Back around the year 2000, my whole world broke wide open. I went to my first Functional Medicine seminar and learned about the role that the adrenal glands play on basically every function in the body.
So what does that mean, exactly? Well, if you take a look at the chart above, you’ll notice that the adrenal glands (center circle) affect all of those other functions such as:
- Pain and Inflammation
- Quality of Sleep and Mood
- Memory, Learning and clarity of thought
- Muscle and Bone Repair and Regeneration
- Hormones: • Thyroid • Ovarian (Estrogen & Progesterone) • Pancreas (Insulin)
- Fat, Carbohydrate and Protein Metabolism
- Weight and Fat Distribution in the Body
- Immune Defense
- Detoxification Capacity
In other words, if your adrenals don’t work, nothing else will either. You may feel tired and toxic, gain weight, possibly suffer from insomnia, depression or anxiety, have pain in your body, get headaches, have asthma or allergies and a weak immune system. . .just to name a few.
What Are the Adrenal Glands and What Do They Do?
The adrenals are small glands that sit on top of the kidneys. They secrete hormones into the blood stream to help your body deal with and adapt to stress.
When you experience stress of any kind, your adrenal glands should respond by secreting these hormones in order to help your body deal with that stress. Adrenal hormone levels should rise and fall throughout the day, then they should return back to normal once the situation has been dealt with.
However, in this day and age, the amount of stress we face is overwhelming to our systems. It is quite common for the adrenal glands to pump out extraordinary levels of stress hormones just to deal with day-to-day life. With this increased demand, eventually the body has to adjust by down-regulating stress hormone output, not because you no longer require these hormones, but because adrenals may no longer be able to adapt to the level of stress.
What Causes Adrenal Stress?
When working with patients, there are some key areas I look for to uncover the reason behind their adrenal stress. They are:
- Blood sugar handling problems (blood sugar too high or too low)
- Chronic Infections (typically in the gut – parasites, bacteria, fungus/candida but also chronic viruses)
- Food sensitivities or true food allergies
- Poor diet – especially processed foods (breads, chips, cereals, etc or lots of sugar or caffeine)
- Mental-Emotional Stress (life in general)
- Time-Urgency Perfectionist Syndrome (this is the person who cannot handle having to wait in line or on the phone, is always stressing to get somewhere on time, and everything seems like an emergency)
Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Dysfunction
Although it is possible to be completely asymptomatic, most people will have some indication that their adrenals are out of balance. The list is long and the issues cover many areas such as:
- Weight gain, especially around the middle (spare tire or muffin top)
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic Illness or poor immunity
- Dizziness, especially when standing from a seated or squatted position
- Hair loss
- Nail weakness
- Inflammation or arthritic tendencies
- Chronic digestive issues
- Salt cravings
- Sugar cravings
- Water retention
- Fat hump on back of shoulders
- Slow starter in the morning or depend on caffeine
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Perspire easily
- Ulcers without the presence of H. pylori
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the most common indications that lead me to conducer adrenal dysfunction.
How to Detect Adrenal Dysfunction
Symptom surveys can be great for identifying adrenal dysfunction, but they cannot definitively determine whether your adrenals are in hyper-function (stressed and requiring an elevated hormone output) or hypo-function (so worn out they can’t keep up with demand).
Not only that, but there are so many patterns of adrenal dysfunction that testing is required in order to create an appropriate roadmap back to health.
Blood test – blood is usually drawn first thing in the morning and then again in the late afternoon or evening to evaluate protein bound cortisol levels. This gives a snapshot of what’s happening and can be used to determine the need for pharmaceutical intervention.
Salivary Testing – this is an at-home test that involves collecting saliva samples upon waking, before lunch, late afternoon, and before bed. These samples are then sent back to the lab where they evaluate the levels of bioavailable cortisol and DHEA. Depending on the lab used, a graph is often created so you can visually see when your adrenal hormones are either too high, too low, or just right.
The cortisol and DHEA are mapped so your levels fall into one of 7 categories. From there, we can determine the best course of action for you to get your adrenals healthy and working again.
DUTCH Test – DUTCH stands for Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones. This involves collecting urine samples in a similar pattern to the salivary testing. DUTCH measures the both the water soluble free form of the hormones as well as the hormone metabolites. This test also produces a graph of fluctuations throughout the day.
Practical Tips for Supporting the Adrenal Glands
- Reduce sugar, caffeine and processed foods
- Eat whole foods including tons of vegetables, some fresh fruits, lean protein sources, and nuts and seeds
- Don’t over-exercise – this adds stress to the adrenals
- Don’t over drink water – drink when thirsty or just enough so that you’re not thirsty instead of the recommended 8+ glasses per day
- Eat small protein-rich meals throughout the day without going too long without eating so your blood sugar doesn’t drop too low – sometimes a protein snack between meals will get you by
- Go to bed by 10pm
- Ensure adequate Vitamin C, B Vitamins, and and minerals – food sources are best but sometimes supplements are needed for repletion
- Work with a knowledgeable practitioner who can guide you in selecting the proper supplements to support your body through the healing process – adrenal supplements are not one-size-fits-all and very different products should be used for hypo vs hyper function
- Work with a practitioner to eliminate all of your underlying causes of adrenal stress such as chronic infections, food sensitivities, and blood sugar handling problems
- Take it easy!