To achieve optimal health, it's crucial to understand how the endocrine system works, how it can become unbalanced, and steps you can take to support it.
At its most basic, the endocrine system is a collection of glands that includes the adrenal system. Together, they produce and secrete hormones the body uses to control and support essential functions like mood, energy levels and metabolism and also how our organs work.
The endocrine system includes the following seven glands: pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus, pancreas and the all-important adrenals.
The glands that make up the endocrine system are located throughout the entire body. The hormones produced by these glands are carried through the blood to muscles, organs and other tissues, providing specific instructions on what to do and when.
Hormones produced and released by the endocrine system also regulate key functions like sleep, metabolism and mood -- all intricately linked. The thyroid gland, located at the base of the neck, produces hormones that regulate energy use and overall metabolism. The pineal gland produces the sleepy hormone melatonin, which helps promote restful sleep.
The adrenal system is spread across two glands, one on top of each kidney. These small triangular-shaped glands are essential to health as they produce the hormones that help regulate blood pressure, heart rate, immunity and how we respond to stress. The adrenals also produce the primary hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle, as well as hormones that boost energy levels during stressful situations, triggering what is known as the "fight-or-flight" response.
Each adrenal gland is composed of two parts: the outer layer (adrenal cortex) and the adrenal medulla, which is inside the cortex.
The adrenal cortex is divided into three areas: the zona glomerulosa, zona fasciculata, and zona reticularis. And each area makes its own specific hormones:
The adrenal medulla, or the center of each adrenal gland, produces two key hormones:
Our adrenal glands are linked to health, both good and bad. When we're faced with a stressor, our fight-or-flight response is triggered and the adrenal glands release cortisol, providing energy to handle the situation. This is a healthy response, which in the short-term is typically a good thing.
However, too much of a jolt — or jolts occurring too often — can overwhelm our ability to manage stress. When stress continues, the body can enter a second phase of stress in which it tries to protect us from ongoing perceived danger. This can lead to an imbalance of hormones throughout the body and over time more serious health issues.
When hormones become imbalanced — with either too much or too little being produced in the body — you might experience severe physical and mental exhaustion, low mood, irritability and even some short-term memory problems. You may not even realize that the effects of stress are the reason you are feeling tired and worn down. You can run a simple at-home lab test that measures your hormone levels and work alongside a certified practitioner to understand the support your body needs to restore balance.
Hormone balance is critical for maintaining overall health. One way to help ensure balance is to support the body's hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response. Stress triggers the HPA axis, and continued stress can result in feelings of exhaustion.
Calming roots and herbs, including eleuthero root, Rhodiola rosea root and ashwagandha, can also help support sleep, reduce the stress response and balance cortisol levels. Certain herbs and B vitamins can also help support the adrenal glands, working to alleviate daytime stress and leaving you more energized, alert, and in a better mood.
Understanding the endocrine and adrenal system and the role each hormone plays is critical to achieving harmony when it comes to stress levels, sleep, metabolism and overall health.