It’s disconcerting to me that I continue to see patients who have been treated by medical practitioners and received incorrect information and treatment for their adrenal glands. They are often told that they have “adrenal fatigue,” which is problematic. Not only is it a non-specific description, but it often comes with the recommendation to take substances that may not be what is needed, or could make you feel worse. Others are told that their symptoms are due to age and that their adrenals are fine when, in truth, they’re not.
Today’s article is my attempt to set the record straight and give you the information you need to take matters into your own hands.
The adrenal glands are probably the least known and most important organs in our bodies. They help us respond to stress, which is something we experience every day. The hormones made by the adrenal glands – cortisol and adrenaline – communicate with every other part of our body. They are quite literally the manager of everything else that happens next.
That’s how important the adrenal glands are. And that’s why it is so important for you to know how your adrenals are performing and whether they need assistance. If they do, then you cannot wait to give them the right support, otherwise you could make things so much worse.
So, let me introduce you to your adrenal glands, the hormones they make in response to stress, and what you need to know and do to make sure your adrenal function is optimized.
What Are the Adrenal Glands?
When you look in a medical textbook, what you’ll learn is that the adrenal glands are triangular shaped and sitting on top of your kidneys, which are in your lower back area. There are two main parts of the adrenal glands – the outer and the inner. Those two parts make different hormones and substances, including stress hormones and substances that have to do with water balance in our bodies.
For the focus of this article, we are most interested in the stress hormones made by the adrenal glands – cortisol and adrenaline, which is actually a catecholamine and neurotransmitter.
When we cut through the medical jargon, we are essentially talking about the messengers that communicate a stress response throughout the body.
Now that seems pretty important, right? We deal with stress every day, all day, after all.
So many people I talk to say to me, “stress doesn’t affect me.” I say to myself, “that’s what you think!”
Actually – unless you’re a robot – stress does affect you.
That is the first of several misconceptions about the adrenal glands that I’m about to breakdown.
First, I want to cover a few important facts to help you understand the adrenals, stress response, and stress hormones.
Understanding Adrenal Function
- Stress response starts in the brain. The amygdala is a constant radar on stress of all types for us humans. When the amygdala picks up something it considers stressful (which can also be determined by our past stress exposure), it first triggers the sympathetic – fight or flight – part of the nervous system which makes adrenaline. Then it triggers the hypothalamus, which tells the pituitary gland to tell the adrenal glands to increase cortisol and adrenaline levels.
- We have optimal levels of cortisol and adrenaline production by the adrenal glands at all times of day. It’s not that they only turn on when we are stressed. Cortisol and adrenaline send important signals throughout our bodies day in and day out.
- Cortisol is naturally and optimally higher in the morning when we wake, and decreases gradually through the day until it is lowest at night when we are ready to sleep.
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the adrenal glands. If you would like to keep going and learn more, then you’ll want to get my book, Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health. There you’ll find in-depth descriptions of all the nitty gritty details about the adrenal glands.
Now to break some misconceptions.
6 Common Misconceptions About the Adrenal Glands
Misconception #1: The adrenal glands just affect blood pressure.
Usually when you read about the adrenal glands you’ll see a long list of seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as issues with blood pressure and dizziness. I read that list many times as a medical student, and found it to be rather unhelpful when actually trying to help myself and my patients recover from adrenal issues.
So, I dug into the additional research and started putting puzzle pieces together for myself. What I found is that it is MUCH more helpful to understand the systems affected by cortisol and the adrenal glands. They are:
- Immune system
- All the other hormones in the body
- Neurotransmitters (messengers in the nervous system)
It was then that I got a much clearer idea of what is affected when cortisol levels are higher or lower (even a little bit higher or lower) at any point in time.
Digestion is affected causing indigestion, reflux, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation. Digestive enzyme production decreases, we don’t digest our food as well, nor do we absorb nutrients as well. The intestinal cells are replaced as efficiently, leading to intestinal permeability, known as leaky gut, which results in immune reactions to food, food sensitivities, and inflammation throughout the body. The microbiome – trillions of bacteria living in our intestines – are disrupted by stress, causing an increase in toxin production and further disrupting signals throughout the body.
The Immune System
The immune system becomes disrupted, making allergies, asthma, histamine intolerance, autoimmunity, and infections all the more likely.
Every hormone you can think of from thyroid, insulin, sex hormones, and more, are all thrown off when cortisol is either too high or too low. This leads to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, weight changes, low energy, low libido, and changes in skin, hair, and nails.
The messengers or chemicals that affect our mood, focus, sleep and energy are also affected by cortisol (and stress). Serotonin, for example, is depleted by stress, as is GABA. Without enough of these calming neurotransmitters, we become less able to counterbalance stress. This leads us to feel anxiety, depressed, fatigued, and, for some, may disrupt your sleep.
Does that help you to get a better sense of how important it is to have optimal production of cortisol from your adrenal glands?
It means that how you think, feel, sleep, and function each day is completely determined by the level of cortisol flowing through your body at any point in time. Mindblowing.
Misconception #2: You don’t have Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease, so your adrenals are fine.
Endocrinologists, who specialize in all the hormones of the human body, are trained to focus on extreme irregularities in hormone production. They are also trained to identify immediately life-threatening hormonal issues.
In the case of the adrenal glands, they are looking to identify a relatively rare condition called Cushing’s disease, which is when cortisol levels are extremely high, most often caused by medications or a tumor. The other, and completely opposite, condition an endocrinologist is interested in is Addison’s disease, which is when the adrenal glands fail completely.
