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What is the Adrenal Cortex?

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The adrenal cortex is the outer layer of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys. They have several functions.

The adrenal cortex stimulates three steroid hormones, glucocorticoids (like cortisol), mineralocorticoids and androgens (like testosterone). All of these hormones have important functions within the body.

Glucocorticoids help to regulate the level of sugar in your blood (hence their name from the word "glucose"). The most abundant glucocorticoid is cortisol (also called "hydrocortisone"). They also form part of your immune system and help to reduce or stop chronic inflammation.

Inflammation is a normal function of the immune system, caused by increased blood supply with immune cells that target the injured area in order to heal it or ward it off from the rest of the body. Short-term, acute inflammation is actually good for you and is one of your defences.

Immune cells sent to the affected area include mast cells, macrophages, eosinophils and neutrophils. This is called cell-mediated immunity. Any sustained immunological action of these cells results in inflammation.

However, long-term or chronic inflammation is caused either by a condition of poor health that the body cannot repair on its own (such as osteoarthritis) or by an oversensitivity of the immune system (in conditions such as asthma, allergies and auto-immune diseases).

In recent years chronic inflammation has been linked with conditions such as depression and cancer. Chronic inflammation is possibly implicated in the development of heart disease, so glucocorticoids have a vital job in helping to reduce the inflammation.

Due to their immune suppressive action, glucocorticoids have been manufactured artificially to treat arthritis, control asthma and even as anti-rejection drugs to stop transplant patients rejecting their new organs.

Mineralocorticoids help your body balance mineral absorption. They produce a steroid called aldosterone which helps promote normal blood pressure, they reduce the amount of salt you lose when you sweat, and they help improve the function of your taste buds so you can enjoy your meals more!

Androgens are male sex hormones that promote normal puberty in boys. Boys produce most of their androgens from the testes and only a little from the adrenal cortex.

Females also produce androgens, but their adrenal cortex is the major source of them. Testosterone, for instance, is present in women and is part of what gets them "in the mood".

How to Support Your Adrenal Function

Michelle Pick, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from the Woman to Woman clinic in Yarmouth, Maine, suggests the following to support your adrenal function:

• Make sure you eat regular, healthy foods and snacks through the day. Michelle suggests three meals and two or three snacks per day. Don’t allow yourself to get too hungry as a drop in blood sugar can wreak havoc on your adrenal glands.

• Make your evening meal lighter (heavy eating at night is due to cortisol and can disturb the hormone axis further).

• Only have a light walk after the evening meal. More intensive exercise is best in the morning.

• Reduce consumption of or get rid of cookies, cakes, doughnuts, white bread, coffee and soda.

• If you have problems with low blood pressure you should add a bit of sea salt to your diet. Too much salt is bad for you but not enough is also bad for you. If you feel dizzy when you get out of bed or if you stand up too quickly, this may be due to low adrenal function and a bit of extra salt might help.

• Consider taking a vitamin supplement -- vitamins B, C, E and the mineral magnesium provide energy for your adrenal cells and minerals like zinc and selenium have a calming effect.


The Adrenal Glands, Biology Pages. Web. 26 June 2012.

Inflammation & Cell-Mediated Immune Response, Immunology Notes. Web. 26 June 2012.

Glucocorticoids, Healthline. Web. 26 June 2012. http://www.healthline.com/galecontent/glucocorticoids

Key Molecule in Inflammation-Related Depression Confirmed, National Institute of Mental Health. Web. 26 June 2012.

Why Cancer and Inflammation? Yale J Biol Med. 2006 December; 79(3-4): 123–130. Full Text:

Does Inflammation Cause Heart Disease? Andrew Weil, M.D. Web. 26 June 2012. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA366280

Adrenal Health, Woman to Woman. Web. 26 June 2012. http://www.womentowomen.com/adrenalhealth/adrenalglandfunction-nutrition.aspx

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/

She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and has an A grade diploma in Neuro-psychological Immunology (the study of how the mind affects the immune system).

Reviewed June 26, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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