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What are the Adrenal Glands?

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  • Written By: S. Mithra
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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As members of the endocrine system, adrenal glands excrete chemicals, called hormones, to regulate important functions by sending messages through the bloodstream. These various hormones control metabolism, physical development, and stress management. A malfunctioning hypothalamus, which controls the endocrine glands, can make adrenal glands secrete too few or too many hormones resulting in serious disorders.

The two adrenal glands are three-pointed and flat, each one located above a kidney near the lower back. The outer layer of adrenal glands is called the adrenal cortex. The cortex is responsible for synthesizing and secreting hormones essential to digestion and sexual maturity. The inner layer, the adrenal medulla, isn't actually necessary to normal life, but evolved to help us manage moments of stress and improve our quality of life.

The adrenal cortex produces steroidal hormones and chemicals that regulate digestion. Androgenic steroids help develop secondary sex characteristics in males while estrogen and progesterone aid in sexual development in females. These hormones work closely with steroids excreted by the testes and ovaries. For metabolism, aldosterone keeps healthy levels of potassium and salt in the bloodstream. Cortisol helps to metabolize carbohydrates, protein, and fats into glucose.

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We handle stressful situations, such as public speaking or being chased by a dog, with greater ease due to the adrenal medulla. It is called a "sympathetic" gland because it responds to external stimuli, such as anxiety with the so-called "fight or flight" instinct. Then it releases adrenaline, or epinephrine, which speeds your heartbeat, thereby increasing circulation, and recirculates stored glucose, which provides a sudden burst of energy and strength. Norepinephrine mildly constricts blood vessels, also raising blood pressure, as well triggering perspiration. This allows to fight, with stronger muscles and quicker reflexes, or take flight, with enough energy to run away. We've adapted this instinct to modern situations, like a job interview.

Also known as the suprarenal glands, adrenal glands can be affected by hormonal imbalances. For example, underactive glands don't produce enough chemicals. Addison's Disease results in low blood sugar and weakened immunity. Overactive adrenal glands, called Cushing's Syndrome, causes high blood pressure and can create problems during adolescent development with exaggerated masculine characteristics. Tumors in the adrenal cortex pose a major health risk, but the adrenal medulla can be removed with minimal effects.

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FirstViolin
Post 4

Really nicely written -- I always like how concise wisegeek's articles are. I would just also like to add a note to remind people how very serious and devastating adrenal gland disease and disorders can be on a person's life, as well as the lives of their loved ones.

My friend has a daughter who was recently diagnosed with Cushing's syndrome, a disorder in which her adrenal glands produce too much corticosteroid. It has been really hard for her even to get a diagnosis, since many of the symptoms of Cushing's disease can be caused by other things: weight gain, menstrual disorders, easy bruising, etc. It was only when my friend's daughter started growing excessive amounts of hair on her

neck that the doctor's finally figured out what was going on.

By that time she was 50 pounds overweight and felt terrible pretty much all the time, physically and emotionally. It has been such a hard thing for them to deal with, and even now that they've finally got a diagnosis, the journey is far from over.

The doctors are trying to use radiation therapy to treat her, but it looks like she may have to have surgery eventually. Anyway, I just wanted to remind people how serious this can be -- sometimes it helps to have a real life example.

pharmchick78
Post 3

@copperpipe -- You're right, it does sound a little odd to think of a gland getting tired, right? And they don't get tired in the same way that we do, wanting to go to bed or veg on the couch.

However, many doctors and researchers do believe there is something called adrenal fatigue where the adrenal glands don't function as well as they should after prolonged periods of stress.

As you can read from the above article, your adrenal glands are basically your "fight or flight" glands. When your body goes through a prolonged period of stress when your adrenals are constantly in fight or flight mode, they eventually stop producing as much cortisol, the stress hormone.

This

can leave people feeling fatigued, sluggish, and easily lightheaded. Other adrenal gland insufficiency symptoms include loss of body hair and unexplained weight loss. So as you can see, keeping your adrenal glands producing cortisol is really important!

So although you're right in that adrenals don't actually get tired, they can get overworked, leading to adrenal fatigue.

Luckily, there are some treatments for adrenal fatigue: oral medications, surgery, radiation, or some combination of the three. Diet also makes a big difference, so be sure to consult with your doctor if you do start to feel like you have adrenal fatigue, don't suffer -- see your doctor ASAP so you can get your body back on track.

Hope that helps!

CopperPipe
Post 2

I had recently heard something called adrenal gland fatigue -- could you tell me more about that? I don't really understand how a gland could get tired to begin with, and frankly every article I find on it is very mumbo-jumbo-y, so I would just really like to find out some more about it from a reputable source.

So, could you explain to me how adrenal glands could get fatigued, and what the symptoms of this adrenal gland disorder would be? Thank you for the information, and the informative overview of the adrenal glands already provided.

anon103695
Post 1

"Adrenal Medulla can be removed with minimal effects."

Typical medical mafia statement.

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