The adrenal glands are two triangle-shaped glands located on top of the kidneys. These glands are responsible for the production of hormones in our bodies. The outer part of the adrenal glands, known as the cortex, produces the steroid hormones cortisol, aldosterone, and testosterone. The inner part of the adrenal glands, known as the medulla, produces epinephrine and norepinephrine, the hormones responsible for our body's "fight-or-flight" response.
When the adrenal glands are functioning normally, then the correct amounts of hormones are released in response to various situations. For example, a stress response released by strong emotions such as fear or anger can trigger the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). In turn, we experience an increased heart rate, muscle strength, and elevated blood pressure levels.
When the adrenal glands produce too many, or too few, of these hormones, then adrenal related conditions can occur. Addison's disease is a result of the adrenal glands failing to secrete enough hormones. Cushing syndrome is the result of too much cortisol being produced by the adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue is thought to be the result of depleted adrenal function as a result of constant stress.
Signs something may be amiss with the adrenal glands include: tiredness, weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, joint aches, unexplained weight loss, and a craving for salt.
It's possible to support healthy adrenal gland function by eating foods rich in certain nutrients.
Five Nutrients to Support the Adrenal Glands
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is needed for optimum levels of epinephrine to be produced in response to immediate and urgent stress. The adrenal glands actually contain a higher concentration of vitamin C than most other parts of the body. When your body is under stress, it can use vitamin C much more rapidly than normal.
We may associate vitamin C with citrus fruits, like oranges, but papayas, red bell peppers, broccoli, kale, and cauliflower also pack a big punch of vitamin C. Aside from food, I like liposomal vitamin C, and here's why.
2. B-Complex Vitamins
B-complex vitamins act as cofactors for the synthesis of adrenal hormones. The B-complex vitamins include thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, biotin, pantothenic acid, inositol, and choline. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), much like vitamin C, is required for epinephrine production.
To increase levels of vitamin B5, be sure to add sunflower seeds, broccoli, eggs, squash, and mushrooms to your grocery cart.
Calcium, chromium, magnesium, vanadium, and zinc are all essential trace minerals needed for healthy adrenal gland function. Magnesium in particular is needed to relax the central nervous system, which helps to reduce adrenal gland stimulation from the splanchnic nerve. Magnesium also supports sleep, which is important to maintain the 24-hour rhythm of the adrenal glands.
Looking for more magnesium rich foods? Reach for bananas, oatmeal, lentils, quinoa, and spinach.
4. Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long-chain fatty acids that concentrate in the cell membranes of adrenal glands. These essential fatty acids are not produced in the body, but must be obtained through dietary consumption.
EPA and DHA are plentiful in fish and shellfish. Cantaloupe, papaya, broccoli, seaweed, and flax seeds or flax oil can add more of these beneficial essential fatty acids to your diet. I like this Nordic Naturals Arctic cod liver oil and this Nordic Naturals Omega-3 fish oil.
L-tyrosine is an amino acid that plays a role in adrenal hormone production, serving as a precursor of epinephrine and norepinephrine. It is important to note a different amino acid, tryamine, can over-stimulate the adrenal glands and should be avoided if you think you have a possible adrenal condition.
L-tryosine can be found in meats like pork roast, turkey, wild game, and tuna. Not a meat eater? Be sure to eat plenty of seaweed, spinach, avocados, and pumpkin seeds.
Stress and the Adrenal Glands
Our body's fight-or-flight response to stress was meant to help our species survive. When early man saw a threat in the form of a predator, the fight-or-flight response would kick in. The medulla would produce epinephrine hormones, and as this adrenaline kicked in, our ancestor would evade the situation in order to survive.
However, today's high-stress lifestyles are unlike those our ancestors lived. A fight-or-flight response to an approaching bear or hungry lion would not occur 8 -12 hours a day, every day (which is common in today's society). Today we live stressful lives, and our bodies experience stress at work, at home, and beyond. Poor diet and substance use can also contribute to the adrenal glands working overtime. This means our adrenal glands are constantly pumping out hormones in response to the emotional stress we are experiencing.
Stress management can be an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, regardless of its affect on the adrenal glands in particular. To help ward off the affects of stress on your body, be sure to get regular exercise, sleep 8 hours per night, and decrease your use of substances like alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco.
Practice deep breathing techniques in stressful situations, and make yoga, tai chi, or meditation a regular part of your busy routine. These practices will teach you to calm your mind and help you to manage stress, and can be done at home whenever your schedule allows it.
Herbal Adrenal Support
Adaptogenic herbs like ginseng, astragulus, and ashwagandha have all been used as folk remedies to maintain a normal stress response in various cultures throughout the ages. Ashwagandha is an important part of India's Ayurvedic practice, while Ginseng and Astragulus were used in China's traditional medicine going back thousands of years.
A healthy diet full of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, plus effective stress management skills, can go a long way towards supporting the health of your adrenal glands for normal hormone production.
National Institute of Health Clinical Center Patient Education: Managing Adrenal Insufficiency
The Journal of Biological Chemistry: The Histochemistry of the Adrenal Gland: I. The Quantitative Distribution of Vitamin C
Rice University CAAM Dept.: Norepinephrine