The adrenal glands are the most important triangular-shaped organs that are located at the top of the kidneys. These glands secrete out hormones throughout the entire body and go to each of the organ systems and help them perform their jobs perfectly, making the body function normally. The adrenal glands also secrete the hormone cortisol, which helps the immune system by sending messages through the brain on what it needs to do. When the adrenal glands start to produce more or fewer hormones than the body actually needs, it can disrupt the immune system and cause the body to develop chronic illness over time. In this 3 part series, we will be looking at what hypocortisolism is, how it affects the immune system and its symptoms. Part 1 discussed how stress and the immune-brain connection work together and how the adrenal glands play their role. Part 3 will be discussing how the immune system works and what kind of natural remedies can help the body lower its cortisol level. By referring patients to qualified and skilled providers who specialized in hormone wellness services and we advise our patients to appropriately refer to our associated medical providers based on their examination. We find that education is the key when asking valuable questions to our providers. Dr. Jimenez DC provides this information as an educational service only. Disclaimer
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What Is Hypocortisolism?
Hypocortisolism or better known as Addison’s disease is a seriously rare adrenal gland disorder where the adrenal gland cannot produce enough hormones in the body. In a normal functional body, the hormones play a major role by secreting out into the bloodstream traveling to their designated organs and making sure that they are doing their job correctly. With hypocortisolism, there are not enough hormones being produced and the immune system starts attacking the adrenal glands, causing dysfunction and chronic illnesses in the body.
The Immune System and Stress
Stress has always had a bad reputation in the world due to high demanding jobs, numerous amounts of paperwork, or even situations that a person is in. However, studies have shown that stress is not a bad thing, in fact, it is a good thing to have stress in your body. Short-term stress can help enhance immunoprotection in the immune system. The immune system is the only system that can fight off unwanted pathogens and viruses that enter the body. So with short-term stress, it can enhance the cells that the immune system is producing. But when the body is dealing with long-term stress, it can suppress the T cell function and can cause autoimmune responses to the body. Not only that but when the body is dealing with chronic stress, it can affect the central nervous system and the cardioendocrine system as well.
The Central Nervous System
In the body, there is a vast network of nerves that are connected through each region is known as the central nervous system. The central nervous system is connected to the brain and is responsible for sending out signals to each system to make the body function and move. When hypocortisolism is affecting the central nervous system it can stop sending signals to the corresponding systems and can cause inflammation and chronic illnesses. Prolonged hypercortisolism can lead to degeneration of the:
- Hippocampus – memory
- Hypothalamus – CFS, FM, Depression, PTSD
- Pre-Frontal Cortex – executive decision making
- Amygdala – emotional stability
Sometimes when fMRI Pathologic changes have been seen, there is some irreversible treatment that has helped the central nervous system. Even after hypocortisolism has developed, the effects still remain in the central nervous system.
The cardiovascular system is where the heart and the arteries are making sure that the blood is pumping into the muscles, veins, and organs. So it plays hand in hand with the endocrine system, due to the hormones traveling and sticking to the blood cells so that way they can get to each organ. When there is an abundance of hormones, it can affect each organ system including the cardiovascular system. Studies showed that when the expression levels of hormones are in the heart, it can lead to an increase of various cardiovascular symptoms that can cause harm. Some of the symptoms that can affect the cardioendocrine system include:
- Accelerated progression of atherosclerosis, risk of MI and CHF
- Elevated inflammatory markers
- Endothelial dysfunction and hypertension
- Enhancement of insulin resistance and hyperglycemia
By making sure that the endocrine system is producing a normal amount of hormones to be transported through the bloodstream and making its way to the cardiovascular system, these symptoms will not happen.
