Adrenal gland symptoms associated with mental health problems
Although a controversial topic in mainstream mental health treatment, adrenal gland fatigue(also referred to as ‘adrenal fatigue’ and ‘adrenal exhaustion’) is claimed to be a significant cause of mental health problems. Low adrenal gland symptoms can cause a range of mental and physical health problems for the sufferer and if effectively treated can lead to significant improvements.
About The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are small, triangular glands located on top of both kidneys. They are made of two parts which perform separate functions in the body. The outer region is called the adrenal cortex and it secretes hormones called corticosteroids (e.g., cortisol and corticosterone), mineralocorticoids (e.g., aldosterone), and androgens (e.g., DHEAs and androstenedione). The corticosteroids control the body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, and influence the body’s inflammatory reaction and immune system. Aldosterone is responsible for regulating the level of sodium excreted in the urine which is important for blood volume and blood pressure regulation. The androgens excreted by the adrenal glands play a role in manufacturing other sex hormone such as testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen.
The adrenal medulla is the inner part of the adrenal gland and it secretes the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. Through their effect on multiple systems in the body these hormones help a person to cope with physical and emotional stress.
The Importance of Cortisol
Cortisol is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’ and has a number of roles in the body by influencing blood sugar levels, inflammation, immunity, energy production, blood pressure and cardiovascular responses. Cortisol also has a significant impact on our mood and behaviour.
The secretion of cortisol varies throughout the day. In people with healthy adrenal glands, cortisol levels follow a diurnal pattern with the highest levels secreted at approximately 8.00am and the lowest between midnight and 4.00am. It is the rising cortisol levels at 8.00am that helps us wake up in the morning. The diurnal pattern of cortisol secretion is demonstrated in the figure below.
When the body is under stress, the adrenal glands increase the secretion of cortisol (and adrenaline). Short-term, this hormone can help aid in survival through its impact in increasing energy reserves, heightening memory function and lowering pain sensitivity. Long-term elevation of cortisol, however, can have detrimental effects. Prolonged elevations in the bloodstream have been associated with impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, decreased levels of serotonin, blood sugar imbalances and insulin resistance, decreased bone density, decreased muscle tissue, high blood pressure, lowered immunity, and increased abdominal fat. The end result may not only be poor physical health but worsened mental health including anxiety and depression.
How Do the Adrenals Get Fatigued?
Because the adrenal glands are responsible for cortisol production, chronic, excessive output of cortisol can eventually ‘exhaust’ our adrenal glands and lead to a condition referred to as ‘adrenal gland fatigue.’ Our adrenals are not given the time to rest and recuperate and therefore no longer function at optimal levels. The end result is lowered cortisol output by the adrenals. This effect is shown in the figure below.
Symptoms of Adrenal Gland Fatigue
Adrenal fatigue can produce a large array of symptoms and some of them are listed below:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- Continuing fatigue not relieved by sleep
- Craving for salt or salty foods
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
- Increased effort to do every day tasks
- Decreased sex drive
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Increased time to recover from illness, injury or trauma
- Light-headedness when standing up quickly
- Mild depression
- Lack of enjoyment or happiness with life
- Increased premenstrual symptoms
- Worsening of symptoms if meals are skipped or inadequate
- Less focused/ fuzzy thoughts
- Decreased memory
- Feeling tired until 10am, and an afternoon low between 3-4pm. Tendency to get a second wind at night.
- Sensitivity to exhaust fumes, smoke or chemicals
- Dark circles under eyes
- Carbohydrate cravings e.g., breads, sugar, sweets
- Lack of thirst
- Difficulty exercising
- Heart disturbances (e.g., palpitations, racing heart)
- Low blood pressure
- Sensitivity to light and/or noise
As can be seen by the symptoms above, adrenal gland fatigue ( or ‘adrenal fatigue’ and ‘adrenal exhaustion’) leads to a range of symptoms associated commonly seen in mental health problems such associated with depression and anxiety. Effective assessment and treatment can lead to significant benefits for the sufferer.