The Role of the Adrenal Glands: Part 1

Chronic stress?

Physiologically, our biggest ally for combating stress and adapting to life’s changes is the adrenal gland. The adrenal glands are triangular-shaped and sit on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands do not work in isolation, but respond to multiple inputs from other parts of the body: sympathetic nerve pathways, hormones from other organs including the pituitary gland in the brain, minerals in the bloodstream. These inputs signal the adrenal gland to secrete hormones, steroids and neurotransmitters that have many vital functions:

  1. Blood pressure regulation
  2. Immune system regulation including viral and bacterial defence, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine activity
  3. Stomach acid production
  4. Regulation of blood sugars, growth of bone and cartilage
  5. Production of Epinephrine and Norepinephrine neurotransmitters to mediate our “fight or flight” response to stress
  6. Production of other hormones such as Testosterone, DHEA and Estrogen

The most important of these essential chemicals are the Glucocorticoids primarily Cortisol. Cortisol plays an essential role in immune function, mobilizing the body’s defences against viral or bacterial infection, and fighting inflammation. Chronic elevated cortisol levels suppress the action of the immune system and predispose to frequent infections. Chronic low levels of cortisol can result in allergies and inflammatory processes.

General Adaptation Syndrome

The “fight or flight” response, also called the acute stress response is the first stage of the general adaptation syndrome. This enables vertebrates and other organisms to react quickly and intensely to acute dangers. The body mobilizes glucose for energy, blood travels preferentially to the skeletal muscles and the heart pumps faster. The situation is dealt with on the physical level.

Chronic stress breaks down the body

In today’s world stress is predominantly chronic. These stressors often exist for long periods of time. The adrenal glands continue pumping out its chemicals often resulting in adrenal depletion. Additionally, repetitive acute stress especially at a young age can subsequently contribute to the perception of minor stressors as acute stress. This can put the body into chronic “overdrive” whereby the reaction is often over and above (overreaction) to what is necessary.

The short-term result of this type of stress may be chronic anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia when the cortisol levels are chronically elevated. The long-term result may be complete exhaustion, thyroid problems, allergies, chronic inflammatory processes when the cortisol levels are insufficient.

From the vital functions listed above you can see that the adrenal glands can be involved in many of the diseases we see in our society: arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and mental-emotional disturbances are only a few. Healthy adrenal glands enable us to adapt to and withstand stress as well as maintain optimal health. Naturopathic assessment and care takes into consideration the health of the adrenal glands. Next month I will discuss ways to nourish, regulate and optimize the function of the adrenal glands.

Written by Kathleen Finlay , BScH, N.D., Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine

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