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Adrenal Gland Function: Hormones, Dysfunctions, and Ways to Boost It

Evidence-based Reviewed Article

An image of a hand holding an adrenal gland modelYour adrenal glands play an important role in controlling several hormone-related activities in your body. They play a key role in your stress response, with different parts of the adrenal gland being responsible for different roles. This article will explore your adrenal gland function, what it is, why it's important, what can happen if this functioning declines, and what you can do to improve it.

What Is Adrenal Gland Function?

You have two adrenal glands that sit on top of your kidneys. Each of your adrenal glands contains two separate parts: the outer layer called the adrenal cortex, and the inner part called the adrenal medulla. These two parts secrete different hormones that travel throughout your body and act as chemical messengers. Their function is to act on various bodily organs and tissues, enabling them to work correctly. All hormones from the adrenal gland are called adrenocortical hormones and are derived from cholesterol (1).

Your adrenal gland function receives signals from the pituitary gland in your brain and will act on these signals to perform a function. The main role of this gland is to control the endocrine glands.

What Do the Adrenal Hormones Do?

The main job of your adrenal gland function is producing and secreting hormones that affect numerous body functions. Some of these functions include:

  • Salt and water balance
  • Blood pressure
  • Response to stress
  • Pregnancy
  • Metabolism
  • Levels of blood glucose
  • Balance of sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone
  • Development of sex organs during and before puberty

Different hormones are produced by different parts of your adrenal glands.

Adrenal Cortex

Three hormones come from the adrenal cortex. These hormones are:

  • Mineralocorticoids
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Male sex hormones

Mineralocorticoids include aldosterone. Aldosterone works to balance your body’s salt and water levels, which in turn affects your blood pressure. Therefore, if this part of your adrenal gland function doesn’t work properly, your kidneys lose too much salt and water, resulting in dehydration and low blood pressure.

Glucocorticoids, mostly cortisol, make up the next category of hormones from the adrenal cortex. In addition to its stress-fighting properties, cortisol works to regulate your metabolism and how you respond to illness. Likewise, it stimulates the production of glucose by helping your body release stored ingredients from fat and muscle to make glucose. In addition, cortisol works to help fight inflammation. Cortisol also functions as your first-line stress-fighting hormone.

The third category of hormones coming from the adrenal cortex consists of male sex hormones. While these hormones, mostly dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone, produce relatively weak effects, they do play a role in the development of the male sex organs early in childhood. In addition, they affect the development of female body hair during puberty.

Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released by the anterior pituitary gland and signals the adrenals to release glucocorticoids and androgens. And, to a lesser extent, it also affects the release of aldosterone (1).

Adrenal Medulla

Catecholamines come from the adrenal medulla. These hormones include adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. These hormones make up a major part of the stress response, the "fight or flight" response to a stressor. During stress, adrenaline and noradrenaline help your body respond to stress by increasing your heart rate, maintaining blood pressure, and relaxing smooth muscles. Dopamine is a brain hormone and is also dubbed the happy hormone as it can help to increase feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. The combination of these three hormones can help to play an important role in your emotional health (1).

Problems With Your Adrenal Gland Function

An image of a sitting woman in bed while holding her headIf your adrenal gland function declines, the levels of hormones that the adrenal gland is responsible for can become too low or too high, resulting in different conditions such as adrenal insufficiency, adrenal fatigue, and Cushing's syndrome.

Other conditions involving the adrenal gland include tumors, cancers, and an enlarged adrenal gland also known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). As the name suggests, individuals are born with this condition.

Adrenal Insufficiency

Adrenal insufficiency occurs when your adrenal gland function fails to produce enough cortisol. Three types of insufficiency can occur:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Tertiary

Primary Adrenal Insufficiency

Also called Addison’s disease, this condition occurs when your adrenal gland function itself doesn’t make enough cortisol, and aldosterone levels may also be low.

Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency

This condition comes about when the pituitary doesn’t produce enough ACTH. Insufficient ACTH means the adrenal glands don’t get the signal to produce cortisol.

Tertiary Adrenal Insufficiency

This occurs when your brain doesn’t produce enough corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). If the level of CRH is too low, your pituitary can’t make ACTH and your adrenals can’t make cortisol.

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS)

Another form of adrenal insufficiency is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) which is the non-Addison's form of adrenal dysfunction, where the body's stress response cannot keep up with life's chronic stressors. AFS occurs due to long-term stress. In short-term stress, the adrenal glands produce cortisol in response to the stress. However, when this stress becomes long-term, your adrenal glands can become depleted, resulting in low cortisol levels. The difference between AFS and Addison's disease is that in AFS, cortisol levels are low, whilst in Addison's disease, there is no cortisol.

Your adrenal glands are supported by the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response System, which consists of six circuits of related organs and systems. When AFS occurs, imbalances within this system start to occur, particularly in the Hormone circuit. This circuit is responsible for regulating the hormones in your body and consists of the adrenal glands, thyroid glands, and reproductive organs.

