No bigger than a walnut and weighing less than a grape, each of your two adrenal glands sits like a tiny pyramid on top of a kidney (“ad” “renal” means “over” the “kidneys”). But don’t let their size fool you; these powerful little endocrine glands manufacture and secrete steroid hormones such as cortisol, estrogen and testosterone that are essential for life, health and vitality. They modulate the functioning of every tissue, organ and gland in your body to maintain homeostasis during stress and keep you alive. They also have important effects on the way you think and feel.
The main purpose of your adrenals is to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship problems. They largely determine the energy of your body’s responses to every change in your internal and external environment. Whether they signal attack, retreat or surrender, every cell responds accordingly, and you feel the results. It is through the actions of the adrenal hormones that your body is able to mobilize its resources to escape or fight off danger (stress) and survive. In a more primitive society that would mean being able to run away quickly, fight or pursue an enemy or game, endure long periods of physical challenge and deprivation, and store up physical reserves when they are available.
In modern society, these same responses are triggered by such circumstances as a difficult boss, air pollution, family quarrels, financial problems, too little sleep, infections and overindulgence in or sensitivities to food or substance abuse. If your adrenal function is low, as it is in adrenal fatigue, your body has difficulty responding and adapting properly to these stresses.* This can lead to a variety of physical and psychological health problems that are themselves a further source of stress.*
It is also your adrenal glands’ job to keep your body’s reactions to stress in balance so that they are appropriate and not harmful. For example, the protective activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant adrenal hormones like cortisol helps to minimize reactions like swelling and inflammation in situations ranging from allergies to autoimmune disorders. These hormones closely modulate many metabolic processes:
- the utilization of carbohydrates and fats
- the conversion of fats and proteins into energy
- the distribution of stored fat – especially around your waist (the spare tire) and at the sides of your face
- normal blood sugar regulation
- proper cardiovascular function
- gastrointestinal function
After mid-life (menopause in women), the adrenal glands gradually become the major source of the sex hormones circulating throughout the body in both men and women. These hormones themselves have a whole host of physical, emotional and psychological effects, from the level of your sex drive to the tendency to gain weight. Every athlete knows that steroids (adrenal hormones) affect muscular strength and stamina.
Even your propensity to develop certain kinds of diseases and your ability to respond to chronic illness is influenced significantly by the adrenal glands.* The more chronic the illness, the more critical the adrenal response becomes. You cannot live without your adrenal hormones and, as you can see from this brief overview, how well you live depends a great deal on how well your adrenal glands function.
Adrenal Function in Blood Sugar Balance and Sugar Metabolism
Adrenal fatigue and stress both have a significant impact on healthy blood sugar balance.* The adrenal glands play an important role in blood sugar metabolism and energy production. Cortisol, an adrenal hormone, works with insulin to maintain healthy levels of circulating glucose (blood sugar) and regulate the flow of glucose (the chief source of cellular energy) into the cells for energy production. For these reasons, stress, or some level adrenal fatigue, often precedes hypoglycemia, metabolic syndrome and type 2 (adult onset) diabetes.*
Stress normally causes the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol, which helps raise blood sugar levels so the cells can more glucose to generate energy for your response to the stressor. The elevated blood sugar, in turn, requires higher levels of insulin to get the glucose from the blood into the cells. When this cycle is repeated frequently, the cells may become insulin resistant to protect themselves from too much glucose, especially when no energy-consuming physical action is taken in response to the stress.* The greater the insulin resistance, the more insulin it takes to get glucose into the cells. In this way, chronic or repeated stress can contribute to persistent insulin resistance, and the resulting high levels of glucose (hyperglycemia) and insulin circulating in the blood that are likely precursors to metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.*
People experiencing adrenal fatigue normally have lower levels of cortisol, which can often make it more difficult to sustain healthy levels of blood sugar.* When blood sugar levels are low (hypoglycemia), people often crave sweets.* But eating sugary foods and carbohydrates can raise blood sugar so quickly that the pancreas responds with a flood of insulin.* Chronic over-consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, especially in the absence of increased physical activity, may therefore result in greater insulin resistance in the cells.* In this way, adrenal fatigue with concomitant hypoglycemia may create conditions and induce behaviors that can lead to a greater tendency to develop adult onset diabetes.*
Conversely, hypoglycemia, diabetes and metabolic syndrome are stressors that place greater demands on the adrenal glands, which can contribute to fatigued adrenals. For this reason, some level of adrenal fatigue often accompanies hypoglycemia, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.