6 Oct 2010
If you suffer from fatigue, hypoglycemia, allergies, arthritis, decreased immune response, PMS, menopausal problems, increased fears, anxiety, depression, confusion, problems concentration, poor memory, easily frustrated, insomnia, recurring respiratory infections, allergies, rhinitis, asthma, frequent colds, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypoglycemia, adult onset diabetes, auto-immune disorders, or alcoholism you may have tired adrenal glands. Read on!
We all know about heart and lungs and stomach and bowels, but most of us don’t know much, if anything at all, about our adrenal glands. That’s not good. Adrenals are resilient to a point, but if you don’t love them enough, they may eventually snub you and stop doing their multiple jobs. The simpleness of their outward appearance belies the complexity, importance, and far reaching effects of the hormones they produce. Simply put, as you will see, these hormones are so important that they are essential for life.
The adrenals are two small compound glands not much bigger than a vinyl eraser. Each is sat directly on top of a kidney. As compound glands, these glands are multi-layered. The inner portion is the medulla and functions quite independently of the outer portion. It secretes specific hormones that we will discuss later. The outer portion is the cortex. It is made up of three distinct layers, each with their own hormonal purposes, which we will also discuss in detail.
So why, exactly, are these little glands so important? Because they are a part of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible primarily for body responses that happen under stress. Think of the ‘fight or flight’ response. When you hear a bear come crashing through the woods at you, you become more alert, your pupils dilate improving your peripheral vision, your bronchioles dilate to enhance your intake of air, your heart pumps faster and harder, your blood sugars skyrocket, your digestion stops (after all, digestion is not as important as getting to safety), the peripheral circulation diminishes, your blood pressure increases, and the circulation in your large muscles increases. This is all because an urgent message of danger, fear, or excitement was sent from your brain to your adrenal glands, and they responded instantaneously with the right hormones to cause these reactions and save your life. At some time in your life you have experienced how amazingly quickly these sympathetic nervous system/adrenal gland reactions happen.
The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, is the great re-balancer. After a sympathetic nervous system experience (like winning a lottery), the parasympathetic system kicks in to restore normalcy.
The outer, or cortex, layer of the adrenal glands is divided into three layers. As a unit, the cortex secretes steroid hormones, also known in general as corticosteroids. The outermost of the three layers (zona glomerulosa) is responsible for secreting hormones that deal with fluid and electrolyte balance, including aldosterone and other mineralocortocoids. Translated into English, the aldosterone produced by this region regulates blood pressure and fluid in the blood stream by controlling the amount of sodium and potassium (plasma salts) in the blood stream. Electrolytes are electrically charged molecules of which sodium/potassium, calcium/magnesium are just two such pairs. When the glomerulosa is out of balance and oversecreting aldosterone the body will retain sodium and excrete potassium in excessive amounts, thus increasing fluid retention and blood pressure. However, if sodium levels fall too low, or potassium levels climb too high, or blood volume or pressure falls, aldosterone secretion will be stimulated to correct and increase blood pressure.
Aldosterone also stimulates the secretion of another hormone, through a long chemical chain of events, which increases blood pressure by causing constriction of peripheral capillaries.
If aldosterone cannot be made or supplied, death will result fairly quickly. Without controls on sodium and potassium balance, the brain, nervous system, and heart cannot function, dehydration follows, and shock rapidly ensues. The only medically known and proven therapies include administration of aldosterone, salt and fluids.
The next layer (zona fasciculata) is active in secreting hormones that influence carbohydrate metabolism, such as cortisol. Cortisol (you may know it better by its pharmaceutical incarnation, cortisone), serves many purposes in the body. We are familiar with the use of topical cortisone to control eczema and psoriasis because it does many things including speeding tissue repair and reducing inflammation. Chronic stress, however, leads to excess cortisol production which can cause stomach ulcers, atrophying of the lymph nodes, reduction in white blood cells, high blood pressure by increasing vasoconstriction, and other vascular disorders.
The third and inner most layer of the cortex is the zona reticularis which produces small amounts of sex hormones. Specifically, it produces androgen, estrogen, and progesterone. Now, think about menopause. A woman reaches age 50. She has had a normal amount of stress in her life, has had average nutrition, and drinks coffee to whip her tired adrenal glands into action to give her energy. How reliably are her tired adrenal glands going to produce their hormones? This is important, because the androgen that should be released should then be converted into more estrogen when it passes through fat cells in her body. Because of adrenal abuse and exhaustion she is hormone deficient in androgen, estrogen, progesterone, or all three, and she now has many of the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause. Adrenal support can help to correct some, if not all, of the problems of menopause.
The adrenal cortex can atrophy as a result of cancer, some disease processes (e.g. tuberculosis), and some autoimmune diseases. When the cortex atrophies it is called Addison’s Disease. Without the steroid hormones produced by the cortex, and without appropriate treatment, death will ensue.
The medulla, or central part of the adrenal gland, is responsible for producing epinephrine and norepinephrine in response to exercise or surprise. The bear example mentioned earlier outlined the results of high epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) output.
