The adrenal glands are very tiny glands located just above the kidneys. Just like you have two hands and two feet, you have two adrenal glands, a right and a left. Each gland has two specialized layers — an outer layer called the cortex and an inner layer called the medulla. The adrenal glands make several hormones that are released directly into the bloodstream and are essential for life.
What do they do?
For a tiny gland, the adrenal packs a big punch! The adrenal cortex, the outer layer of the gland, makes three classes of hormones — mineralocorticoids (aldosterone), glucocorticoids (cortisol) and androgens. Aldosterone helps regulate blood pressure and two of the body’s electrolytes: sodium and potassium. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and is necessary for life. Androgens are a fancy way to say sex hormones. The sex hormones made by the adrenal gland are more important in females than males, as men get high levels of testosterone from the testicles.
Finally, the inner layer of the adrenal gland (medulla) makes what is commonly referred to as adrenaline. Actually, adrenaline is two hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine. This specialized inner layer of the adrenal gland is considered to be a part of the body’s nervous system, helping the body respond to stress — the “fight or flight” response.
Why are they important for our general health?
Cortisol is the most important hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol helps the body respond to stress and fight infections, and also helps regulate the blood sugar. Patients with low levels of cortisol may experience darkening of the skin (especially in the folds), tiredness, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, muscle pains, and salt cravings. In extreme circumstances, adrenal crises can occur and lead to death.
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