for producing epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline), which control the body’s reaction to stress and affect blood pressure, heart rate and sweating. The adrenal cortex produces hormones such as cortisone and aldosterone which are necessary for fluid and electrolyte (salt) balance in the body as well as regulating the use of dietary protein, fats and carbohydrates and controlling inflammation.
What can go wrong with your adrenal glands?
As with all structures of the body, the adrenal glands are subject to a range of disorders and diseases.
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Major health problems can occur when the adrenal glands produce too many or too few hormones. Two disorders caused by impaired functioning of these glands are Addison's disease and Cushing's syndrome. Addison's disease is caused by damage or disease to the adrenal glands, resulting in a deficiency of the hormone cortisol. The overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands leads to Cushing's syndrome.
Cushing's syndrome may also result when steroid drugs (such as hydrocortisone, prednisone or dexamethasone) are taken over a prolonged period or at high doses. These steroid hormones are often used to treat inflammatory illnesses such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Additionally, long-term treatment with these medications can inhibit normal pituitary function (which usually controls the adrenals) and cause secondary adrenal insufficiency. Adrenal insufficiency or Adrenal fatigue is a common problem characterized by a deficiency of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands.
High stress levels, which are often accompanied by an unhealthy lifestyle, can weaken the adrenal glands. When stress continues over a long time, the adrenal glands’ response to this stress can deplete the body's hormonal and energy reserves, and the glands may either shrink in size or hypertrophy (enlarge). The overproduction of adrenal hormones caused by prolonged stress can weaken the immune system, disrupt the metabolism, cause weakness, fatigue and a feeling of being run down. It can also interfere with normal sleep and cause a light and unrelaxing sleep state which can make one feel worn out even after a full night's sleep.
Adrenal insufficiency is sometimes linked to chronic fatigue and thyroid problems as well.
What are the symptoms of adrenal disease?
Adrenal disease may often go unnoticed until far advanced. When symptoms do appear they are often vague and may include:
Loss of energy
Decreased immune system with recurrent illness
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Dizziness on standing up
Anxiety and depression
Decreased tolerance to cold
Hair loss in women
Increased pigmentation of skin
How is adrenal disease diagnosed?
Adrenal disease is most commonly diagnosed based on laboratory tests which measure the levels of adrenal hormones (Specifically cortisol) in the blood.
How is adrenal disease usually treated?
The specific type of treatment usually prescribed for adrenal disease will be based on the underlying cause. Treatment generally takes the form of synthetic hormones which increase the low levels in the body or hormone inhibiting drugs- depending on the disease. Treatment is usually lifelong unless the cause of the disease is removed, such as a tumor which is surgically removed or treated with radiation or chemotherapy.
Can natural remedies help?
As adrenal damage and adrenal fatigue are so often caused by a stressful and unhealthy lifestyle, it is logical that this situation can be best treated and improved with a holistic and natural approach. One’s overall health, as well as the well-being and optimum functioning of the adrenal glands, should be addressed.
Certain herbal ingredients are well-known for their tonic effect on the adrenal glands and improving ability to cope with stress. Relaxation methods and reducing stress in ones daily life, as well as eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly can all be of great benefit to adrenal disease.