What Is the Function of an Adrenal Gland?

By Nancy Steely

The adrenal glands are tiny organs that rest on top of each kidney. Despite their small size, the adrenal glands play an important role in the body, producing numerous hormones that impact our development and growth, affect our ability to deal with stress, and help to regulate kidney function.

Function

The adrenal glands are comprised of two parts--the cortex and medulla--that produce hormones (chemicals messengers that regulate body functions). The medulla, or inner part of the adrenal glands, produces the hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine, which regulate the “fight or flight” response in the body, the body’s reaction to stressful events. The cortex, the outer portion of the adrenal glands, produces several hormones that affect blood pressure and blood sugar levels, growth, as well as some sexual characteristics.

Significance

Because the hormones released from the adrenal glands are so important to the overall functioning of your body, adrenal disorders can have serious consequences on your health. Tumors of the adrenal glands can secrete excess hormones, causing an increase in blood pressure or heart rate and reducing immune function. Disorders that result in decreased adrenal gland function, such as autoimmune diseases or cancer, can lead to low blood sugar and heart failure.

Risks of Long Term Stress on Adrenal Glands

Cortisol continually released from the adrenal glands in response to chronic stress can damage body tissues. Long-term adrenal stimulation can lead to high blood pressure and stomach ulcers and deplete white blood cell levels, increasing your risk of infection. Over time, the adrenal glands themselves can become unable to produce sufficient levels of cortisol to deal with the constant stress you are experiencing. Symptoms of poor adrenal function include fatigue, muscle aches and low blood sugar.

Control Stress to Maintain Adrenal Gland Health

You can help to ease the burden on your adrenal glands by learning how to better deal with stress. Take a yoga class or learn some meditation techniques to help calm your mind and take you out of the “fight or flight” response. Practice slow, deep breathing techniques to slow your heart rate and ease any tension or anxiety in your body.

You can also use herbs like Eleutherococcus (150 mg daily) or Ashwagandha (250 mg daily) to support adrenal function and increase your ability to deal with stress. Ashwagandha is a traditional Indian herb that has been used for centuries to support feelings of well-being. Eleutherococcus is an Asian herb that provides antioxidants and other nutrients to support immune health and reduce the effects of stress on the body. Of course, talk with your doctor before taking any herbal medicine.

Warning: Adrenal Cancer

Adrenal cancer is very rare, affecting only about one out of one million people. Symptoms of adrenal cancer depend on whether or not the tumor increases hormone levels--a “functional” vs “nonfunctional” tumor. General symptoms include fever, abdominal pain, a mass that you can feel, and weight loss. Increased hormone levels can cause an increased heart rate, high blood pressure and blood sugar, bruising, increased thirst and need to urinate.

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