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Understanding Adrenal Function

August 27, 2000 | 212,673 views
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By BioHealth Diagnostics

Pregnenolone—The Basics

Pregnenolone, like DHEA, is a steroidal hormone manufactured in the body. Pregnenolone is a precursor hormone synthesized from cholesterol, principally in the adrenal glands, but also in the liver, skin, brain, testicles, ovaries, and retina of the eyes.

Steroids are a large family of structurally similar biochemicals that have sex-determining, anti-inflammatory, and growth-regulatory roles. Indeed, pregnenolone is the grand precursor from which almost all of the other steroid hormones are made; including DHEA, progesterone, testosterone, the estrogens, and cortisol. Despite its powerful metabolites, pregnenolone is acknowledged to be without significant side effects, with minimal or no anabolic, estrogenic or androgenic activity.

Pregnenolone has been found to be 100 times more effective for memory enhancement than other steroids or steroid-precursors in laboratory mice. Pregnenolone appears to be the most potent memory enhancer yet reported in animals. Pregnenolone has been reported to not only make people smarter but happier and enhance ones ability to perform on the job while heightening feelings of well-being. Pregnenolone has also been reported to reduce high stress induced fatigue.

As is the case with the steroid-hormone precursor DHEA, pregnenolone levels decline with age. Many physicians and scientists believe that replacement of pregnenolone to youthful levels is an important step in the treatment of aging and symptoms of aging. Pregnenolone may be one of the most important hormones because it seems to have a balancing effect. It is a precursor to many other hormones and may be able to bring the levels of other hormones up or down as needed.

Other benefits of pregnenolone may include stress reduction and increased resistance to effects of stress, improvement of mood and energy, reduced symptoms of PMS and menopause, improved immunity, and repair of myelin sheaths.

Pregnenolone also operates as a powerful neurosteroid in the brain, modulating the transmission of messages from neuron to neuron and strongly influencing learning and memory processes. As with DHEA, pregnenolone levels naturally peak during youth and begin a long, slow decline with age.

By the age of 75 our bodies produce 60% less pregnenolone than the levels produced in our mid-thirties. For this reason pregnenolone is one of the biomarkers of aging. Like counting the rings of a tree, by measuring the level of pregnenolone at any given point of a person's life, it is often possible to make an educated guess as to his or her age.

Some other hormones that decline with age are DHEA, the estrogens, testosterone, progesterone and growth hormone. These are considered biomarkers of aging as well. Since pregnenolone provides the initial raw material from which all the other steroid hormones are made, some of our other hormones will decline in a parallel fashion.

While our youth-giving hormones are diminishing, loss of quality-of-life progressively settles in. We slowly begin to experience physical and mental decline; loss of energy, memory loss, visual and hearing impairment, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and sexual decline, just to name a few. Supplementing small amounts of these neuro-hormones may slow these age-related processes, improving one's quality of life by rejuvenating the body to more youthful functioning.

Pregnenolone—A Little History

Research on pregnenolone, as well as usage of pregnenolone, dates back as far as the 1930's. Human studies were conducted in the 1940's on factory workers to test the effect of pregnenolone on anti-fatigability and autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis. The results were successful and improvements were noted. Even though pregnenolone was proving to be not only effective, but safe as well, it was discarded when Merck's newly introduced pharmaceutical agent, cortisone, was announced to be a cure-all for rheumatoid arthritis in 1949.

Soon after cortisone and cortisol came into use, the synthetic steroid hormones dexamethasone, and later prednisone, were introduced. Remember that these steroids are hundreds of times more powerful than pregnenolone (or DHEA for that matter). Because they could be patented, it was more politically and economically advantageous for pharmaceutical companies to promote these drugs rather than pregnenolone. Additionally, these steroids were very fast acting compared to pregnenolone. Users and doctors preferred the quick fix. However, these steroidal compounds proved to have serious downsides, including compromising the immune system and inducing osteoporosis, among other serious complications.