The Symptoms Of Hypocortisolism
When the adrenal glands don’t produce enough of its two main hormones, which is cortisol and aldosterone, it can affect the body slowly and can cause it to develop chronic illnesses over time. Since cortisol helps the body respond to stress that it encounters, it helps maintain the immune system and level out blood glucose levels but when there is an autoimmune response starts occurring in the immune system and attacking the organs and tissue. When this happens, the immune system sees the adrenal glands are a threat and start to attack the outer regions of the adrenal glands causing a variety of symptoms and diseases. Some of the symptoms and diseases that hypocortisolism is associated with can be the following:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic pain syndromes
- Autoimmune diseases
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Sleep Disorders
- Mood disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Bipolar disorder
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic fatigue is often characterized by intense fatigue that can be associated with other symptoms. Studies have shown that chronic fatigue syndrome can permanently limit a person’s functional capacity and can produce a variety of symptoms that can affect the body. Headaches, depressive symptoms, cognitive disorders, and even an intolerance to physical exertion can affect a person and dampen their mood to do any of their daily activities. Chronic fatigue syndrome can even cause neuroendocrine-immune dysfunction in the body by causing the signals that go from the hormones to the brain to the immune system to be mixed up and causing chaos in the body. However, there have been numerous studies confirming the presence of:
- Low cortisol
- Blunted cortisol responses to stimulation testing
- Abnormal diurnal cortisol release patterns
And that can also play in effect with chronic fatigue syndrome. But surprisingly, there have been studies that have shown improvement in symptoms with administration of low-dose hydrocortisone treatment.
One chronic pain disorder that is known worldwide and causes musculoskeletal pain is fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal disorder where inflammation and pain are being targeted in the upper and lower parts of the body and can cause a wide variety of disorders that can affect a person’s day drastically. Some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia can include:
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Hormonal effects on the menstrual cycle
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Cognitive disturbances
When there are low levels of cortisol in the body, it can actually cause damage to the entire system and if a person has fibromyalgia, the pain and inflammation that they have will increase in the affected areas in their bodies, whether it is in their joints or in the muscles.
One of the symptoms that are associated with hypocortisolism is that it can be one of the causes of cardiovascular diseases. Since the cardiovascular system is consist of the heart and blood vessels that are making sure that the blood cells and the hormones are going to their proper organs. Studies have found that metabolic disturbances and environmental factors can play a huge role in individuals. Metabolic disturbances like metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and even hypocortisolism can affect the individual’s body, causing unwanted illnesses to rise up over time. For environmental factors that can affect the cardiovascular system, it can be things like a poor diet lifestyle, inactive physical activities, and even demanding sedentary jobs that can steadily increase the chance of cardiovascular diseases to pop up in a physical exam.
People with cortisol slope scores in the flattest quartile had a greater likelihood of any coronary calcium than did those in the remaining quartiles adjusted for a sex-race group, age, smoking, treatment for diabetes, systolic blood pressure, triglycerides, average cortisol, and educational attainment.
All in all, it is important to make sure that cortisol is being secreted out in a short burst to make the body function properly. If there is an overabundance or underabundance of cortisol in the body, it can cause a long-term effect of chronic illnesses over time and cause pain to the individual. Regulating hormones and being on a healthy lifestyle can help the body heal over time and cause relief to the person that was suffering from these unwanted pathogens.
Avellaneda Fernández, Alfredo, et al. “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Aetiology, Diagnosis, and Treatment.” BMC Psychiatry, BioMed Central, 23 Oct. 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2766938/.
Bhargava, Juhi, and John A Hurley. “Fibromyalgia.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 13 Oct. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK540974/.
Dhabhar, Firdaus S. “Effects of Stress on Immune Function: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.” Immunologic Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2014, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24798553/.
Lopez, Edgardo Olvera, et al. “Cardiovascular Disease.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 11 Aug. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535419/.
Ludwig, Parker E, et al. “Neuroanatomy, Central Nervous System (CNS).” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK442010/.
Medical Professionals, Cleveland Clinic. “Addison’s Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment.” Cleveland Clinic, 9 Apr. 2019, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15095-addisons-disease.
Ogawa, Tsuneo, and Adolfo J de Bold. “The Heart as an Endocrine Organ.” Endocrine Connections, Bioscientifica Ltd, 15 Apr. 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3987289/.
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