Understanding Your Adrenals: The Impact They Have on Stress, Sex Drive, and Blood Pressure

In integrative medicine, we often discuss how the adrenals are connected to your stress response and how they produce cortisol, but what we don’t always discuss is that the adrenals also play an important function to our vital existence. They’re linked to key components of our everyday lives, including your production of sex hormones, your flight or fight response, and your blood pressure. 

These cute little organs sit on top of your kidneys, and are made up of two major layers: the cortex (the outer layer), which is broken into its own three layers, and the medulla (the inner layer). Each layer is in charge of different, distinct functions. Let’s dive into how these organs can impact you on the day to day.

Cortisol

The cortex is responsible for secreting cortisol, which many of us recognize as a stress-response hormone. But it’s released not just during times of stress. It’s actually integrated into your circadian rhythm, helping to control sleep and awake cycles. Cortisol also has some control over how the body utilizes fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, making it a key component of your metabolism. And while we often hear about cortisol impacting us negatively, it’s a really positive piece of a healthy bodily response to extreme stress: It helps suppress inflammation and regulate blood pressure.

Stress doesn’t have to be the stress we typically think (work, family, schedules, commitments). Stress can come in other forms, like extreme dieting or exercising, too much coffee, or thrill-seeking activities. Your body isn’t able to distinguish the difference between those types of stress and the types of stress that happen in our everyday lives. And because of that, your cortisol production is still influenced.

The takeaway? Even if you don’t feel stressed, but you’ve noticed some symptoms that seem to indicate low functioning adrenals (feeling exhausted, always getting sick, or changes in blood pressure), you might want to consider if your adrenals are taxed—and what you can do about it.

Aldosterone

Aldosterone is also produced in the outer layer of your adrenals, called the cortex. This hormone plays a centralized role in balancing your body’s electrolytes and regulating your blood pressure. It’s a chemical messenger that translates information to the kidneys, like, “hey hold on to some sodium & dump the potassium!”

What’s the result, you ask? A precise way to elevate blood pressure when absolutely needed. Feeling like your blood pressure is too low or too elevated? The adrenal’s ability to produce and properly use aldosterone may be important to evaluate. 

Androgens

The adrenal cortex also holds some power in producing a precursor hormone, called DHEA. DHEA is the compound that our body converts to estrogen and testosterone. When women reach menopause, and men reach andropause, the adrenal’s role in producing DHEA is essential to help offset the reduced function of the ovaries and testes (typically the head honchos of building sex hormones).

Wonder why some men and women notice more unwanted side effects of aging than others? This can be influenced by how well the adrenals have been supported during those major transitions. If you’re noticing these types of side effects while you’re journeying through menopause or andropause, checking your adrenals can be a helpful indicator of a treatment plan forward.

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine

The adrenal medulla, or the inner layer of the adrenal gland, plays a paramount role. Needing to flee from a dangerous situation or fight to survive? The adrenal medulla produces epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are essential to keeping you alive.

In a truly dangerous situation, you’d want your body to respond accordingly: you’d want your heart to get a big boost of endurance, you’d want the strength to take off, you’d want the lung capacity to run, and you’d want the intelligence to think quickly. Epinephrine and norepinephrine all initiate these responses.

They also restrict blood flow to unnecessary locations, such as to the bladder and digestive tract, so that blood can be moved to important locations like the brain, heart, lungs, and core muscles. Epinephrine and norepinephrine help meet the demand and resources needed to endure atypical situations.

The catch is that these can be activated even if you’re not being chased by a bear in the wild. Everyday situations—a critical work email, a big deadline, your kid falling down the stairs, or a sudden, global pandemic—can activate these hormones, which can tax your adrenals and make you more sensitive to illness, more stress, and more anxiety.

Your adrenals are complicated, and essential. That’s why if you’re experiencing symptoms that might be adrenal-related, I like to say, “test, don’t guess!” At Minneapolis Integrative Medicine Center, we’re able to utilize either serum testing and/or four-point salivary cortisol/DHEA at-home kits to determine the biochemical function of your adrenals—and see where they might be falling short. Utilizing specific biochemical testing allows us to truly understand your unique symptoms and specifically create a treatment plan that is individualized to you. Interested in learning more? Book an appointment to start on your health journey with us.