Your adrenal glands do much more than produce adrenaline. They are responsible for the fine tuning many of your body’s processes, fueling the fight or flight response, and regulating your sex hormones. If they fail to work correctly, there is a direct effect on your well being.
The Function of Adrenal Glands
Your adrenal glands are endocrine glands that sit at the top of each kidney. They are responsible for making a wide variety of hormones, including:
- Cortisol – usually released as a response to stress or low blood sugar. Cortisol helps the body process carbohydrates, fats, and protein – it also suppresses the immune system. Cortisol is produced all day, every day but increases in release occur when required
- Aldosterone – regulates blood pressure. It also conserves sodium in salivary glands, sweat glands, kidneys, and your colon.
- Androgens – are turned into testosterone in both men and women, and estrogen in women.
- Adrenaline – otherwise known as epinephrine – responsible for the rush and ability to take action in the event of an emergency.
- Norepinephrine – works in tandem with adrenaline. The hormone creates an immediate increase of alertness and focused attention. Norepinephrine makes your heart beat and gives you nervous energy in times of stress – it triggers the release of glucose stores into your blood.
What is Adrenal Dysfunction?
Problems with your adrenal glands can make you ill in many ways.
Addison’s Disease occurs when your adrenal glands stop making enough cortisol. It is most commonly caused by an autoimmune process where the body attacks the adrenal glands and impedes production of this critical hormone. This results in symptoms of fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite, weakness, nausea, vomiting, darkened skin, low blood pressure (leading to fainting), craving for salty foods, and even mental health issues like depression and anxiety.1 If you suspect you may be struggling with Addison’s Disease, see your doctor to get tested. This is an emergency.
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) is a group of genetic diseases. CAH occurs when you have a deficiency in the enzymes needed to produce one or more of the hormones listed above. Often this results in an overproduction of another hormone to compensate. About 90% of CAH cases involve the patient being unable to synthesize cortisol.2 They typically have an overproduction of androgens. This inhibits the body’s ability to grow and develop, and is usually spotted and treated in childhood. Patients with CAH lead normal lives, but have to take medication for life.
Cushing’s Syndrome, also known as “hypercortisolism”, occurs when the adrenal glands make too much cortisol. Cushing’s can develop when you take high doses of steroid medications for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, It can also indicate the existence of a tumor in the adrenal or pituitary gland. Symptoms include sleep issues, weight gain in the upper body, a rounded rosy face, a fat pad (or “buffalo hump”) in the upper back or lower neck, fatigue, thin arms and legs, weak shoulder and hip muscles, high blood pressure, kidney stones, osteoporosis, extra hair growth on the face, and a low sex drive. If you suspect you have Cushing’s, you must see a doctor to get tested.
Hyperaldosteronism occurs when the adrenal glands overproduce aldosterone. Aldosterone causes the levels of potassium in your blood to drop, and your body fluids and tissues to become more alkaline. This leads to fatigue, muscle spasms, weakness, muscle wasting, cramps, nausea, and dizziness. It is important that you seek medical advice if you suspect you have Hyperaldosteronism.
The four conditions above occur when the output of your adrenal glands change significantly. It is important to see a Physician immediately if you suspect any of the above. Urgent blood testing, imaging, and hospitalization may be needed. Since both of our physicians completed a residency in Emergency Medicine and have worked many years in the Emergency Department, they have extensive experience with manifestations of these potential emergencies both in and out of the hospital including those in the Intensive Care Unit. Through their training and certification in Functional Medicine they have also been trained to diagnose and treat more subtle changes in your adrenal function. This unique perspective and training insures you will receive the evaluation and treatment you need.
A less emergent adrenal issue called “adrenal dysfunction” (sometimes known as “adrenal fatigue”) can have a huge influence on the quality of your life. Adrenal dysfunction will lead to many other health concerns and hormone imbalances.
What Causes Adrenal Dysfunction?