Imbalances in this circuit can cause symptoms such as:

  • Tiredness
  • Weight gain
  • Low libido
  • Irregular periods
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Infertility

Cushing’s Syndrome

In Cushing's syndrome, your adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. This condition is caused by tumors as well as using high doses of the medication class glucocorticoids. Symptoms of Cushing's syndrome include:

  • Round face
  • Fatty hump between shoulders
  • Fat buildup around the base of the neck
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Excess hair on the face, abdomen, neck, chest, and thighs (in females)
  • Skin that bruises easily
  • Wide purple stretch marks on the abdomen, hips, and breasts
  • Thin arms and legs
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods
  • Obesity and slow growth in children
  • Low libido, low fertility, erectile dysfunction (in males)

Testing Adrenal Gland Function

If your practitioner is concerned about your adrenal gland function they may order some tests. These tests could include:

  • Blood tests
  • Saliva tests
  • Urine tests
  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • MRI scans

Blood tests are generally the first test used when conventional doctors try to assess the adrenal gland function. These tests measure adrenal and pituitary hormones, sodium, potassium, and glucose.

If the results indicate problems, imaging may follow. Imaging may show potential tumors, deterioration of endocrine tissue, and other possible issues.

Saliva tests are rarely done in conventional medicine due to not being FDA-approved. However, it is a really good marker of adrenal fatigue when used in conjunction with symptoms due to the testing of free cortisol in your body throughout the day over a series of 4-5 saliva tests.

How to Improve Adrenal Gland Function

An image of various supplements, herbs, and mortar and pestleSeveral vitamins, minerals, herbs, and supplements can be used to help to improve adrenal gland function. However, do note that you should always talk to a doctor before adding new supplements to your diet, particularly if you have any preexisting health conditions.

Vitamins and Minerals

Several vitamins and minerals can help to enhance the function of the adrenal glands.  These include (2,3) :

  • Vitamin B5 - necessary for the production of adrenal hormones
  • Vitamin C - regulates the production of cortisol
  • Vitamin E - regulates the activity of the adrenal gland
  • Zinc
  • Selenium

Herbs

Adaptogenic herbs are particularly helpful for managing stress, improving adrenal gland function, and restoring balance in your body. Some examples of adaptogens include:

Supplementation

Whilst many nutrients and herbs can be found in food, and this is often the safest and healthiest way to get them, many people prefer to supplement. Supplements allow you to receive higher doses of the nutrients that you may not receive through food and ensure you are getting enough.

Adrenal Rescue by Dr. Lam is one supplement that combines several nutrients. This supplement includes vitamin C and B5 and adaptogens including ashwagandha, maca root, and licorice. This supplement also contains glandulars which can help to enhance the function of the adrenals. This can help when your adrenal function is low.

However, though supplementation can be promising, it is always important to check with your healthcare provider before you start a new regimen. Some supplements can backfire or may not meet your body's needs. Also it depends on your stage of adrenal fatigue on whether you should be taking glandulars or adaptogens.

Adrenal Gland Function: Takeaway Message

Your adrenal glands provide essential hormones that keep your body functioning as it should. These hormones affect every aspect of your body. Some of the hormones are produced by the outer cortex of your adrenals while others come from the inner medulla.

Adrenal gland function disorders can affect the levels of hormones produced by your adrenals. These disorders can prompt your adrenals to produce either too little or too much of these hormones.

Dr. Michael Lam's Nutritional Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Program is a holistic 30-day online course designed by Dr. Lam, an adrenal fatigue survivor and physician. This self-paced program offers a blend of Dr. Lam's proprietary supplements, the detailed "Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome" eBook, instructional videos, and guides on diet, stress management, and exercises suited for adrenal recovery. Participants gain strategies for restful sleep and increased energy and learn about the adrenal fatigue stages. The program includes lifetime access to all materials, ensuring users have support to recover vitality and health through a simple, step-by-step recovery plan.

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References

Dutt, Meghan. “Physiology, Adrenal Gland.” StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf, 1 May 2023, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537260.

Wan, Zhijie, et al. “Intermediate Role of Gut Microbiota in Vitamin B Nutrition and Its Influences on Human Health.” Frontiers in Nutrition, vol. 9, Dec. 2022, https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.1031502.

Patani, Anil, et al. “Harnessing the Power of Nutritional Antioxidants Against Adrenal Hormone Imbalance-associated Oxidative Stress.” Frontiers in Endocrinology, vol. 14, Nov. 2023, https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2023.1271521.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Adrenal gland function is easily one of the most important aspects of good health. The hormones produced by the adrenal glands affect all aspects of your body and either too much or too little of them can bring lasting health issues. It’s important to be aware of how well yours is functioning.

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