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.