Even though cortisone and cortisol are stress hormones that are natural to the body, they have historically been and continue to be administered in pharmacological doses rather than at physiological amounts natural to the body. The pharmacological levels at which cortisone and cortisol are generally administered give them a risk profile not unlike that of the synthetic hormones.

Scientists have been studying the impact of hormones on learning and memory for many years. Various studies have found that pregnenolone enhances motivation, the ability to acquire knowledge, and long-term memory. A research group of industrial psychologists conducted studies in the 1940's to test pregnenolone on students and workers for the ability to enhance job performance. They found that the students/workers had a markedly improved ability to learn and remember difficult tasks.

It is also amazing that pregnenolone not only enhanced job performance of the students/workers; but they additionally experienced heightened feelings of well-being. The same research group performed a study on factory workers to see if pregnenolone could improve their work productivity. Productivity increased most notably in the workers whose situations were considered the most stressful; for example, the workers who got paid per piece and whose living depended on their productivity. Improvement was noted, but less so, in workers who got paid a fixed wage regardless of their productivity levels. Not only did pregnenolone improve productivity for both groups, but the workers also reported enhanced mood.

As previously mentioned, despite successful results, research on pregnenolone halted in the 1950's when cortisone became available as an immediate cure-all. Because pregnenolone, unlike cortisone, couldn't be patented, pharmaceutical companies had no financial incentive to pursue the research. It is unfortunate that pharmaceutical companies are governed by a financial system and healthcare system that imposes the requirement that for a molecule to be profitable it must be patentable. If there were half as many studies done on pregnenolone as the patented drugs, pregnenolone's therapeutic potential would be expected to be far reaching.

Where is Pregnenolone Found?

Human studies show that there are much higher concentrations of pregnenolone in the nervous tissue than in the bloodstream. Animal studies indicate that pregnenolone is found in the brain in ten-fold larger concentrations than the other stress-related hormones (including DHEA).

Common Causes Of Adrenal Stress

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Worry/anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Overwork/ physical or mental strain
  • Excessive exercise
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Light-cycle disruption
  • Going to sleep late
  • Surgery
  • Trauma/injury
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Chronic infection
  • Chronic pain
  • Temperature extremes
  • Toxic exposure
  • Malabsorption
  • Maldigestion
  • Chronic illness
  • Chronic-severe allergies
  • Hypogycemia
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Associated Symptoms and Consequences of Impaired Adrenals

  • Low body temperature
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained hair loss
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty building muscle
  • Irritability
  • Mental depression
  • Difficulty gaining weight
  • Apprehension
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Excessive hunger
  • Tendency towards inflammation
  • Moments of confusion
  • Indigestion
  • Poor memory
  • Feelings of frustration
  • Alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • Osteoporosis
  • auto-immune hepatitis
  • auto-immune diseases
  • Lightheadedness
  • Palpitations [heart fluttering]
  • Dizziness that occurs upon standing
  • Poor resistance to infections
  • Low blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Food and/or inhalant allergies
  • PMS
  • Craving for sweets
  • Dry and thin skin
  • Headaches
  • Scanty perspiration
  • Alcohol intolerance

Functions of DHEA

  • Functions as an androgen (a male hormone) with anabolic activity. Anabolic refers to the building or synthesis of tissues.
  • Is a precursor that is converted to testosterone (a male hormone). Is a precursor to estrogen (a female anabolic hormone)
  • Reverses immune suppression caused by excess cortisol levels, thereby improving resistance against viruses, bacteria and Candida albicans, parasites, allergies, and cancer.
  • Stimulates bone deposition and remodeling to prevent osteoporosis.
  • Improves cardiovascular status by lowering total cholesterol and LDL levels, thereby lessening incidences of heart attack.
  • Increases muscle mass. Decreases percentage of body fat.
  • Involved in the thyroid gland's conversion of the less active T4 to the more active T3.
  • Reverses many of the unfavorable effects of excess cortisol, creating subsequent improvement in energy/ vitality, sleep, premenstrual symptoms, and mental clarity.
  • Accelerates recovery from any kind of acute stress (e.g., insufficient sleep, excessive exercise, mental strain, etc.).