Adrenal dysfunction is a complex diagnosis and is often provoked by a cascade of events. You may be experiencing work and/or relationship stress,3 or a recurrent illness or injury. You may be recovering from a recent infection or surgery, or going through pain rehabilitation.4 You are likely to increase your production of cortisol in all these scenarios, and the more cortisol you produce, the more your body acclimatizes to it.
Abnormal cortisol production is also heavily influenced by diet – a diet high in carbohydrates, sugar and protein is going to trigger your adrenal glands into producing more cortisol to help process your food.
Toxic chemicals also have some bearing on cortisol production. The chemicals used in cancer treatments can increase cortisol production. Smoking also triggers cortisol production – in fact, this chemical reaction is the reason smokers feel the need to have a cigarette when they’re stressed.
One thing to know is that your body doesn’t differentiate between the different types of stress. Whether you are ‘stressed’ from work, a relationship issue, have an infection, have a traumatic injury, are exposed to a toxin, have a serious medical condition, etc. – the response in the body is always the same – the adrenals make more cortisol.
Adrenal Dysfunction Symptoms
Adrenal dysfunction can emerge more subtly than the other disorders. You may choose to explain away the signs as ‘just stress.’ However, your body is telling you something is very wrong.
- Always feel tired (but especially in the mornings and late afternoons)?
- Have ‘brain fog’ or you can’t think clearly?
- Feel lightheaded when you stand up?
- Have to eat every three hours or so to avoid low blood sugar?
- Always crave salty foods?
- Have a low sex drive?
- Feel ‘wired’ and unable to relax?
- Wake up in the middle of the night for no reason?
- Have a thyroid issue not responding to a standard treatment?
- Have dry skin?
- Struggle with unexplained hair loss?
- (As a woman) experience irregular periods?
- Have low blood pressure?
- Feel depressed or anxious, despite taking medication for it?
If so, you may be experiencing adrenal dysfunction.
Testing for Adrenal Dysfunction
To find out if you are dealing with adrenal dysfunction, we carry out extensive testing. We have different means of assessing cortisol levels, including saliva, blood, and urine testing. This allows us to evaluate the level of cortisol in your system. We may also carry out additional blood testing to check your levels of aldosterone, androgens, norepinephrine and adrenaline as well as evaluating other hormones. Hormones are in a ‘dance’ with one another and rarely do hormone abnormalities happen in isolation. Nutrient deficiencies are frequently found as contributors to hormone abnormalities. Testing is done to help us decide how best to treat the condition in an approach that’s tailored to you.
How Do You Fix Adrenal Dysfunction?
Adrenal Dysfunction has to be tackled holistically, meaning that we focus on you as a whole, and we work with you to heal you from the inside out. We use the following approaches:
- Improving your diet & hydration – We work with you so you can adopt a low-carb, anti-inflammatory diet that heals you from the inside.
- Stress management – We work with you to find a way to remove the source of your stress. If that is not possible we recommend different things. One of which is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where we can have counselors teach you some coping mechanisms for dealing with stress more effectively.
- Improving your sleep – We find ways to improve your sleep hygiene and sleep cycles, leaving you better rested and able to handle new challenges.
- Implementing a gentle exercise regime – We encourage you to take up a form of gentle exercise like yoga which helps reduce the stress you feel on a daily basis. We also offer a 3-month exercise/lifestyle program.
- Nutritional therapy – We tailor nutritional treatments to suit your body’s individual needs, to help repair your body. These nutrients are also available intravenously, a quicker, more effective way to nourish your body.
Adrenal dysfunction is a complicated condition caused, most of the time, by chronic stress or illness. It can result in discomfort and worry, especially if you’re the sort of person who prefers to ignore your body’s warning signs. If you seek out a certified Functional Medicine Physician before your symptoms become too serious, you can begin the process of listening to and healing your body.
For more information on the best treatments to fix adrenal dysfunction with Functional Medicine, in the Carmel or Indianapolis area, you can request an appointment here or call our office at 317-989-8463.