The adrenal glands are two walnut sized organs that sit on top of our kidneys. They are crucial organs that have a strong influence on many aspects of our health and wellbeing.
The main roles of our adrenal glands are to allow us to cope with stress and let’s face it, stress is experienced daily, in varying degrees and is ultimately inevitable; DHEA a steroid hormone is produced by the adrenal glands and aids in the secondary production of oestrogen and testosterone; our fight or flight response is dictated by our adrenal glands, through the production of adrenaline and cortisol. Without sufficient production of these hormones, our response to stress becomes skewed and our ability to cope declines.
It is the job of our adrenal glands to enable our body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship issues. Our resilience, energy, endurance, and life itself, is dependent on healthy adrenal function.
Although emotional and mental stresses are important considerations of adrenal health, physical trauma can be just as detrimental. Physical trauma or chronic illnesses can cumulatively drain the adrenal reserves, particularly if there is limited recovery time between episodes of stress.
As a woman progresses into menopause, her hormone production obviously declines and it is therefore the role of the adrenal glands to take over some of the roles of the failing ovaries. During this life stage, the adrenal glands produce a hormone called, androstenedione, which can covert to the most potent oestrogen, known as oestrone, via conversion that takes place in fat tissue. Androstenedione is also converted into testosterone and in turn, testosterone can undergo a process known as aromatisation, to convert into another form of oestrogen called, oestradiol.
DHEA, another hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is at its highest in women in their mid to early 20s and it gradually decreases with age, to the point where values of DHEA are 20% of their original peak values, between the ages of 70-80.
Since the source of precursor hormones for oestrogen and testosterone and progesterone are produced by the adrenal glands, it is crucial that optimal adrenal health is maintained during menopause and post menopause.
If chronic stress is present and the adrenal glands are required to produce large amounts of cortisol and DHEA, the glands may not be able to keep up with the demand for sex hormone precursors. As well as this, high cortisol production has been linked to bone loss in both men and women. Furthermore, increased cortisol production can increase core body temperature, therefore contributing to the development of hot flushes or, high cortisol levels many increase to the worsening of hot flushes. This occurs as a way of the body cooling down and returning core body temperature to normal.
The medical fraternity quite often dismisses the role the adrenal glands can play throughout life and especially, throughout menopause. In many instances, the adrenal glands aren’t even considered, unless there is a blatant reduction in cortisol, that can result in a condition knowns as Addison’s disease. From a holistic perspective, the adrenal glands are always considered when treating menopause or, when assessing stress response/adaptation and energy levels.
Over time and as we age, our adrenal glands are unable to cope as well as what they used to and as a result, cortisol production may decline. This can lead to imbalances in steroid hormone production. Common symptoms of adrenal dysfunction may include:
- Severe fatigue
- Inability to cope with increased physical or emotional stress
- Poor sleep patterns
- Difficulty waking in the morning
- Cravings for salt or salty foods
- Drastic energy fluctuations
- Reduced sex drive
- Recurrent infections
- Mood fluctuations such as depression and irritability
- Blood pressure fluctuations, particularly low blood pressure
- Lack of motivation and inability to perform daily tasks with ease
- Reduced mental clarity and memory
- Blood glucose fluctuations
- Afternoon energy slumps
- Desire to sleep after stressful events
- Reduced productivity
These are only common symptoms that may occur because of poor adrenal function and the symptoms need to be considered on a case by case basis.
Apart from assessing the patient’s symptoms, there are some diagnostic assessments that can be made to determine an individual’s adrenal health. These include:
- Assessing DHEA levels via a blood test
- Conducting a 4-point salivary cortisol test
- Measuring hormone status
As there are multiple causes of adrenal dysfunction there are also many strategies that can be implemented to improve the function of these crucial organs and this can be done in a systematic fashion.
- Identify stressors and improve stress management
The holistic approach to adrenal dysfunction is to identify causes and triggers prior to implementing any form of treatment. Without knowing the cause, it can be quite difficult to treat and as a result, a band aid solution will only be applied. It is essential to identify the culprit of poor adrenal function. It could be anything from chronic stress, financial burden, relationship breakdown and the list goes on. It could also result from a reduced ability of the individual to simply adapt and cope with life’s stresses.
As some stresses are unable to be removed, it is essential to implement stress management strategies. This can be anything from seated meditation, moderate exercise, mindfulness, or yoga and pilates. As well as this, certain herbal medicines such as adaptogens, may need to be utilised as well as nutrients such as magnesium and B vitamins, to improve patients stress response and reduce the burden of stress on the body.
- Dietary Adjustments
Poor dietary habits can strongly negatively influence our adrenal health. Caffeine, refined carbohydrates (sweets, biscuits, cakes etc.), junk food, fried food, alcohol, and meal skipping can place a further burden on our adrenal glands. It is imperative that up to 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit are consumed daily, high quality protein is eaten in every meal, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids consumed within each meal as well. These are just some simple suggestions that can assist with improving adrenal function.
- Adequate sleep
Sleep enables our adrenal glands to rest and recharge. During the acute phases of adrenal dysfunction, it is essential to listen to our body and sleep and nap where possible and when required. The more we push through our fatigue, the more trauma we place on our adrenal function.
- Sufficient exercise
Although energy levels are very much compromised when adrenal function is suboptimal, it is still crucial to keep up with daily exercise. Instead of over exerting oneself, the incorporation of yoga, pilates, cycling or a brisk walk every day can assist with reducing stress levels as well as providing adequate endorphins to improve moods.
If you feel you are suffering from suboptimal adrenal function, contact our friendly Naturopathic staff to determine how we may be able to assist.
Written by Annmarie Cannone
M.Hum Nut, Grad Dip Naturopathy, B.App Sci (Naturopathic Studies)