What Cortisol Does

  • Mobilizes and increases amino acids, the building blocks of protein, in the blood and liver.
  • Stimulates the liver to convert amino acids to glucose, the primary fuel for energy production.
  • Stimulates increased glycogen in the liver. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose.
  • Mobilizes and increases fatty acids in the blood (from fat cells) to be used as fuel for energy production.
  • Counteracts inflammation and allergies.
  • Prevents the loss of sodium in urine and thus helps maintain blood volume and blood pressure.
  • Maintains resistance to stress (e.g., infections, physical trauma, temperature extremes, emotional trauma, etc.).
  • Maintains mood and emotional stability.

Excess Cortisol

  • Diminishes cellular utilization of glucose.
  • Increases blood sugar levels.
  • Decreases protein synthesis.
  • Increases protein breakdown that can lead to muscle wasting.
  • Causes demineralization of bone that can lead to osteoporosis.
  • Interferes with skin regeneration and healing.
  • Causes shrinking of lymphatic tissue
  • Diminishes lymphocyte numbers and functions
  • Lessens SIgA (secretory antibody productions). This immune system suppression may lead to increased susceptibility to allergies, infections, and degenerative disease.

Balancing Your Meals for Blood Sugar Control

To maintain proper adrenal function it is imperative to control your blood sugar levels and the following guidelines will help you do that:

  • Eat a small meal or snack every three to four hours.
  • Eat within the first hour upon awakening.
  • Eat a small snack near bedtime.
  • Eat before becoming hungry. If hungry, you have already allowed yourself to run out of fuel [low blood sugar/ hypoglycemia], which places additional stress on the adrenal glands.

An excessive ratio of carbohydrates to protein results in excess secretion of insulin, which often leads to intervals of hypoglycemia. The body, in an attempt to normalize blood sugar, initiates a counter-regulatory process during which the adrenals are stimulated to secrete increased levels of cortisol and adrenalin. It follows that an excessive intake of carbohydrates often leads to excessive secretion of cortisol. This contributes to chronic cortisol depletion and consequently, adrenal exhaustion. Reduced DHEA is an early sign of adrenal exhaustion.

In order to stabilize blood sugar, you must maintain a balance between two hormones, glucagon and insulin, which are produced by the pancreas. Protein in the diet induces the production of glucagon Carbohydrates in the diet induce the production of insulin. Insulin promotes fat (energy) storage. When excess carbohydrates are eaten, the body produces large quantities of insulin and little glucagon. This high level of insulin results in more fat being formed and stored.

When insulin is high and glucagon is low, the adrenals are called upon to produce excess cortisol (see later on in the document what cortisol is all about) as a back-up response to help raise blood sugar in the absence of adequate glucagon. This occurs at the expense of the adrenal glands, contributing to adrenal exhaustion.

Balance Your Meals

The optimal level of insulin to glucagon is achieved by a diet that contains carbohydrates balanced with proteins in a ratio of approximately two to one, that is, approximately two grams of carbohydrate per gram of protein and gram of fat per meal or snack.

The Role of Fat

A small amount [3/4 tsp. to 1 tsp.] of fat (butter) or cold pressed vegetable or seed oil should be a part of each meal in order to help control the rate of entry of glucose (blood sugar) into the bloodstream.

In order to make balancing this glycemic control diet easier, you can purchase books containing nutritive value charts, as well as ones containing a glycemic index These charts will enable you to quickly locate foods you would like to eat, and help determine whether they are in appropriate balance for your meals.

Making the Most of Meal Balancing

As there is no exact dietary balance that applies to all people, it is critical to understand each person's role in the development of an ideal eating plan. In order to determine how well a blood sugar balanced diet is working, one must pay attention to one's own body.

For example, if you feel mentally and physically alert throughout the day, this is generally a good sign that you are eating frequently enough and in the right balance. Eating small, carefully balanced meals every 4-5 hours will preclude hunger and fatigue in most people. It is up to each person to become aware of how they respond to the meals they eat. A properly balanced meal with good digestion and absorption should sustain mental and physical energy for 4-6 hours.