By Pamela Israel
Peaceful Spirit Massage and Wellness Centers
Helen was tired. She had been working extra hours, trying to pay the bills and was feeling the stress. Every morning, she had to drag herself out of bed to the coffee machine, drinking more and more coffee just to get through the day. She didn’t have any energy, even after sleeping for more than ten hours per night, and she was craving sweet and salty snacks. She began feeling as if something in her body was definitely wrong. Finally, she decided to go to the doctor. After running some tests, her doctor found that she was suffering from Addison’s Disease, a condition where the adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol. Helen immediately had questions. What are the adrenal glands and what do they do? What is cortisol? And what could she have done to catch the problem sooner?
The adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped glands located at the top of each kidney. Basically, their main function is to produce a number of different hormones for the body, including adrenaline, cortisol, and DHEA. When everything is functioning normally, the adrenal glands produce the correct amount of each hormone and everything is fine. When something goes wrong, however, the adrenal glands will either produce too much or not enough of certain hormones, which causes symptoms to begin.
Many people correctly associate the adrenal glands with the “fight-or-flight” response, which is the body’s natural reaction to a stressful situation. When something stressful happens, the adrenal glands go to work producing adrenaline and other stress hormones. These hormones raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, weaken the immune system, and cause blood to be transferred from the digestive system to the arms and legs. Our bodies have evolved this response over thousands of years to help us escape from immediate threats in our environment, such as dangerous animals. Usually, the adrenal response is very short, only lasting long enough for the person to escape the stressful situation. However, in our modern society, stressors are all around us. We are in a constant state of stress, which can cause our adrenal glands to work overtime. When this happens, our bodies have no time to recover from one stressor before the next one pops up. This persistent stress results in continuously elevated levels of adrenal hormones. Since the adrenal hormones affect the digestive tract, having elevated hormone levels can cause illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and indigestion. High levels of adrenal hormones over long periods of time can also contribute to many illnesses, since the hormones tend to weaken the immune system.
Inflammation can also have a direct effect on the adrenal glands. One of the main ways that the body deals with inflammation is by stimulating the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s main anti-inflammatory hormone. When the body is experiencing inflammation, the adrenal glands try to fix the problem by producing more cortisol. However, producing more cortisol can be a problem because cortisol also helps regulate the body’s metabolism. When cortisol levels become out of balance, symptoms will begin to occur. Adrenal fatigue happens when the body is unable to produce enough hormones, such as cortisol. Helen is a classic example of adrenal fatigue. On the other end of the spectrum is Cushing’s syndrome, which is the result of the adrenal glands producing too much cortisol. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include weight gain, stretch marks, fragile skin, muscle weakness, and bone loss.
As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Incorporating better stress management into your live now, will ensure that you maintain higher levels of energy and allow your body to work at it’s optimum, therefore leaving you – and your adrenals – happy. Testing for problems with adrenal function is painless, and is done with a test called the Salivary Adrenal Stress Profile. Basically, saliva is collected and sent to the lab. Depending on the patient and which hormones are being tested, the patient may need to collect saliva samples several times in one day. Multiple samples are needed to see if hormone levels are fluctuating on a daily basis. Any person who is experiencing high levels of stress or chronically experiencing any of the symptoms noted above should consider adrenal testing.