For years the adrenal gland remained a behind-the-scenes player in the development of several chronic conditions, like fibromyalgia (for more common questions and expert answers on Fibromyalgia, visit Sharecare.com) and chronic fatigue. Few patients know about or understand this gland. In fact, many doctors do not really focus much attention on it during the process of treating chronic illness. Advertisements are now targeting how to lose weight and fight fatigue by treating the adrenal gland. Unfortunately, products of this quick-fix nature won't work with this organ. The health of the adrenal gland is of primary importance to help prevent and treat chronic disease.

The adrenal gland is a small organ that comes in pairs. There is one on top of each kidney. Like the ovaries, testicles and thyroid, it is a hormone-producing gland. It makes several hormones that encompass a vast array of functions. To emphasize how important this gland is, consider that the gonads (testicles or ovaries) of a man or woman could be removed and without any further medication that person would live. Without critical medical care, a patient would die shortly after the removal of the adrenal glands. Unfortunately, conventional medicine has traditionally taught that in most circumstances the adrenal glands are either healthy or essentially absent. Addison’s disease is the term used to describe very poor adrenal gland function. Patients with Addison’s disease need medication every day to provide the necessary hormone treatment that their body no longer provides. Doctors are now seeing that the adrenal gland is neither on nor completely off, but that there is a spectrum of how well it functions.

The health of the adrenal gland can and will dictate the health and recovery of many types of chronic illness, though the topic can get confusing. The adrenal gland should make the necessary amount of hormones in a balance, without producing too much or too little. One of the major hormones made by the adrenal gland is cortisol. Too much cortisol can cause symptoms of weight gain around the waist, poor sleep, fatigue, elevated blood sugars, menstrual irregularities, increased thirst, higher blood pressure and even more frequent infections.

One of the biggest causes of an overactive adrenal gland is stress. The adrenal gland is needed to respond to stress. It was designed to deal with stress in small spurts rather than in periods of days or months (or even years). Chronic stress will overwork the adrenal gland to the point of exhaustion and eventually they become too fatigued to meet the needs of the body. Low cortisol symptoms include fatigue, sugar or salt cravings, low blood sugar, a history of low blood pressure, skin rashes, allergies, poor sleep, depression and anxiety. Cortisol production is usually highest in the morning before we eat, with levels gradually tapering throughout the day. Some patients will be just the opposite, low in the morning when they have terrible fatigue and high at night, not allowing them to get their much needed rest.

Any major or chronic stress will affect the adrenal gland. Quite frankly, it is not a gland that deals well with the modern-day lifestyle. A few thousand years ago, our stress responses were not asked to last days and months. If we encountered a lion, we would need to fight the lion, flee from it or be eaten. This type of stress would be decided in a matter of seconds or minutes. This is much different from the daily attacks of an impatient boss, a terrible commute, a rocky relationship or a chronic illness. While our mind knows that a bad boss at work does not threaten our lives, from the neck down the adrenal glands and the other organs respond by hearing the same instinctive alarms. So the stress encountered day in and day out at work is sending the message, “Lion!” The body can run from a lion for short distances, but it was not made to outrun the lion every hour of the day.