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.

adrenal function

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?

adrenal glandsThe adrenal glands are small structures 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 adrenals may no longer be able to produce the amount of stress hormones needed, leading to adrenal fatigue or failure.

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
  • Headaches
  • 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.

The test I prefer to use is called the Adrenal Stress Index and it is available through Diagnose-techs Lab. It involves collection of saliva samples at 4 different times throughout the day. These samples, collected in plastic tubes, are sent to the lab where they are tested for cortisol, DHEA, Secretory IgA (a gut immune marker), gliadin antibodies (to see if your body reacts to the proteins in grains – a common adrenal stressor), pre and post prandial insulin levels (to see how well your body handles blood sugar), and 17-hydroxy progesterone.

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.

Practical Tips for Supporting the Adrenal Glands
  1. Reduce sugar, caffeine and processed foods
  2. Eat whole foods including tons of vegetables, some fresh fruits, lean protein sources, and nuts and seeds
  3. Don’t over-exercise – this adds stress to the adrenals
  4. 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
  5. Eat small meals every 3 hours – or have a small protein-rich snack between meals
  6. Go to bed by 10pm
  7. Do morning salt water shots – 1/4 teaspoon mineral-rich salt (such as Real Salt®, Celtic sea salt or himalayan pink salt) in a shot glass of water 1st thing when you wake up
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. Take it easy!

In a future article, I’ll go deeper into the kinds of supplements used to support the adrenals. I also have an article coming out soon about Ending the Blood Sugar – Adrenal Rollercoaster.

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