Gram for gram, I pack more dynamite than any other organ in the innards of your body. I can cripple , sicken you, drive mad, or also kill. But don’t worry, I usually don’t do any of these things. In fact I behave so well that you are barely aware of my existence.
I am the adrenal gland that perches on top of your right kidney. Like a little jockey, my twin partner rides the other. I am roughly the shape of a tricorn hat, not much larger than the tip of a finger, and I weigh about five grammes. But my talents are immense: it would take thousands of square metres of chemical plant to synthesize the 50-odd hormones or hormone-like substances that I manufacture. Although I produce less than 28 milligrams of them a day, they play key roles in nearly all you do.
Vital battery to turn the wheels of life
I am absolutely essential to life. Remove my partner and me, and you would be dead in a day or so unless the doctor started feeding you artificial hormones in a hurry. Slow down our work, and watch the life slow down, too. Soon you would become weak, debilitated-a mere shadow of your former self.
Imagine this; had a portion of me become over-active when you were a boy (or girl), results would have been similarly striking. The little lad would have become a little man. His voice would have deepened, his beard sprouted, his sexual apparatus taken on manly proportions. Bone ends, which should remain open and soft until- full growth is reached, would have closed prematurely. And you would have gone through life as a runty little fellow.
For a long time. I was the mystery organ of the human body. No one knew what I did only that my removal meant death. As chemists began to pry into my secrets, they discovered my virtuosity. When they learned of my cortisone–like hormones, for instance, they were truly astonished for these sub-stances alone are useful in treating more than a hundred diseases, ranging from rheumatism to blood disorders; from ulcerative colitis to asthma.
And consider my architecture. I have one of the richest networks of blood vessels found in the body. Each minute, six times my weight of blood passes through me. I also have a big reserve capacity. Ten per cent of my tissue is sufficient to meet the body’s normal needs for my hormones. However, if I were to dwindle down to the ten per cent (10%) level, and you faced a really big stress, a severe illness, for example, or major surgery it would probably kill you. Because there wouldn't be enough of my protective hormones to save you.
Actually, I produce two basic sets of hormones. My medulla, or core, makes one set; my cortex, or rind, the other. My core has a unique feature: a hot line to your brain.
In the instance you feel any strong emotion - an overwhelming fear, a sudden rage and my medulla gets information instantly. Obviously I don't know the nature of emergency. So I prepare you for what is known as ‘fight or flight’ syndrome. My medulla starts pouring two hormones, adrenalin and noradrenalin into your bloodstream.
Your body would respond extraordinarily when this happens. The liver immediately releases stored sugar, instant energy, into the bloodstream. Your hormones shut down skin blood vessels. You would go pale and this would start and sluicing this extra blood into muscles and internal organs. Consequently the heart speeds up, and arteries tighten to raise blood pressure. Digestion comes to a halt, no time to worry about that detail right now the clotting time of your blood is quickened, in case of injury.
I've accomplished all this in seconds. Suddenly, you are a virtual superman due to this biological phenomenon. If your survival necessitates running faster, jumping further, hitting harder or lifting more than ever before, I’ve made you capable of it. You might have heard stories of individuals lifting overturned cars to release trapped victims. It was adrenal hormones that made this possible.
Checks & balances
Obviously, such stimulation can't go on indefinitely; I would make your body would race itself to death. So a tricky bit of protection has gone to work. The same stresses that stimulate production of adrenalin also cause the hypothalamus to signal pituitary gland to release a substance called ACTH.
This ACTH in turn prods my cortex, or rind, into stepping up production of its hormones. Under conditions of stress, it's the job of these hormones to maintain blood pressure and the flow of blood to vital organs, and to help convert fat protein into sugar an immediately available form of energy. Soon everything is under control again.
The hormones that my cortex produces fall into three broad classification. One set (of the cortisone family) superintends metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins; a second watches over water and mineral balance in your body. The third batch is the sex hormones supplementing those produced by the gonads (sex glands). Since these hormones can't be stored, I must manufacture them constantly, and the liver must see to it that any excess is destroyed. Thus the hormones my cortex produced two hours ago have already been largely replaced by a fresh supply.
When things go awry
Keeping things in exact balance is all-important. Suppose something happens to you -an injury, a disease-that knocks out the working cells of my cortex. Until research men learned how to manufacture my chief hormones, this was a sentence of death. And it wasn't pretty.
The victim seemed to get a dozen diseases at once. Skin took on a bronze tint; anaemia developed; muscles wasted away; weight and blood pressure dropped; appetite dwindled; there was nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Steadily, the victim grew weaker and wearier, and death was usually welcome. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about this today: should anything happen to my cortex, artificial hormones could allow him to lead a life that is near normal.
Too much of my cortical hormones can be almost as bad as too little. Suppose there is too much cortisol my hormone of the cortisone family. Your arms and legs would shrivel as the excess converted muscle protein into sugar. Drained of minerals, bones would become brittle. Fat would accumulate across the back and in folds on his abdomen, overloading your now spindly legs. Blood pressure would soar; mental aberrations would become common.
Another of the major hormones of my cortex is aldosterone, which helps maintain a mineral and water balance in your body. Too much even a pin-head amount and you would be in serious trouble. Vital potassium would be lost in urine, and excess sodium (salt) would be retained. Your muscles would weaken and it is possible they might become paralysed. Your heart would race, blood pressure soar, fingers tingle; headache would be continuous and almost unbearable. Aldosterone overproduction is usually caused by tumours, and when the tumour is removed, recovery is assured.
Obviously, none of these things have happened to you; not yet, anyway. They merely indicate what a Pandora's box I can be. For years now, I have done my many jobs so well that you might have almost forgotten I exist. You'd better not forget completely, though, because there is something he can do to help ensure my continued well-being.
Everyone should remember that too much stress worry, anger, hate is bad for you and for me. Thus I might try to calm down a bit.