What the hell is an adrenal gland, anyway?

Glad you asked! Rather than relying on my memory of college biology, I’ll share a concise definition that pretty much accounts for all of the health issues I’ve been trying to figure out for the past decade or so.

They kinda look like eggplants to me. Mmmmm, eggplant.

Courtesy of the University of Maryland Medical Center:

The adrenal glands are small yellow-bronze organs found in the retroperitoneum, (the back of the abdomen behind the abdominal lining) usually near the top of each kidney.

They provide essential hormones that control the body’s fluid and salt regulation, blood pressure, muscle development, sexual drive and development and sugar metabolism, as well as serving as the source for epinephrine, also called adrenaline.

Those things that they control? It’s like a laundry list of the reasons I’ve sought the expertise of doctors for the past 10+ years. Every. Single. One. Of them:

Fluid and salt retention: I eat in a restaurant, I gain two to five pounds. When I cook at home, I don’t use salt, and I don’t gain weight. Hmmm.

Blood pressure: Well yeah, you already knew that. It’s messed up.

Muscle development: I’ve had a muscle spasm in my left trapezius for over 10 years. I’ve had it MRI’d, X-rayed, and nerve tested. I’ve been prescribed physical therapy, Vicodin, Norco, and Oxycontin. I had an orthopedist recommend surgery for a herniated cervical disk. Guess what? WRONG. It’s the potassium, which is regulated by the adrenals. If my potassium gets too low, the spasm starts up. When it comes back to normal, the spasm goes away.

Sexual drive: Not much to say here other than when you feel crappy, it’s typically the last thing you’re interested in. That there could be a biological component here never really crossed my mind.

Sugar metabolism: DING DING DING DING DING! We have a winner here. I’ve had reactive hypoglycemia for at least half of my life. In early 2003, after mysteriously gaining 50 pounds (when I had been skinny/underweight my whole life) I was diagnosed with insulin resistance at the same time that I learned I was fructose intolerant. Because of the latter, I dumped all sugars and wheat from my diet and, bingo, dropped those 50 pounds within three months. Problem solved, right? No, here’s where it gets interesting: I don’t test positive for IR on paper. As IR is a precursor to Type 2 diabetes, and my entire maternal family has T2 diabetes, it seemed a logical conclusion that I would have IR too. I have all the symptoms of it – sleepy after eating, inability to eat carbs without instantly puffing up like a balloon – but my labs are all normal. This has been a mystery to me and to several doctors. However, after talking with other PA patients, I’m learning that this pattern – sudden weight gain, reactive hypoglycemia – is often the first sign that something is wrong. While the inability to digest fructose (and fructans, a fiber found in wheat) is a completely separate issue which I know will not go away, I’m suddenly hopeful – and excited! – at the prospect that if I can get the adrenalectomy, some of my food-related problems will be gone. I mean – HELLO, RICE NOODLES. A girl can dream, yeah?

Anyway. I’m told the adrenal gland is the size of a peanut. It kind of amazes me that something so tiny can control so much, but there you go.