Adrenal support helps to maintain the normal production and regulation of hormones in the adrenal gland. When functioning normally, the adrenal gland creates mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, adrenal androgens, and catecholamines. Additionally, the gland also helps to manufacture small amounts of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. All of these different hormones play a crucial role in the regulation of the body.
Unfortunately, several factors can result in disruptions to the normal function of the adrenal gland. When these occur, some negative health states can result. To determine whether adrenal support is needed, adrenal testing or a consultation with a medical professional, such as an endocrinologist, will help to verify that there is an issue. Once identified, treatment options may be made available.
Some of these treatments may be medically invasive, while others will involve therapies or changes in diet or lifestyle. Additionally, a medical professional may suggest seeking additional adrenal support by taking a supplement that can contain vitamins, minerals, adaptogenic herbs, and other compounds. However, the potential benefits that come from supplements and changes to diet and lifestyle may also potentially benefit a healthy adrenal gland. Below, more information about the adrenals may help to provide more clarity on the subject, and offer a path towards feelings of health and wellness.
All About The Adrenals
The adrenal gland is one component of the larger endocrine system. There are two adrenal glands in the body that are found at the top of each kidney.(1) The adrenals develop in the fetus during the 6th week of gestation. It will grow to four times larger than the kidneys at around 4 months, then shrink at birth and nearly disappear 12 months after birth. Around the age of 5, the adrenals will have grown or shrunk, and taken on its final shape. In some rare cases, developmental anomalies can occur during fetal development as a result of its close association with the growth of the kidneys. When these occur, sometimes the gland does not fully form, or it can grow elsewhere in the abdomen. Whether or not this results in a negative health state is not determinable without testing.
Each adrenal is different in appearance. The left adrenal is semilunar and larger than the right, which is pyramidal in shape. Each has a goldenrod yellow color.(2) The outer cortex has three zones, known as glomerulosa, fasciculata, and reticularis.(3) This outer zone produces mineralocorticoids, such as aldosterone that helps the body to maintain salt and water levels, and blood pressure; glucocorticoids, such as cortisol that regulates the stress response, metabolism, and stimulates glucose production; adrenal androgens, which is mainly attributed to the sex hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA is a precursor to the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen.
The inner section of the gland, known as reticularis, is responsible for production of catecholamines, which include adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine, which are primarily responsible for the fight or flight response. In total, the hormones produced by the adrenals regulate the following functions of the body.
- Gastrointestinal tract
- Sex organs
- Immune system suppression
- Carbohydrate metabolism
- Muscular integrity
- Sexual maturity
- Blood pressure
- Fluid retention
- Sodium regulation in the kidneys
- Heart tissue and blood vessels
- Male and female sex characteristics
- Blood sugar levels
- Insulin resistance
- ... and more
When functioning as normal, the adrenals support the many essential functions of the body. However, when disruptions affect the normal production and regulation of hormones, those disturbances may challenge homeostasis and other systems that may result in a negative health state.
Adrenal Gland Challenges
The cause of adrenal gland challenges are believed to be the result of genetics(4), environmental toxins(5), insufficient adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) production in the pituitary gland(6), and excessive stress that exhausts stress regulating factors.(7)Some irregularities are believed to be the result of adrenal fatigue, which is the result of poor lifestyle choices. However, adrenal fatigue is not currently recognized as a medical condition. In fact, extensive review of more than 3,400 articles suggests that adrenal fatigue is a myth.(8)
Disorders of the adrenals that are recognized by the medical community are referred to as an “adrenal insufficiency.” This insufficiency is known to affect the body in several ways.(9)(10)(11)
- Long lasting fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Fluctuating weight
- Abdominal discomfort or bloating
- Painful muscles or joint pain
- Slow recovery from minor infections
- Low blood pressure that causes dizziness or fainting when standing
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods
- Loss of interest in sex
There are two types of adrenal insufficiency.(12)(13) The first, known as a Primary AI, or Addison’s disease, is a condition that occurs when the adrenals can’t make enough cortisol. When Addison’s occurs, production of other hormones such as aldosterone and androgens may also be reduced. The cause of this first insufficiency is the result of bleeding, infection, surgical removal of the glands, or an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the adrenal glands. The second insufficiency, known as Secondary AI, is far more common and occurs when the brain fails to signal for the production of cortisol.
A worsening of symptoms associated with an insufficiency is known as an adrenal crisis.(14) Interestingly, it is reported that people with an adrenal insufficiency are often unaware of their condition until they have an adrenal crisis. A crisis involves the sudden worsening of potentially minor or unnoticed symptoms. Once the condition is made known to the individual, treatment and management might be possible as directed by a medical professional.
A range of differing or similar symptoms can occur depending on the specific adrenal challenge.(15) Disorders can manifest as a result of imbalances in the body or abnormal growths on the gland or elsewhere in the endocrine system. Currently, the medical community recognizes several of these disorders, including Cushing’s syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), pituitary tumors, pheochromocytoma, and hyperaldosteronism.
Adrenal Insufficiency Testing and Treatment
If symptoms of a potential disorder occur, return, or worsen, a medical professional will seek to diagnose the condition. To diagnose a potential disorder in the adrenal glands or endocrine system, a medical professional may request the individual’s medical history and provide a physical examination.(16) Additional steps may include a blood and urine test to measure hormone levels, or an imaging test that can include a CT scan, ultrasound, or X-ray to look for these or other abnormalities.
