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Adrenal glands

Print Print | Email  Email article to a friend | Last updated: October 24, 2013

The adrenal glands are small structures attached to the top of each kidney. The human body has two adrenal glands which release chemicals called hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones affect many parts of the human body.

Alternative names

Suprarenal glands.

Where are my adrenal glands?

The human body has two adrenal glands and one sits on top of each kidney.

What do my adrenal glands do?

The adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped glands that produce hormones which act as ‘chemical messengers’. These hormones travel in the bloodstream and act on various body tissues to enable them to function correctly.

What hormones do my adrenal glands produce?

The adrenal glands produce four main hormones:

1. Catecholamines - These are 'stress' hormones (such as adrenaline or noradrenaline) and are released during times of stress to help the body combat extra pressures (the so called ‘fight or flight’ response).

2. Aldosterone - This hormone helps to maintain the body’s salt and water levels which, in turn, regulates blood pressure.

3. Cortisol - This is another hormone involved in the stress response. It also helps to regulate the body’s metabolism.

4. Androgens - eg, testosterone.  These are involved in creating and maintaining the differences between males and females.

What could go wrong with my adrenal glands?

In rare cases the adrenal glands can become either overactive or underactive. The two main disorders resulting from these are Cushing's syndrome and Addison's disease, respectively.

Overactive adrenal glands may produce too much cortisol which can cause a condition known as Cushing’s syndrome. This results in a number of symptoms such as thinning and bruising of the skin, obesity, diabetes, moodiness or depression and high blood pressure.

Underactive adrenal glands may not produce enough hormones which can cause a condition known as Addison’s disease. This underactivity may make the individual feel unusually tired and depressed, with muscle aches and pains and a poor appetite. They may also have a stomach upset and a brown tinge to the skin.

The treatment of each disorder varies according to the specific cause.

 

Written: March 2011