The adrenal glands, also known as suprarenal glands, are two separate glands located on top of each kidney, hence the origin of their name, “ad renes”, a Latin term that translates to “near the kidney”. These glands are vital to the body’s functions as they regulate metabolism, control the production of stress hormones, and produce and regulate sex hormones, particularly estrogen. Adrenalin, a very well-known hormone, also comes from the adrenal glands and is triggered and released during a “fight or flight” situation in preparation for the body’s reaction to an emergency or other dire circumstances. Both adrenal glands rest on top of the kidneys but are not symmetrical. While the other is triangular in shape the other one is shaped like a half-moon. Both are around 3 inches long and an inch wide. Adrenal glands have three parts. The lesser known part is the protective covering of fat around the glands called the adipose capsule which main function is to protect and encapsulate the adrenals.
The adrenal cortex, or simply cortex, is the outer core that makes up about 80% of the whole gland. It releases hormones that are crucial to life, including:
- Glucocorticoids, which release is triggered by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. It regulates blood pressure and the conversion of energy from fats and carbohydrates.
- Mineralocorticoids, which release is triggered by the kidneys. This hormone controls the body’s mineral excretion and balances the amount of salt and water in the body.
- Corticosterone, which is another glucocorticoid, controls the body’s immune reactions such as suppressing inflammation.
- Sex hormones, called androgens, are also produced by the adrenal glands.
The remaining 20% of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal medulla or the inner core, which is responsible for producing hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine during stressful situations. They affect digestion, give heightened senses and awareness, and direct the flow of blood to the brain and muscles. The combination of these hormones enables the body to immediately react especially during dangerous circumstances.
Common Adrenal Gland Problems/Conditions
Problems in the adrenal glands arise when there is either too much or too little in the production of its hormones. This imbalance may be caused by infections, tumors, genetic mutations or a problem in another gland, like the pituitary, which regulates the adrenal gland.
- Cushing’s Syndrome – This condition is caused by an overproduction of the hormone cortisol in the adrenal cortex, which may be attributed to pituitary or adrenal tumors and very rarely, lung cancers.
- Addison’s Disease – This is caused by an underproduction of cortisol and aldosterone. If the problem is within the adrenal glands, it is referred to as primary adrenal insufficiency. Meanwhile, it is called secondary adrenal insufficiency if the problem lies in the brain and its hormonal production instructions.
Common Adrenal Gland Procedures/Surgeries
- Diagnostic imaging – If tumors are suspected to be the cause of imbalance in the production of hormones, X-rays, CT or MRI scans of the pituitary and/or adrenal glands are carried out to make a definitive diagnosis.
- Surgery – Tumors in the adrenal glands can be removed through a surgical procedure, which can be performed using traditional method or through laparoscopic adrenalectomy.
- Hormonal replacement therapy – In the case of Addison’s disease, the hormone cortisol needs to be replaced w