Many of us live lives in which ‘bears are constantly chasing us’. Our adrenal glands function in a hyper state for so long that they become tired and unreliable. We need to learn ways to protect and support our adrenal glands so they will be there when we need them.
Rest is very important. I recently read a report in a local newspaper that said at the turn of the twentieth century, before most people had electricity, the vast majority of the population got nine hours of sleep per night. (I doubt this included mothers!) Recently, the researchers investigated and found that modern life, with all the conveniences of electricity, comfortable travel and our desire for instant gratification has led us to get an average of six hours of sleep per night. Sleep is the time we give our bodies, including our adrenal glands, a chance to heal and rejuvenate. Puffy bags and dark circles under the eyes are an indication of tired, under-functioning adrenal glands. (Dark circles also indicate allergies, but the adrenal glands are thoroughly involved in allergic responses, too.)
Food is key! Most important is the concept of balancing blood sugars and keeping them stable. The easiest way to do this is by eating small amounts, 2 – 3 oz, of protein five to six times per day. That means having protein with each meal and as between meal snacks. Try using an egg, chicken, fish, lamb, lentils or legumes with a grain, beef, nuts and seed (no peanuts), and protein powders (check your ingredients to avoid MSG, artificial sweeteners, and high sugar content). Eggs are a perfectly balanced protein. They supply all the nutrients needed by the adrenal glands to aid in supporting adrenal function. Egg yolks are also rich in B Vitamins.
Then, you need lots of minerals. Your best natural sources of minerals are vegetables. Avoid canned. Frozen is good, and as a general rule in the winter, frozen has more nutritional value than fresh. Remember the rule of one fist-sized serving for every 25 pounds of body weight each day. Any nutrient that can be found in fruit can be found in vegetables. Fruit tends to be very high carbohydrate which is not good when your adrenals are tired.
Avoid refined carbohydrates. That’s anything made with white flour or white sugar. This is usually packaged food, junk food, and homemade treats.
Refined carbohydrates are detrimental to the adrenal glands and general body health. The stresses created on the pancreas, liver, and thyroid, when refined carbohydrates are ingested (the spike and responding crash in sugars), and the instability created by the influx of sugars causes the adrenals to respond with the alarm phase in an effort to re-elevate the sugars to a normal functioning level.
Drink water. Good, clean water. Use reverse osmosis when you can, and aim for .5 ounce of water for each pound of body weight. Water helps distribute nutrients throughout the body and carries waste products away. If you are particularly fatigued, and if your blood pressure is low (which is usually will be with tired adrenals) you will find temporary relief by lightly salting your drinking water with real sea salt. People with tired adrenals are often sodium deficient and need good quality sodium to restore their adrenals.
I also like to use the Chinese herbal formula AD-C and/or its liquid counterpart Chinese Mineral Chi Tonic for the adrenal glands. Both offer superior support. As we now understand that ADD, ADHD, and sometimes depression are symptoms of under-functioning adrenal glands, one or both of these formulations can work well to create a new balance by increasing adrenal function. Another excellent product is Adrenal Support. These three products can be used alone, or, in deeply entrenched cases, in combination with each other.
Stress formula (Nutri-calm), a moderate potency B-complex with vitamin C and herbs in it, and Pantothenic acid are other good answers. Pantothenic acid targets the adrenal glands and feeds them. It is always a sound practice to take isolated B vitamins only in addition to the complete B complex to prevent imbalances from happening.
Hawthorn is one of my favourite ways to support adrenal glands, especially in children. This herb is particularly high in flavonoids and proanthocyanidins. While I can find nothing in print to support what it does for the adrenal glands, I know that when I use it with people who are showing signs of adrenal stress it brings about good results.
Licorice exhibits many pharmacological actions. As Michael T. Murray says, its actions are “estrogenic; aldosterone-like; anti-inflammatory (cortisol-like); antiallergic” amongst others. It is well-documented that consuming elevated amounts of licorice for prolonged periods of time can elevate blood pressure by promoting sodium and water retention and potassium loss.
Siberian Ginseng is an adaptogenic herb. As such it inhibits the ‘alarm’ phase of the fight–or-flight response. Specifically, it also reduces the adrenal cortex response to stress. In studies done by Farnsworth and reported by Murray it was found that Siberian Ginseng “(1) increased the ability of humans to withstand many adverse physical conditions (i.e., heat, noise, motion, work load increase, exercise, and decompression), (2) increased mental alertness and work output, and (3) improve the quality of work produced under stressful conditions and athletic performance.”
Bee Pollen contains B vitamins, 21 amino acids including all 8 essential amino acids, and many other vitamins and minerals. Because of its very broad nutrient base, it acts as a general tonic, but is also helpful in strengthening the adrenal glands.
We do have some control of the amount of stress our adrenal glands have to deal with. As we learn stress management, better sleep habits, better dietary habits, and take appropriate supplements, we can support our adrenal glands and enable them to support us in return.
Michael T Murray, Healing Power of Herbs
Louise Tenney, Today’s Herbal Health
Wynn Kapit, The Physiology Coloring Book