Generally speaking, the most crucial parts of the body tend to take up a lot of interior real estate. The brain fills the cranium, the heart and lungs occupy the chest and the stomach, liver and nearly 30 feet of intestine fill up the abdominal cavity. The size of these organs and tissues is matched by their importance; the stomach and intestines digest incoming food, the heart pumps fresh blood throughout the body and the brain controls your every thought. While these body parts certainly deserve the attention they receive, there are much smaller cogs inside your body that are also essential to a healthy life. The adrenal glands, two small organs located atop the kidneys, fit this description perfectly.
What the Adrenal Glands do for the Body
Like every other gland that resides in the body, the adrenal glands produce a steady stream of hormones, or chemicals that transmit specific messages to groups of cells. A list of some of these hormones, and their responsibilities within the body, are detailed in the proceeding list.
Cortisol – Cortisol is manufactured by the outer layer of the adrenal gland, known as the adrenal cortex, and is tasked with setting your blood pressure and glucose levels. It also helps the body manage the body’s supply of fats, carbohydrates and protein.
Dehydroepiandrosterone – Dehydroepiandrosterone (mercifully abbreviated as DHEA) is needed by the body to produce its reproductive hormones, testosterone (for men) and estrogen (for women).
Corticosterone – Another hormone produced by adrenal cortex, corticosterone works in tandem with a hormone called hydrocortisone to control the body’s inflammatory response to injury and infection.
Aldosterone – Like cortisol, aldosterone is a necessary tool for keeping the body’s blood pressure in check. Aldosterone also allows your body to maintain a healthy level of sodium, especially with regards to its potassium supply (a healthy body should have more sodium than potassium).
The Fight or Flight Response
You may remember learning about the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism in response to perceived external threats. To briefly recap, the “fight or flight” process rapidly prepares the body to either confront or flee from the dangers facing it. To do this, a segment of the brain called the hypothalamus instructs the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, a hormone that can enable the body to perform usually impossible physical feats. For example, there have been news stories over the years of people mustering the strength to lift cars off of loved ones, an act made possible through the sudden release of adrenaline. Once in the bloodstream, adrenaline immediately increases the body’s heart rate, glucose levels and oxygen production.
Adrenal Gland Disorders
Every part of the human body is susceptible to disease, decay and various medical disorders. When it comes to the adrenal gland, two of the most common afflictions are Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome.
Addison’s Disease – Addison’s Disease occurs after a patient’s adrenal glands stop producing adequate amounts of aldosterone and cortisol. The culprit behind this condition is usually the body’s own immune system, which erroneously identifies the adrenal gland as a threat and destroys up to 90 percent of its tissue. Stripped of these key hormones, the body begins to lose control of its blood pressure, and its levels of sodium and glucose may drop to dangerously low levels.
Those with Addison’s disease often complain of a wide range of symptoms, including poor appetite, muscle weakness, tiredness, nausea, depression and difficulties controlling stress. Doctors treat this malady with synthetic steroid hormones; one such type of medication is hydrocortisone, a tablet that is taken one to two times per day. Fludrocortisone acetate, another oral steroid that mimics the behavior of aldosterone in the body, may also be prescribed to the patient.
Cushing’s Syndrome – The near polar opposite of Addison’s Disease is Cushing’s Syndrome, a condition in which the adrenal gland secretes far more cortisol than your body requires. As one might expect, this wreaks havoc with the body’s internal operations, leading to the development of numerous symptoms. Significant facial swelling is the most obvious sign that something has gone horribly awry with the patient’s health. Other symptoms include swelling between the shoulders and stretch marks on the patient’s abdomen, arms and breasts. Cushing’s syndrome also weakens the skin, rendering it vulnerable to repeated bruising.
Patients often develop Cushing’s syndrome after taking corticosteroid medicines for unrelated ailments. To remedy this side effect, doctors often adjust the patient’s dosage of such medications to lower levels. A patient may also be prescribed an entirely different corticosteroid.
Cushing’s syndrome can also result from the appearance of pituitary tumors. The surgical removal of these tumors is often necessary for the patient to make a full recovery, though surgery is not a surefire treatment option. A patient’s post-surgery prognosis depends on the size of the pituitary tumor. The removal of small tumors has a success rate in the neighborhood of 80 to 90 percent; for larger tumors, this figure declines to roughly 50%.
Best Foods for Adrenal Health
You can make life easier for your adrenal glands by sticking to a healthy diet. Below are some of the best dietary options for keeping the adrenals in good shape.
– Whole-grain bread