Can the Adrenals Burn Out?

The adrenal glands are walnut sized, when healthy, and sit above the kidneys.  That’s what their name means: “Ad” is Latin for above and “Renal” means relating to kidneys.  The main secretion of the adrenal glands is adrenaline, also known as epinephrine.  Adrenaline has an extremely short half-life, which means it dissipates quickly in the bloodstream, so we really can’t measure your levels of adrenaline.  However, the adrenals also secrete cortisol (from the outer layer, or cortex, of the glands) which has a more prolonged effect, and can be measured.

Adrenaline is the “fight and flight” neurotransmitter and causes numerous physical responses such as narrowed peripheral blood vessels, shunting blood to the internal vessels, such as in the big leg muscles and the heart and away from the digestive organs.  An adrenaline rush might feel like a strong shot of caffeine, or the heart-twanging scare of a near-miss on a busy highway.

Humans evolved, for many thousands of years, in an environment much less cozy than what many of us enjoy today.  We were built to outwit and kill larger mammals, and to use our brains to choose between running away when we couldn’t win a fight, or intense spurts of fighting.  Early humans had many protracted periods of significant inactivity, relative to today’s standards of business.

Whereas we once had occasional, horrific stress, we now tend to have chronic, low-grade stress.  Low-grade stress day after day (bad boss, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, insufficient sleep, drugs) will build to a point of exhaustion or dysfunctional anxiety.  This is what is meant by adrenal “burnout.”

What is actually happening is adrenal atrophy.  The glands literally “wear down” and secrete adrenaline on a hair trigger — with no buffering capacity.  There are varying degrees of burnout, which can be measured.

I have found most success in my naturopathic medical practice in using saliva tests to measure levels of cortisol during 4 periods of the day.  Cortisol is a type of sugar, and doubles for blood sugar maintenance overnight when typically we are not eating.  Cortisol levels should be highest in the morning, then decrease steadily to a low at the end of the day.

People in adrenal burnout typically show no decrease in cortisol after breakfast, or display some other abnormal variation.  The specific cortisol pattern can provide insight for therapy.

Some of my favorite techniques to restore adrenal function are centered around getting enough sleep, which often means avoiding stimulants, avoiding unnecessary stressors (such as white flour and white sugar, mean people and too much time on the computer) and committing to finding fun in life, on a daily basis.

For nutrient support, Licorice (Glycerrhiza glabra) is specific for restoration of the adrenal glands.  Fringe benefit: licorice is also a potent anti-viral.  I strongly recommend licorice tea, or solid extract (sort of a syrupy goo, which is really tasty if you like the strong taste of licorice) or in capsule form if you don’t care for the taste.  Aim for about 2 grams worth of Licorice daily.  Licorice is also very helpful for gastric stress ulcers, which sometimes plague stressed people, particularly men.  Sorry, the red and black candy sticks don’t count!

If you have high blood pressure, Licorice theoretically can worsen hypertension because it acts as a mild potassium-wasting diuretic.  I have rarely seen this to be true, however you can get a special type of Licorice (deglycerinated glycerrhiza – or DGL) which has the diuretic part stripped out.

Another wonderful supplement for adrenal stress is Vitamin B-5, or pantothenic acid.  You can take a high potency B-multi along with an additional separate dose of B-5 each morning.  Aim to get 200-250 mg of B-5 for 6-12 months, while implementing the lifestyle changes.