Menopause and the Adrenal Glands

In another article I wrote about Adrenal Fatigue and Menopause: Nutritional and Other Treatments which you can read here. In this one we will cover the basics.

Our adrenal glands are the source of stress hormones—those hormones that allow us to deal with stress.

Now, let’s define stress—stress is, in a sense, what we make of it. Stress is the response to conditions in our environment and it is important to remember that what someone – or what someone’s body regards as stress is unique to that person. In other words, taking care of 2 toddlers may be stressful to one woman, where another woman responds with no stress or little stress.

Some women enjoy an executive position, with lots of decisions to be made and many deadlines to meet—and some women would rather have the flexibility of no deadlines and fewer critical decisions to make. So, the response to stress is very individual and dependent on many factors. Stress can also be internal—if someone is unhappy in a relationship or a job, they may never show it, internalizing the stress instead.

The adrenal glands produce the hormones (cortisol) and the neurotransmitters (adrenaline and noradrenaline: neurotransmitters are substances that carry messages through the nervous system) that help us deal with all kinds of stress.

The adrenal glands also produce androgens such as precursors to testosterone (in both men and women), mineralocorticoids to control the excretion of various minerals and aldosterone, another hormone that controls blood levels of minerals.

Cortisol, also known as the “fight or flight” hormone, controls the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates and plays a role in inflammation and stress. Cortisol does a lot more, but during stressful times, cortisol diverts energy sources away from low-priority systems to the brain and to the muscles—to give humans the “smarts” to fight and the energy if that human chooses flight. The problem is that the adrenal fight or flight system evolved to deal with temporary emergencies—the bear chasing you in the woods or the sudden flash flood that you had to escape. It did NOT evolve to deal with modern stressors.

Adrenal Fatigue

The concept of adrenal fatigue is not accepted by many mainstream physicians. But, for many women going through menopause after a lifetime of stress, it is a real as it gets. It is quite true that the symptoms of adrenal fatigue can be caused by other, more conventional disorders, but it should be considered especially for women during menopause—along with thyroid issues (see the article on the thyroid gland during menopause). The basic concept is that after many years of stress (and what is perceived as stress), the adrenal glands become “fatigued” as a result of the constant pressure put on them. Given that menopause begins in a woman’s forties or fifties, that is 40 or 50 years of stress—also given the interconnectedness of the reproductive hormones, the adrenals and the thyroid, it is perhaps not too surprising that these glands often get fatigued at the same time.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can include:

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning or not feeling rested when you wake up
  • You need a cup or two of coffee in the morning just to get yourself going—you may also find yourself turning to coffee and sugary snacks at about 4pm—otherwise, you feel you could go to sleep in the middle of the afternoon!
  • You may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Decreased interest in sex
  • Lack of energy—you may feel fatigued all the time and nothing seems to help
  • Mood swings and difficulty coping with your normal day-to-day stressors
  • Food cravings (most often for sugary or salty foods)
  • Abnormal weight gain, especially around the abdomen (the “pot belly” we all love….)
  • Foggy thinking and an inability to concentrate
  • Poor immune response—the result is frequent infections and a longer time recovering from infections

Adrenal fatigue can also contribute to worsening of the symptoms of a number of disorders including low blood pressure, hypothyroidism, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. By the way, regarding chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia—these conditions were not accepted by mainstream medicine for a very long time, and now they are… Mainstream medicine does accept a condition called adrenal insufficiency—that is essentially a more advanced case of adrenal fatigue.

Getting tested

resting-during-menopauseCortisol is a diurnal hormone—this means it cyclically rises and falls over a 24 hour period. This means that to really understand how well your adrenal glands are functioning, a single blood test simply won’t tell you very much. You need at least 4 separate tests over a 24 hour period to get results that are useful—and nobody wants to get their blood drawn 4 times in a day! So, is there an alternative? There is—cortisol can be testing by getting 4 samples of your saliva—much, much easier than 4 separate blood tests. You provide a saliva sample at 8am, noon, 4 pm and around 11pm to 12am. The tests are reliable 1 and can give physician trained to recognize adrenal fatigue all the needed information.

Read the next article to find out what you can do using diet, exercise and maybe some supplements to reduce your symptoms of adrenal fatigue.

References Cited

1. Vining R, McGinley R, Maksvytis J, Ho K. Salivary cortisol: a better measure of adrenal cortical function than serum cortisol. Ann Clin Biochem 1983 Nov;20 (Pt 6): 1983;Pt 6:329-35.

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