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The Important Role of Adrenal Glands


We’ve all heard of cortisol and adrenaline and know the effects they have on our bodies when it comes to stress. But do we know what area of the body these important hormones are produced?

What are adrenal glands?

Adrenal glands are small, triangular glands located on the top of both of our kidneys. They are made up of two main parts: the adrenal cortex, which is the outer region and largest part of the gland, and the adrenal medulla, which is located in the center of the gland. Adrenal glands are part of the body’s endocrine system, which helps regulate a wide variety of bodily functions including blood pressure, the development of sexual characteristics,  immune system, metabolism, and responses to stress.

Outside of the endocrine system, there are other areas of the body that interact with our adrenal glands including the hypothalamus, kidneys, pituitary gland, and sympathetic nervous system.

What is their function?

Our bodies need adrenal glands to produce several essential hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, aldosterone, cortisol, and DHEA and androgenic steroids. 

Aldosterone is a hormone that helps regulate blood pressure, the levels of electrolytes in our blood and thus, our blood pH. Adrenaline and noradrenaline — also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine — are our “fight or flight” hormones, which help increase our heart rate and force contractions. These hormones also increase blood flow to the brain and muscles as well as aid in glucose metabolism

Cortisol is a hormone released when we are stressed. This hormone controls the body’s use of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and the sleep-wake cycle as well as increases blood sugar, regulates blood pressure, and suppresses inflammation. DHEA and androgenic steroids are weak male hormones that don’t have much of a biologic impact. In the ovaries, they are converted into estrogen and in the testes, they are converted into androgens. 

How can we care for our adrenal glands?

There are a series of conditions that can negatively impact the function of our adrenal glands. These disorders occur when our adrenal glands make too much or not enough of a specific hormone. Addison’s disease, adrenal gland suppression, Cushing’s syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and virilization are among the most common conditions associated with the adrenal glands. 

There are also several conditions related to tumors, including adrenal gland tumors, adrenocortical carcinoma, Cushing’s disease, pheochromocytoma, and pituitary tumors.

Individuals can also experience adrenal insufficiency, which is a result of adrenal glands not producing enough cortisol, and sometimes not enough aldosterone. The decreased production of these hormones are a result of the adrenal cortex being destroyed, often due to autoimmune diseases that cause the body to attack the glands, as well as tumors, tuberculosis, and other infections.

In treating adrenal insufficiency, it’s key to maintain proper hormone levels each day. Some who experience adrenal insufficiency will benefit from a diet high in sodium. Additionally, it can be important to focus on bone health as high doses of corticosteroids are linked to osteoporosis. It is key to have a diet that contains enough calcium and vitamin D.

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