As you can imagine, the adrenal glands don’t go to extremely high or low function overnight. In most cases, there is a spectrum of dysregulation, often for a very long time (even a lifetime) that doesn’t qualify as Addison’s or Cushings but DOES greatly affect a person’s health.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that adrenal distress, which is the term I use to identify adrenal dysfunction that doesn’t qualify as Addison’s or Cushing’s, is the most common life-threatening condition because it is taking years off our lives and we don’t even know it.
That’s right – you could be silently suffering from adrenal distress, thinking that everything is just fine, when you are actually an “adrenaline junkie.”
Misconception #3: Your blood work is normal, so your symptoms are caused by age and stress.
No, and yes. Just because your blood work is normal doesn’t mean your adrenals are not being affected. And yes, stress is affecting you, but that’s not the end of the story. That is just the beginning.
First of all, the adrenal glands are not well represented in standard blood work. A highly trained practitioner and clinical nutritionist, can look for irregularities in sodium and potassium levels in a complete metabolic panel, but that only gives a glimpse into the possibility of an adrenal issue.
Your doctor may order a fasting blood level of cortisol, but even that is not very useful because cortisol is a hormone that varies throughout the day, so a single level in the morning doesn’t reflect the overall function throughout the day. And furthermore, many people are stressed by the experience of having blood drawn, which can affect the level in the blood test.
So ultimately, if you really want to know how your adrenal glands are holding up under stress, you’re going to need a different type of test. I admit that you could have your blood drawn at different times of day, but that would require that you hang out with a phlebotomist all day and get poked four times which is not convenient or comfortable, and still not capable of providing the correct information.
Instead, testing is more accurate and a lot easier to manage by collecting saliva or urine four different times of day, which can be done from home.
You should know that this is an out-of-pocket test. My belief is that this test should be available to everyone and completed at least once per year. You can order the test from my personal practice, because I don’t believe you should be limited by what your doctor, insurance, or the state you live in says you can know about your body.
Misconception #4: When you feel stressed, likely your cortisol is high.
Wrong. I can confidently say this because I’ve been measuring thousands of patient’s cortisol levels for 20 years. Not all stressed patients have high cortisol. Not even 50% of them.
I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to patients who were told by their functional practitioner or health coach that they should take a supplement to decrease their cortisol when feeling stressed. Again, this is so wrong!
What I want you to know is that this may, or may not, be the correct treatment. What if you take a supplement to lower your cortisol when your cortisol is actually too low? You’d be making things worse.
This is why I passionately speak and write on the joint topics of adrenal glands, stress, and hormones. I want to make certain you know your own cortisol levels and the appropriate treatment for your body.
In my research and practice, I discovered and identified the 5 most common patterns that disrupt cortisol and adrenaline levels. I refer to them as the Stress Types. The treatment for each of the stress types is completely different.
TAKE THE FREE STRESS QUIZ TO FIND OUT YOUR STRESS TYPE:
Misconception #5: You have adrenal fatigue.
Equally wrong is the concept of adrenal fatigue. This term gained popularity some years ago, but it is not a diagnosis. It is a term that is used to say that your adrenals are struggling. The problem is that it is not specific. It might be easy to assume that your cortisol levels are low, but it could be completely the opposite. What use is a non-specific and confusing term that could lead to the incorrect treatment and corresponding compounding health problems?
This is why I’m here to raise the bar for all my colleagues. It is NOT adequate or responsible for us to tell patients that they have adrenal fatigue.
It is not appropriate or responsible for us to suggest a general adrenal supplement, or to prescribe hydrocortisone, or an adrenal glandular to everyone.
There are effective ways to support the adrenal glands to help them recover and produce optimal levels of cortisol and adrenaline. When medical practitioners jump in and give replacement cortisol, from an external source, they are taking over for your adrenal glands. This type of treatment is only necessary in rare cases.
In most cases, the better approach is to use nutrients and herbs to send a signal to the adrenal glands to make more or less cortisol and adrenaline.
Yes, the adrenal glands respond to nutrients and herbs. Like all parts of the human body, the adrenal glands are made up of cells, with mitochondria, which are affected by stress and oxidative stress. When nutrients become depleted, the cells can’t perform their usual functions or making hormones or neurotransmitters.
I can teach you the exact herbs and nutrients to support your adrenal glands to do what they do because I’m a naturopathic doctor, clinical nutritionist, herbalist, and someone who has been researching, practicing, and healing patients for more than 22 years.
All the details are in my book, Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health. I can guide you through every step of the way when you consult with me by phone or video chat, or join one of my online programs.
Misconception #6: We hear about stress all the time, but is there really anything we can do about it? Isn’t it just a matter of meditating more, or pretending it doesn’t affect us, until it does?
I began asking myself these same questions starting way back when I was a kid. Having a brain that loves to solve puzzles, I kept asking why stress causes us to react the way we do, and what can we do to get through it all without harming ourselves?
How can we expect our bodies to keep running when we are not providing adequate nutrients and recovery from stress?
Instead, we tend to pump in more caffeine to stimulate adrenaline production, or we participate in adrenalizing activities, like skydiving or risky investing. We become adrenaline junkies. Some people turn to alcohol or cannabis to turn off the stress. I guess that my question is, can that really be sustainable? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have alcohol or cannabis.
I am saying there is a way to find out what your adrenal glands need based on your genetics and your stress exposure. Once you know that, you can optimize your cortisol and adrenaline levels so that you’ll have healthy signals going through your blood stream to the rest of your body and brain.
Why wouldn’t you want to do that?
Then you can focus on enjoying your passions and your loved ones, all without negatively and unknowingly affecting your quality of life.
To learn more about how recovering from stress and addressing your adrenal glands and neurotransmitters based on your stress type can help with anxiety and depression, join my free masterclass:
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12th October 2022
 Journal of Medicine and Life https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5152600/
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