Our adrenal glands are two pyramid-shaped organs that sit just above the kidneys, enclosed in a fibrous capsule and a cushion of fat. Broken down, their name reflects their position in the body: ‘ad’ meaning near and ‘renal’ meaning kidney.
The adrenals are part of the endocrine system which is responsible for the production and synthesis of hormones that support the body’s normal metabolic function. The main job of the adrenal glands is to help us respond to and cope with stressful situations. They also help to regulate our blood pressure, blood sugar levels, inflammatory responses and the release of some reproductive hormones. Each adrenal gland is made up of two regions: the inner adrenal medulla and the outer adrenal cortex.
The Adrenal Cortex
The outer cortex makes up about 80-90% of size of the adrenal glands. It is made up of three layers of cells, each with the job of secreting three different hormones:
- These hormones are responsible for controlling the balance of fluid and electrolytes throughout the body, especially sodium and potassium. They also play a role in regulating our blood pressure.
- Glucocorticoids influence the energy metabolism of almost all of our body cells, suppress inflammatory reactions and help us resist stressors. Cortisol is an example of a glucocorticoid - it helps to regulate our blood sugar levels, our blood pressure and our reaction to long-term stressful situations. We talk more about stress and cortisol further down.
- Gonadocorticoids are sex hormones including androgens, oestrogens and progestogens. The amount of gonadocorticoids secreted from the adrenal glands are typically in small amounts. Their hormonal impact is masked by the greater amounts of sex hormones produced by the ovaries or testes.
The Adrenal Medulla
The inner part of the adrenal glands is essentially a knot of nervous tissue. The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are synthesised and released from the medulla in response to stressful situations.
Imagine you need to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision – your heart starts to beat faster, your blood vessels constrict and your blood sugar levels will increase to provide you with extra energy. This is known as the ‘fight-or-flight response’ and adrenaline and noradrenaline cause physical changes in our body to cope with the short-term stressor that we are facing. The body will quickly return to normal afterwards.
But what happens if you’re faced with stress that lasts longer than this quick, fight-or-flight response? The medulla will send out additional signals to help the body adapt and cope. If someone is fasting for example, the medulla will send signals to the gastrointestinal tract to maximise the absorption of nutrients – it’s a type of survival response and is known as the ‘stage of resistance.’
If stress continues for an even longer period of time, like worrying for many months before sitting the HSC, the body will respond very differently to the above stress responses. This stage of stress adaptation is called the ‘stage of exhaustion’ and by this point, the adrenals are typically unable to produce adequate quantities of hormones, especially cortisol. This can result in symptoms like fatigue and a weakened immune system.
Supporting your adrenal glands
Although dealing with stressful situations is a normal part of life, long-term stress can impact our adrenals and consequently our overall health and wellbeing. Here are some tips on how to support your adrenals:
Sleep: poor quality or lack of sleep can impact our stress levels and adrenal function, just as poor adrenal function and stress levels can also affect our sleep! Dim the lights in your home after dinner, pick up a book instead of staring at your phone and enjoy a warm mug of herbal tea before you go to bed. 7-8 hours of sleep is recommended for adults every night.
Getting out in nature: research shows that stress and cortisol levels can be managed by frequently spending time in green or blue spaces – green spaces refer to grassy areas like a park or your backyard and blue spaces refer to lakes, rivers and the ocean. This practice of getting out in nature is called ‘grounding’ and not only does it help you feel relaxed, it is also doing your adrenals a favour.
Vitamin C: vitamin C can help with healthy adrenal function. Aim to increase your intake of vitamin C rich foods like berries, citrus fruits, broccoli and capsicum. You can also try a vitamin C supplement like our Mega C 1500, Super C 1000 or Orange Flavoured Chewable Vitamin C tablets.
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Sargis, R.M. (2020), An Overview of the Adrenal Glands, Endocrine Web, cited on 20.1.2020, accessed <https://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-adrenal-glands>