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Your Adrenals and the Stress in Your Life

by Elisa Adams

The adrenal gland sits like a small, knitted cap atop each renal gland, or kidney. Like the pituitary, it is formed in utero by the merging of two separate fetal glands, each of which performs markedly different functions. The center is called the middle, or medulla, and the outer layer surrounding the medulla is called the cortex.

As an integral part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the adrenals play a role in the areas which it controls — glands, cardiac muscle, and the smooth muscles of the blood vessels and digestive tract. Among other things, it helps to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, and waste elimination. The term “autonomic” is similar to the word automatic, and literally means self-governed. Because these responses are involuntary, they are difficult or impossible to self-regulate — thus the effectiveness of the polygraph or lie detector machine.

The two divisions of the autonomic nervous system — sympathetic and parasympathetic — have yin and yang functions. The sympathetic prepares and adapts the body for athletic stress, making the heart beat faster and harder, increasing bronchial airflow, increasing blood glucose by fat and muscle breakdown and by encouraging the liver to break down glycogen into glucose and increasing blood flow to muscles. The parasympathetic allows time to relax, moving blood flow into the digestive and sex organs and encouraging camaraderie and sleep.

Walter Cannon, the discoverer of the body’s homeostasis systems, nicknamed the sympathetic system the “flight-or-fight” system. In contrast, the parasympathetic system might be called the “rest and digest” system.

The medulla is actually a ganglion, part of the sympathetic nervous system, consisting of modified neurons called chromaffin cells that lack dendrites and axons. These cells are richly innervated by sympathetic preganglionic fibers. They respond to stimuli by secreting two of the hormones of stress, epinephrine and norepinephrine, along with a trace of dopamine. 

The stress hormones complement the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, but their effects last much longer, because the hormones circulate in the blood. Together, they create a mass activation in the human organism, the natural reaction to which is to leap to one’s feet and into motion.

The adrenal cortex is composed of three layers of glandular tissue that wrap around the medulla. The cortex synthesizes more than 25 steroid hormones, known collectively as the corticosteroids, or sometimes as the corticoid hormones. These fall into three categories:

Sex hormones or sex steroids. These are weak androgens and estrogens, the principal androgen being DHEA. This is relatively unimportant in males, because the testes produce so much more testosterone that this source goes rather unnoticed. In women, however, the strength of the adrenals controls many “manly” functions, such as the vigor of the sex drive, the amount of body hair — especially on the arms and legs — the degree of muscle tonicity, and the thickness of the bones. A small-boned woman with low sex drive would therefore benefit much more from additional DHEA than a short, sturdy Mediterranean woman would. Both adrogens and estrogens from the adrenals promote adolescent skeletal growth and help sustain adult bone mass after menopause.

Mineralocorticoids. These hormones control electrolyte balance by acting directly on the kidneys. The main mineralocorticoid is aldosterone, which directs the kidneys to retain sodium and excrete potassium. A lack of aldosterone will lead, over time, to weak digestion and joints, since sodium will be excreted beyone the appropriate levels. The stomach and joints will be required to give up their stores of sodium to the bloodstream, which uses sodium as a principal electrolyte to maintain its pH.

Glucocorticoids. These steroids are secreted in reponse to ACTH, a pituitary hormone, the most important being cortisol. All glucocorticoids stimulate the breakdown of stored fats and glycogen into glucose, elevating blood sugar levels. This is appropriate if the stress is motivating a great deal of activity, such as on a battlefield or during a bison hunt or soccer match. 

However, if the stress includes, for example, sitting in traffic while late for an appointment, the elevated glucose merely requires elevated levels of insulin, promoting Syndrome X, the high-insulin condition that is the precursor to much of our modern-day noncontagious disease: diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, and heart disease. 

Nutritionally, the adrenals are composed of three nutrients: omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish and flax oils and which are essential to the health of all neural tissue; pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5); and vitamin C. Native Americans in Canada used deer adrenal glands as their primary source of vitamin C during the long winter months, when their diet was devoid of fresh fruit. They sliced it thin, served it raw to all members of their villages whenever a deer was caught, and were never afflicted with scurvy.

In the many cases of adrenal depletion or exhaustion found especially among working women in America today, it is essential to replace these nutrients. A B-complex formula called a stress-B formula has become popular since the 1980s (synonomous with the flow of adult women into the work force), which includes a larger-than-RDA amount of vitamin B-5. This product alone made many women feel much more relaxed and in control. 

In the 1990s, omega-3 oils came into their own, and women added ground flax and fish oils to their dietary regimens. And of course, vitamin C has been a popular supplement since the 1950s.

Herbs such as chamomile, hops, lemon balm, passion flower, scullcap, and valerian all work to support the parasympathetic nervous system and to modulate the sympathetic system, turning down the internal “trumpet call to battle” and allowing better digestion and restful sleep. 

In contrast, morning herbs, such as capsicum, Panax ginseng, suma, astragalus, ashwaghanda, gotu kola, and eleutherococcus all work to strengthen the adrenals, so that the yang functions of living, such as exercise, dance, athletic competitions, and so forth, may be enjoyed with ease rather than exhaustion.

Flower essences have become a noted source of assistance in reducing the power of unconscious triggers that activate our stress responses almost without our noticing. A wide variety of these essences is available, from Bach flower essences to Fox Mountain, Cedar Bear, and others. For sensitive people, these are a gentle addition to one’s healing repertoire.

In addition, aromatic oils may be used to activate pleasure centers in the brain, in the limbic system, aiding in energized relaxation. These oils have long been thought of as sexual enhancers, since they strengthen the parasympathetic relaxation response and encourage blood flow toward the inner organs — digestive and reproductive — rather than toward the brain and muscles. A major benefit of using herbs and oils rather than drugs is that the system is allowed to gently come into balance instead of forcefully tipping the scale between yin and yang.

The human body, and indeed every sentient organism, has an innate need for balance between light and dark, warm and cool, activity and rest, eating and elimination. Creating a harmonious balance in our lives is truly the secret for happiness and success as we earn and spend, rest and dance, love companionship and enjoy solitude. 

By examining where we have imbalance in our lives, we can create space for the missing components in their proper proportions. In this, each of us is an individual; we need to seek our own perfect tipping point rather than looking at what others are doing as an indicator for our own needs.

God bless, and good health to you!

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