The adrenal glands are small glands located on top of each kidney. They produce hormones that you can’t live without, including sex hormones and cortisol. Cortisol helps you respond to stress and has many other important functions. The adrenal glands also produce a variety of hormones including androgens, adrenaline, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and aldosterone.
Each adrenal gland is composed of two distinct parts: the outer part called the adrenal cortex and the inner adrenal medulla. The adrenal glands secrete different hormones which act as ‘chemical messengers’. These hormones travel in the bloodstream and act on various body tissues to enable them to function correctly.
The adrenal cortex produces three hormones:
Mineralocorticoids: the most important of which is aldosterone. This hormone helps to maintain the body’s salt and water levels which, in turn, regulates blood pressure. Without aldosterone, the kidney loses excessive amounts of salt (sodium) and, consequently, water, leading to severe dehydration.
Glucocorticoids: predominantly cortisol. This hormone is involved in the stress response and also helps to regulate body metabolism. Cortisol stimulates glucose production by mobilizing amino acids and free fatty acids. Cortisol also has significant anti-inflammatory effects.
Adrenal androgens: Sex hormones mainly dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone.
The adrenal medulla portion of the adrenals produces catecholamines:
Catecholamines include adrenaline, noradrenaline and small amounts of dopamine – these hormones are responsible for all the physiological characteristics of the stress response, the so called ‘fight or flight’ response.
Adrenal stress can result in thinning and bruising of the skin, obesity, diabetes, psychiatric disturbances, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, osteoporosis, excessive facial hair and irregular periods in women. Excess cortisol can also be related to impaired wound healing and an increased susceptibility to infection.
After long periods of stress, the adrenals can become fatigued and can result in low blood pressure, fatigue, weight loss, anorexia, nausea, chronic pain syndromes, salt craving and low blood sugar.