So What Exactly Are Your Adrenals?

Adrenal glands
Adrenal glands (image courtesy of Mayo Clinic)

Ever heard of adrenaline? This is just one of the many hormones produced by the adrenal glands. These prune-sized glands sit on top of the kidneys, and are composed of the outer cortex and the inner medulla. Let’s get acquainted with a few of the hormones secreted by these tiny but important glands:

  • Cortisol
  • DHEA
  • Adrenaline


Cortisol, a corticosteroid produced by the adrenal cortex, is meant to follow a circadian rhythm, and is regulated by the sleep/wake cycle. A normal, healthy cortisol rhythm is characterized by a spike in the morning, then a gradual decline throughout the day until midnight, when circulating levels are at their lowest.

Mental, emotional or immune stressors trigger the adrenals to respond with increased cortisol levels and these elevations in cortisol are maintained as long as the stressor is present. Over time, as stress continually increases cortisol levels, the adrenals begin to hypofunction and cortisol levels drop, resulting in fatigue. Most often what is seen is an altered cortisol rhythm, such as low morning cortisol, making it difficult to get up, an earlier drop that can cause an afternoon dip in energy, and a high nighttime level, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep.

An abnormal cortisol rhythm can have far-reaching effects on health. Because cortisol facilitates thyroid hormone at the receptor sites, elevated or depressed levels can result in a functionally hypothyroid state even if the thyroid serum levels are normal since thyroid hormones are not able to plug into receptor sites efficiently to send their messages.

Over time, elevated cortisol damages glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus that are responsible for providing a negative feedback to the hypothalamus. Damage to these receptors means that the hypothalamus never gets the message that there is too much cortisol in circulation, which triggers further secretion of cortisol. The hippocampus is also centrally involved in memory processes, so chronic stress often affects short- and long-term memory.

Cortisol is also produced to block the body’s histamine response to allergens. Asthma and allergy sufferers always have some degree of adrenal compromise.


DHEA acts as a major steroid hormone, is linked to balancing the body’s stress response and acts as a precursor to testosterone, estrone and estradiol. DHEA is also a key factor in guarding against the degenerative conditions associated with aging and may be a key factor in preventing age-related dementia and neuronal damage.

Depressed levels of DHEA are often a result of an abnormal physiological response to stress, causing a shift of hormone production to cortisol at the expense of DHEA. Low DHEA typically results in low testosterone, particularly in women. Some of the symptoms associated with low levels of these androgens are low libido, poor immune response (low levels are linked to an increased cancer risk), lowered stamina and decreased ability to build muscle or bone.

An elevated DHEA can also signify an altered stress response, or can be a sign of insulin resistance, especially if accompanied by elevated testosterone levels. When cells become resistant to insulin’s message to store sugar, the pancreas is forced to up-regulate the production of insulin. High insulin levels can cause changes in the ovaries that result in elevated androgen levels and possibly the formation of ovarian cysts (PCOS).


Adrenaline (AKA epinephrine) is meant to be released sparingly during times of intense stress, but it’s also released when blood sugar levels fall below normal. This typically happens when a refined carbohydrate is consumed. The lack of fiber in refined carbohydrates allows the sugars to release very quickly into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar. The pancreas then hyper-secretes insulin to drive the sugar into the cells, bringing the blood sugar back down. With consumption of refined carbs, often excessive insulin is released, causing the blood sugar to fall below normal. Then the adrenals are forced to release adrenaline, which triggers the release of stored sugar (glycogen) from the liver and muscles. This constant balancing act the pancreas and adrenals must perform when the diet is high in refined carbohydrates weakens them over time. Once blood sugar becomes chronically unstable, sugar levels may drop at night during sleep, making it necessary for the adrenals to produce adrenaline to bring blood sugar back up. This can cause intense dreams and/or “mind chatter” that prevent a normal return to sleep and in some cases, the urge to urinate (remember their location?). Chronic stress also wears out the adrenals through the continual production of adrenaline.

Stay tuned for more Leaves of Life posts in the adrenals education series.

Posted as part of the Leaves of Life Education series. 

Copyright Patty Shipley. All rights reserved.

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