Adrenal glands are responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response during a stressful situation. The functional failure of the glands leads to various health problems in women. This article explains the types and causes of adrenal gland problems in women and how they can affect the function of other glands too.
Important hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released by the adrenal glands which are situated on the top of the kidneys. These hormones help manage stress, so that we can handle a critical situation efficiently. These days, while keeping pace with the hectic schedule, men and women have to face ‘competition and uncertainty’ in every field of life. This eventually leads to excessive stress and health problems. By nature, women tend to be more involved in every activity. This in turn results in chronic stress that overworks the adrenal glands.
The glands can manage stress to a certain extent. Chronic stress leads to exhaustion of the glands. They eventually become too fatigued and lose their capacity to produce sufficient hormones. Adrenal exhaustion or adrenal insufficiency leads to adrenal gland problems in women. In this modern and competitive world, stress has become an obvious and invariable part of the life of women. Prolonged and unmanageable stress leads to hormonal imbalance resulting in several health complications.
Adrenal Glands and their Functions
Adrenal glands are the ductless glands that belong to the endocrine system of human body. These are triangular glands which look like hats located atop the kidneys. They are just one or two inches long and weigh less than an ounce. They are responsible for the secretion of more than thirty-five different types of hormones which control our emotions. Our reaction during any kind of situation is determined by these small but powerful glands.
During stressful situations, adrenaline is released by adrenal glands. Proteins are converted into energy by the cortisol released from the cortex of these glands. This leads to the release of the stored sugar, glycogen. In this way, our body gets the fuel required for the quick response and we can deal with a crisis. The newly generated energy accelerates our heart, respiratory rate and blood pressure, slowing down our digestion, resulting in tensed muscles. Thus adrenal glands play an important role in sharpening our senses. We become more alert and focused during stressful situations. Now that you know the main function of adrenal glands, it would be easy to understand adrenal problems in women.
Adrenal Problems in Women
- Adrenal Fatigue: Adrenal glands often have to maintain high levels of cortisol, in order to fight constant stress. This in turn affects the release of other hormones by adrenal glands. The glands also produce estrogen which is an essential hormone for female body metabolism. There can be shortage of estrogen and other hormones; when the resources of the glands are repeatedly directed towards the production of cortisol. Moreover, this excessive cortisol damages the healthy tissues in the body. All problems with adrenal gland lead mainly to adrenal fatigue. Low body temperature, low blood sugar and low or high blood pressure leading to a constant feeling of exhaustion are some of the commonly noticed adrenal gland problems in women. Serious situations may arise due to adrenal problems.
- Depression: When adrenal glands fail to function properly, women experience excessive fatigue, mood swings, fuzzy thinking, and depression. This in turn causes diminished enthusiasm, reduced sex drive, poor memory and low stamina. In extreme cases, women may have to take pills to overcome the depression.
- Insomnia: Problem in adrenal glands causes insomnia in women. Women face sleep disorders followed by general tiredness and lack of concentration. Women often wake up during the night and face difficulty in going back to sleep again. Sometimes, they wake up too early in the morning. They don’t feel fresh, rather they feel tired upon waking up.
- Hormonal Imbalance: The immune system of the body is seriously affected when the hormones produced by the adrenal glands are not in proper proportion. Loss of hair or excessive growth of hair, dry skin, osteoporosis, kidney damage, allergies, anxiety and high blood pressure, irritability and hyperglycemia are some of the commonly experienced adrenal problems in women.
- Cushing’s Syndrome: When an excessive amount of cortisol is pumped out by overactive adrenal glands, the condition is described as Cushing’s syndrome. This is found in athletes and sometimes in pregnant women. Excessive production of aldosterone leads to hypokalemia (reduced potassium levels) and high blood pressure. This again results in spasms, muscular pain, weakness and sometimes even in paralysis.
- Addison’s Disease: The condition wherein scarcity of cortisol or aldosterone is noticed is known as Addison’s disease. It is found in rare cases. Replacement of hormones is necessary in such cases. The symptoms are not instantly recognized. If low blood pressure is detected and if it falls further when measured in the standing position leading to sudden dizziness, the reason may be Addison’s disease. One may also experience nausea, vomiting and extreme pain in stomach muscles.
- Excessive Androgens: When adrenal glands produce excessive androgens, masculine traits are noticed in women. The skin darkens and becomes hairy and rough. Skin allergies are general outcomes of such conditions.
- Adrenal Gland Tumor: Adrenal gland tumor is formed when adrenal gland produces excessive hormones. This can be detected with the help of a CT scan. This leads to the development of Cushing’s syndrome. Surgery may be needed to remove the tumors or the glands.
- Adrenal Gland Cancer: Sometimes, tumors on adrenal glands are malignant. Such cases are very rare. Adrenal gland cancer can be detected with the help of X- rays, CT scans or biopsy. It is difficult to diagnose this cancer at an early stage. Radiation and chemotherapy help control further growth of the cancer.
- Pheochromocytoma: When a tumor develops in the chromaffin cells of the adrenal gland’s, it leads to excessive production of catecholamines, resulting in severe and persistent high blood pressure. Other symptoms include symptoms of panic attack like high heart rate, profound sweating, lightheadedness, flushing, low body temperature, severe headache, chest and stomach pain, etc.
Effects on Other Glands
There is a hormonal feedback loop which is known as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which controls the center for cortisol production. Women are sensitive to stressors. Examination, oral presentations, hospital visits and participating in sporting events activates the pituitary-adrenal system. Such triggers may affect the entire endocrine system. Various hormones released by the pituitary, hypothalamus and adrenal itself, are thrown off-balance during stressful situations.
When women face prolonged stress, to endure it, they may indulge in excessive drinking or excessive eating resulting in obesity. Smoking, alcoholism and excessive drug intake to overcome depression or fatigue can affect the functions of the adrenal glands. Over-consumption of sugar, caffeine and refined carbohydrates leads to problems with adrenal glands. Women may suffer from adrenal problems if they do not follow a healthy diet. Women are always concerned about the health of their kids and husbands. While being overly concerned about their families, they tend to overlook their own health needs. Deficiency of B and C vitamins weakens the organs and leads to ill-health, which eventually affects the function of the adrenal glands. Certain genetic disorders or dysfunction of pituitary gland or hypothalamus can cause adrenal problems.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Specific blood and urine tests and a complete medical checkup can help detect adrenal gland problems at an early stage. Remedies like ‘adrenal refresh’ are described in ancient Ayurveda. Ashwagandha root and leaf, holy basil and rhodiola can be used to treat emotional problems in women. Women should take time to relax. They should spare some time for meditation. Audio CDs designed to facilitate relaxation of mind help maintain normal blood pressure and pulse rate; which in turn help improve your blood circulation. This helps lower the stress and you can experience a stable and peaceful mind.
An endocrinologist may prescribe specific drugs to control and regulate the excessive production of hormones or deficiency of hormones. Healthy nutritional support, right eating patterns, proper sleeping habits, a skillful management of stress, adoption of good relaxation techniques and regular exercise are some of the most important things which are required to maintain the natural rhythm of your body.
Disclaimer: This HerHaleness article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.