No world is quite as ripe with buzzwords as the wellness industry. Lately, a few of the frequent fliers include a set of terms designed to bring awareness to hormonal function and dysfunction: ‘adrenal health”, “adrenal fatigue”, and “adrenal insufficiency”. Some of these terms can feel pretty nebulous—especially if you have no idea what your adrenals are or do in the first place—but they refer to an area of health many people need to pay more attention to. Here’s what you should know about your adrenal glands, what happens when they malfunction, and how you can support their overall health.
What Are The Adrenals And What Do They Do?
Part of the endocrine system, the adrenal glands are two pyramid-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys like hats, explains holistic physician Dr. Sony Sherpa, M.D. While small, these adrenal glands play an essential role in your health by producing a number of hormones that influence a wide variety of key body functions.
One of the adrenals’ jobs that’s a particularly hot topic these days: facilitating the body’s response to physical, emotional, and mental stressors, says Sherpa. In moments of stress, whether it’s receiving an urgent email from your boss or coming face-to-face with a carnivorous creature, your hormones churn out cortisol and adrenaline, which stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and put the body into what we all know as “fight or flight” mode. (Also worth mentioning: These adrenal hormones help regulate metabolism, blood pressure, and heart rate.)
Another important responsibility: “The adrenal glands produce several sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, that are involved in reproductive functions,” says Sherpa. As such, adrenal health plays a role in everything from menstrual health to fertility to erectile strength. Pretty powerful stuff for two itty-bitty glands.
When The Adrenal Glands Stop Functioning Optimally
Because the hormones that the adrenal glands secrete support your reproductive, metabolic, and mental health, you need these glands to function properly in order to experience overall health and well-being, says holistic registered dietitian Kieran McSorley R.D., of Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary in Canada.
These glands usually self-regulate, working as they should without much intentional intervention to keep you moving, grooving, safe, and sexually satisfied, according to McSorely. But unfortunately, a slew of lifestyle habits such as poor sleep, inadequate calorie and nutrient intake, and excess stress—in addition to preexisting health conditions—can impede these glands’ ability to work at their highest capacity, she says.
Often marked by symptoms of exhaustion, feelings of overwhelm, frequent flare-ups of illnesses such as colds and sinus infections, depression, digestive issues, and salt cravings, suboptimal adrenal gland malfunctioning results in a disruption in production of the adrenaline hormones in the right quantities and at the right times, she says.
There are a few different adrenal gland health conditions, each marked by its own particular type of malfunction, fatigue, or inconsistency. Some of these conditions include: adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s Disease), Cushing syndrome, and adrenal gland tumors.
If you suspect your adrenal glands aren’t functioning properly, talk to a healthcare provider about your particular set of symptoms. They’ll be able to test you for other potential causes, as well as administer a blood or urine test to check your levels of the various hormones produced by the adrenal glands to get a better sense of what’s going on.
From there, the right provider should help you be able to come up with a care plan that’s suited to your particular condition and/or set of symptoms. Regardless of the specific type of adrenal dysfunction you might be experiencing, though, that plan will likely incorporate some or all of the following tactics for supporting overall adrenal health.
How To Support Your Adrenal Glands
Properly supporting your adrenal glands has the power to help you recover from adrenal malfunction and reduce your risk of it down the line. Here are five top priorities experts recommend.
1. Consume Enough Calories
Simply put, calories are energy. In addition to brain function and exercise, your body uses calories to fuel essential bodily functions like breathing, blood circulation, and hormone production. In some instances, inadequate calorie intake can interfere with the adrenal gland’s ability to produce hormones in the quantities you need to support your overall health. Research has found that calorie restriction can lead to an overproduction of cortisol, as well as an underproduction of estrogen, two of the hormones the adrenal glands are responsible for.
If you don’t consume enough calories, your body will let you know. You’ll feel fatigued during work and play, and your body won’t perform basic functions as efficiently, McSorley says. If this rings any bells, check in with a nutritionist (The Vitamin Shoppe offers free nutrition coaching) to evaluate your current diet and whether you’re getting the nourishment you need for proper adrenal function. In a pinch, a tool like the Mayo Clinic online calorie calculator can help you estimate your needs—and you can track your intake with an app like MyFitnessPal to make sure you’re hitting the mark.
2. Prioritize Foods Rich In Vitamin C And B Vitamins
Of course, where your calories come from matters here, too. Broadly speaking, a nutrient-dense diet supports overall health, and therefore adrenal gland health, better than a nutrient-poor diet replete with highly processed foods. That’s why McSorley recommends trying to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.
However, because vitamin C and B vitamins are particularly beneficial for the adrenal glands, he recommends prioritizing those nutrients. One study shows that the adrenal glands have some of the highest concentrations of vitamin C of any organ in the body, due to the nutrients’ role in cortisol production. Meanwhile, a second study shows that B vitamins —particularly vitamin B6, vitamin B9 (a.k.a. folate), and vitamin B12—help the adrenal glands meet that body’s hormone production needs.
While we don’t currently have research on whether extra-high intakes of vitamin C and B vitamins benefit adrenal health, ensuring you meet the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for these nutrients is a good place to start. The RDA for vitamin C is 90 milligrams for adult men and 75 milligrams for adult women. As for those key B vitamins, the following daily targets are recommended for adults:
- 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12
- 1.3 milligrams of vitamin B6
- 400 micrograms of vitamin B9 (a.k.a. folate)
To meet your vitamin C needs each day, McSorley recommends eating citrus fruits, bell peppers, and cruciferous vegetables. Meanwhile, to get those B vitamins in, he suggests eating leafy greens like spinach, kale, and arugula. If you struggle to meet the mark here, talk to a nutritionist about supplementing with these must-have nutrients.
3. Consume Healthy Fats
While the highly-processed fats found in fried and packaged foods won’t do your adrenal glands (or general health) any good, healthy fats can actually go a long way in supporting healthy adrenals.
Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial here, according to McSorley. In addition to working to lower excess cortisol during times of stress, these fats also provide energy that the body can utilize to support overall hormone production, he says.
The National Institutes of Health recommends consuming 1.1 to 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day. To meet these intake suggestions, McSorley recommends putting omega-3-rich foods like salmon, sardines, chia seeds, and nuts on your plate regularly. You can also get your fill of these healthful fats by incorporating an omega-3 supplement (fish oil and algae oil are two popular options) into your routine.
4. Reduce Caffeine Intake
You probably saw this one coming. According to McSorley, stimulants like caffeine can be detrimental to your adrenal health. The reason? The researchers behind one 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients suggest that this is because the body registers caffeine as a stressor, increasing cortisol production in response to you ingesting the stimulant. As a result, that same study linked high levels of caffeine consumption with reduced adrenal gland function.
While nixing caffeine altogether could be good news for your adrenals, you don’t have to go cold turkey. Instead, McSorley recommends gradually decreasing your caffeine intake to help decrease the likelihood of experiencing symptoms associated with caffeine withdrawal, such as headaches, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Start by switching your morning brew to half-caf and taking half a scoop of pre-workout instead of your usual heaping scoop.
5. Sleep More
While dietary changes are clearly crucial for supporting healthy adrenals, other lifestyle factors have an influence, too. Perhaps the most important: Sleep. Sleeping more—and doing so on a consistent schedule—is a huge win for your adrenals. The body modulates your cortisol production when you’re sleeping, so getting enough shut-eye is a must for hormonal balance—and the healthy metabolic function and reduced stress levels that follow. “Consistently logging between seven and nine hours of sleep every night is a boon for your adrenal health,” McSorley says. If you struggle to drift off, try these tricks for sleeping better during times of stress and consider one of these supplements.