Meet Your Adrenal Glands

Sleep | | May 1, 2009 at 11:03 am
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The picture was not just to get your attention, It will make  lot of sense in a minute. Before I get to the adrenal glands, what is functional medicine?  Naturopathic medicine can be practiced from a functional medicine perspective and often is.  However, any form of medicine can be applied in this fashion and if the approach is to be labeled holistic it almost has to be.

Functional medicine individualizes treatment, does not get overly hung up on black and white laboratory results and interprets symptoms as part of a complex message from the body .  Does this make sense?  A quick example.

A test result of higher than 120 mg/dl fasting blood sugar (FPG test) on two occasions is considered a positive marker for pre-diabetes.  What if it is 100 mg/dl?  Some individuals (those who fall outside of the statistical chart which led to the decision of 120 mg/dl) may experience typical symptoms even if they do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis.  We often call this a sub-clinical diagnosis, or in this case functional medicine

The point is not getting too hung up on pure data. It only tells part of the story and is captured at a single moment in time, viewed though a very small lens and under high magnification.  Functional medicine is by its nature more holistic, as you still use the laboratory results but only as a piece of information for insight.  The  whole person tells the whole story – always.  

Understanding this slightly different approach sheds light on subacute adrenal fatigue. It may be one of the most under-diagnosed functional impairments in today’s high stress society.  

Sitting like small hats above each kidney the adrenal glands are most known for producing adrenaline.  In addition, they also create what is often called ‘the stress hormone,’ or cortisol.  Go back to more primitive times, and you and I become a fairly tasty two legged snack for several predators.  We, like most pray animals, have a flight and fright response.  

The original function of this adrenal powerhouse was to help us through a very acute stress response, such as the flight from a predator.  These glands can become overworked after a period of time at which point we often use the label adrenal fatigue, or adrenal exhaustion.  Remember, this is from a functional perspective if these glands stopped working completely so would you.  There is a saliva test which we can use to gain a window of biochemical insight called the A.S.I. or adrenal stress index.  This test measures the circadian rhythm of the hormone cortisol which should be at its highest in the morning and slowly diminish during the day.

Depending on where in the spectrum of adrenal exhaustion you are, the levels or cortisol will vary.  At the start of the stress response cortisol will be very high, and over time as it is unable to keep up, it will diminish.  The symptoms you experience will span somewhere in-between the effects of high cortisol (belly fat, insomnia) and low cortisol (fatigue, inflammation).  Your experience of adrenal fatigue will match a combination of the following symptoms (this list is in no ways exhaustive):

  • Low energy especially upon waking – you need some coffee or something to get you going
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Low libido
  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, insomnia
  • Poor skin regeneration
  • Thyroid function impairment
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Chronic muscle and joint pain
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Inflammatory conditions (asthma, eczema, allergies, and may more)  This is particularly interesting because you know what the standard of care is for these conditions?  Pharmaceutical cortisol = cortisone!!!

These are the reasons that adrenal fatigue goes so undiagnosed in conventional settings.  The symptoms are at a first glance unrelated.  There are many ways to treat adrenal fatigue, but there are far more ways to prevent it.  Since the treatment of such a condition is very individualized, I will focus here on prevention.  You will be surprised again I think at how simple these are.

  • Avoid caffeine and stimulants after midday
  • Get into a regular sleep pattern
  • Exercise regularly
  • Back to basics nutrition (whole foods, especially protein,  and healthy non-hydrogenated fats)
  • Stress management 
  • Switch to sea salt
  • Eat the yolk!

If you have more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

NishantDr. Nishant Rao is a co-founder of He is a well-traveled naturopathic doctor and new father, practicing an integrative approach to create wellness in and around Los Angeles. Become a patient or discover his practice.

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  1. Karen says:

    Thanks for the article. Great information! I’ve never heard of this before.