Treatment for a disorder may be based on age, current health, medications, or participation in existing therapies. In extreme cases, the adrenals can be removed during a procedure known as Laparoscopic Adrenal Gland Removal.(17) This may be preferential when hormone production is not well controlled with medication, or there is a risk of malignant growths. Such surgeries can take a few hours and allows the patient to leave the hospital after a few days when compared to an ongoing treatment of an adrenal disorder.
Diet and Supplements for Adrenal Support
Consulting a doctor to identify and address adrenal disorders is a critical first step in helping to bring balance and wellness to the body. To provide additional adrenal support, once the glands are healthy or as instructed by a medical professional, diet and supplementation may be ideal to support normal hormone production and maintain hormone regulating factors in the body.
Food For Adrenal Support
The debate over what foods might provide optimal support for a healthy body is ongoing. But many people do agree that specific types of foods in different categories provide optimal nutritional content to help support the overall body.(18)
- Good fats – Find good fats in foods like avocado, coconut, ghee, and dairy products. Fats or essential fatty acids are a good source of energy in the body and help to maintain a balance between carbohydrates and proteins. Fats are also used for hormone production.
- Quality salts – Choose celery salt or sea salt in place of table salt. Individuals may also help to balance mineral content in the body by taking epsom salt foot soaks or baths.
- Protein – If you eat meat, grass fed animals are believed to have a better balance of omega-3 and -6 in their fat, which might help to support hormone production.
- Vegetables – Try to limit starches and add more more green vegetables. Peppers are also ideal as they have one of the highest content of vitamin C, which may help to maintain cortisol levels already within the normal range.
- Fruits – Choose fresh fruits like berries, apples, pears, and lemons for the well rounded nutrition content and antioxidant properties they provide.
- Fish – Mackerel, herring, and shellfish are a good source of fatty acids and other compounds that may provide support for the endocrine system.
- Nuts and seeds – Nuts and seeds contain many good fats for a complete fatty acid profile. Try to stick to sunflower or pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, chia, almonds, walnuts, pecans, and cashews. You can also supplement your diet with legumes such as black, kidney, pinto, white, or lima beans.
- Liquids – Avoid fruit juices, alcohol, and caffeinated coffees and teas. Choose water whenever possible, and aim for 8 glasses a day.
These are just a few of the foods that may help to provide the nutritional support the body needs to maintain healthy functioning during the day. When choosing other foods, limit processed meats, refined sugars, white flour, and gluten containing grains. Food variety is also important. Variety can ensure that the body receives a complete nutrient profile in a quantity that it needs. Variety also helps to prevent certain foods from becoming boring, which sometimes causes dietary lapses that see a person eat more desserts, fast foods, and sugary beverages.
Supplements for Adrenal Support
Adrenal support supplements contain nutrients, herbs, extracts, and other compounds to provide support for a healthy endocrine system and adrenal gland. Some of these compounds are known as adaptogens. These adaptogens are natural compounds typically found in plants and some animal products that have a specific regulating effect on mood and behavior.
Adaptogens may be ideal to help maintain a normal stress and frustration response.(19) In the body, the adrenal gland produces a hormone that helps to regulate mood and behavior. During challenges, a release of hormones can result in the fight or flight response, a form of hyperarousal or acute stress response to a perceived harmful event, threat, or as a result of traffic, work, or similar difficulties. This response can involve constriction of the blood vessels, tightening of muscle, increased heart rate, and other changes in the body that results in a negative physical, mental, and emotional health state. Taking adaptogens may help to regulate these responses by specifically interacting with receptors that produce or interact with hormones.
Adaptogens can be found in many herbal sources. Some of these herbs are found as whole herbs or extracts. They may be added to other herbs or nutrients to provide optimal adrenal support. These may also provide support for the immune system, healthy weight management, and cognition. Some of these adaptogenic herbs include:
- Holy basil
- Licorice root
- Asian ginseng
- Milk thistle
Additional support may also be provided from whole bovine adrenals or extract, vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, medicinal mushrooms, fish oils, selenium, and other natural or synthetic compounds.
Natural Ways to Support the Adrenals
Another important element in maintaining a healthy body and mind is to engage in activities that have a positive effect on physical and mental health. These activities include actions that help to ease stress, promote restfulnes, and support physical health.
- Sleep the right amount (around 8 hours for most adults)
- Put away electronic devices at least 60 minutes before bedtime
- Limit food and drink up to 4 hours before bedtime to limit digestive issues
- Practice a skill or engage in hobbies that keep the mind active
- Know when to stop working, take breaks, and walk around
- Exercise (around 5 or more hours of moderate cardiovascular activity a week is recommended)
- Engage in positive talk, laugh, and limit exposure to news articles or world events that create anxiety
- Talk with friends, family, or seek counseling for mental wellness
These are some of the many practical ways to help create feelings of wellness and balance for both the body and mind. While not a treatment for a more serious underlying condition, diet, supplements, and physical actions may help to support the body in several ways.
The adrenal glands are important to personal wellbeing. They play a role in the function and regulation of many different systems. Seek adrenal support when symptoms occur to help ensure a healthy lifestyle.