Fatigue, exhaustion, difficulty thinking clearly and an inability to handle stress all have a common link between them; dysfunctional adrenals. In addition to producing an impressive number of hormones, the adrenals play an important role in regulating energy. Because this system is heavily integrated with the body, it has a broad and powerful influence on our overall health.
When the adrenals are not working properly one can fall into a severe and seemingly unending fatigue. By having a greater understanding of adrenal gland function, its impact on the body, and methods of optimization, one can keep their body energized and working at its best.
What are the Adrenal Glands?
The adrenal glands are roughly the size of a walnut and located just above the kidneys. The impact of the adrenals is most noticeable in regulating energy levels, immune system, blood pressure, and stress response. The adrenals exert their influence by producing various hormones that interact with different bodily systems. Most impactful of these hormones are aldosterone, cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and pregnenolone. Each of these powerful hormones fulfill important responsibilities.
Aldosterone is a hormone produced by the adrenals that is most-related to kidney function. Its primary function is controlling blood volume and blood pressure. Aldosterone accomplishes this by regulating the kidneys retention of salt. By holding onto a high level of salt, the body retains more water which aids in improving blood volume. If one is salt deficient, they may experience low blood pressure or low blood volume. This can cause one to develop symptoms such as fainting, dizziness upon standing, and general lightheadedness. Those with low aldosterone levels are also more prone to experience fatigue, particularly mental fatigue related to dizziness or lightheadedness.
Aldosterone does little to benefit the body if there is not enough salt in one’s system. Improving aldosterone function can be as easy as incorporating more salt into one’s diet. One of the best ways to achieve this is by drinking a glass of salt water as part of one’s morning routine. This may sound unappealing, but for those with aldosterone or sodium deficiency it will likely taste great. If one is deficient, the body craves salty flavors making it easier to ingest high salt foods, thus helping resolve deficiency.
Many recognize cortisol as the “stress hormone.” In addition to being a critical part of the body’s stress response, this hormone has many other functions. Cortisol is secreted whenever the body perceives a threat whether that be real or imagined. As the body releases cortisol one becomes more energized, awake, and focused. This is perfectly acceptable during times of danger, or when one wants to get something done at work. However, if this heightened state is maintained for too long, one runs the risk of incurring adrenal fatigue.
When one remains in a high stress state, all the body’s energy is focused on primary bodily functions and systems focused on survival. This means that energy is diverted from areas such as the immune system, energy storage, and inflammatory responses. Instead, this energy is allocated to the large muscle groups like the legs and arms to increase one’s ability to fight or flee. Because the body doesn’t focus on regular maintenance and long term well-being during periods of high stress, chronic conditions and serious symptoms can develop.
DHEA is considered by many to be a parent hormone, meaning that it gets broken down into other important hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Depending on one’s gender and if DHEA is broken into the appropriate hormone, it can help improve energy, libido, muscle strength, and metabolism. Furthermore, DHEA is a neuroprotective hormone, which helps preserve brain volume and protect against nerve damage.
Deficiency of DHEA likely means one is deficient in a variety of other hormones. Generally, physicians will prescribe a specific hormone to resolve deficiency rather than DHEA because it may be converted incorrectly. However, for some, small doses of DHEA has been shown to improve bodily function. If supplementing with DHEA, it is important to do so slowly and cautiously. Conversion issues may exacerbate an issue rather than improving it. Optimizing adrenal function can improve DHEA function and conversion.
Much like DHEA, pregnenolone is converted into other hormones including progesterone, DHEA, and cortisol. Hormone production sites in the body have specialized enzymes that break down chemicals and other hormones into various substances. The enzymes found within the adrenals breakdown cholesterol into pregnenolone which can then be converted into the hormones needed by the body.
In the adrenals, pregnenolone is primarily broken down into either cortisol or progesterone, a calming hormone that provides many relaxing benefits. However, when under stress, the body only converts pregnenolone into cortisol. If one is already experiencing adrenal fatigue, this worsens the situation by both increasing cortisol levels and reducing progesterone. Although one can take pregnenolone supplements to help resolve imbalances it does little to aid the situation unless one is able to reduce their stress levels to an appropriate range.
Supporting the Adrenals
It is important to take proper care of one’s adrenals. If one is regularly under high levels of stress, following a poor diet, or is experiencing adrenal fatigue, it can be difficult to rebalance and maintain healthy adrenal function. However, various treatment options are available that help support adrenal health.
Herbal supplements such as Siberian ginseng (also known as eleuthero), ashwagandha, and others can help support adrenal function. Because these plants are adaptogens they help improve cortisol balance regardless if one has an excess or deficiency. More commonly, these natural remedies are used to increase cortisol levels. This can assist those suffering from poor adrenal function rather than excessive production.
Cortisol may be prescribed to those suffering from severe fatigue. Those with extreme cortisol or adrenal fatigue, such as that seen in Addison’s disease, experience system wide disruption. Resolving cortisol deficiencies with a cortisol supplement can help combat symptoms caused by prolonged stress or adrenal exhaustion. However, too much cortisol can result in immune disorders, insomnia, anxiety, and adrenal crashes. It is always best to speak with a trusted physician prior to taking cortisol supplements or medications for treating adrenal dysfunction.
In many cases, adrenal fatigue and dysfunction is caused by a contributing condition or lifestyle habit such as chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, fibromyalgia, inadequate sleep, or excess stress. Therefore, the best method of treatment is a multi-system approach that aims to resolve hormonal imbalances, improve lifestyle habits, and treat preexisting or chronic conditions to optimize health.
Don’t Stress Over Your Adrenals
Even though this article only scratched the surface of adrenal function and its impact on the body, it is easy to see how important these small glands are to our health. Greater understanding of how the adrenals function and the ways we can influence them allows us to take the steps needed to support adrenal health. Improving adrenal function can bring about widespread improvement of many bodily functions. By adapting a lifestyle of reduced stress, improved sleep quality, and pursuing comprehensive treatment you can provide the support your adrenals need to achieve greater wellness.
For even more information, make sure to watch Dr. Evan’s talk on the adrenals here.