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What Is Adrenaline?

Adrenaline is a hormone released from the adrenal glands that prepares the body for fight-or-flight. Learn about what adrenaline does to the body here.

In This Article: 
Definition Causes | Symptoms | Treatments | Fast Facts | Frequently Asked Questions

Featured Voices: 
Elena Christofides MDZlatin Ivanov MD, and Brittany Johnson LMHC

What is adrenaline?

Picture this: you’re driving down a country road, singing along with your favorite song, cool air rushing through your hair, when out of nowhere a moose appears in a bend in the road. Before you know what’s happening, you swerve to miss it and slam on your breaks. You’re breathing hard and fast, your heart is pounding, your legs are shaking, your body is sweating, but your mouth is dry.

How did your body go, in seconds, from relaxed in the driver’s seat to full fight-or-flight mode? You have adrenaline to thank.

Adrenaline is a hormone that prepares your sympathetic nervous system to fight or flee, and your body makes it in response to a stressor or threat. It’s an amazing thing to have coursing through your system when facing danger—people have been known to lift cars off children and run faster than they ever had due to adrenaline. It increases the flow of blood to muscles, releasing sugar into your bloodstream, along with a cascade of other effects that make your body alert and more able to fight off an attacker or outrun a flood.

But you can also have too much adrenaline due to nonphysical stressors, like traffic, financial worries, frustrating meetings, or relationship troubles. The physical changes it causes in your body can become problematic and uncomfortable, creating issues with digestion, hormone regulation, sleep, and more.

Adrenaline Fast Facts

What causes an adrenaline spike to occur?

  1. You perceive a threat or danger
  2. Your hypothalamus, part of the limbic system at the brain’s base, activates the sympathetic nervous system—also known as flight-or-fight state
  3. Your brain instructs the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline
  4. Adrenaline is released throughout the bloodstream

 

In addition to actual threats and dangerous situations, people with certain mental-health challenges may experience adrenaline rushes as part of their condition. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can experience adrenaline rushes from memories or thoughts about trauma. People with panic disorders, like agoraphobia or social-anxiety disorder, can experience an adrenaline rush when faced with a situation they fear, or other specific phobias. Some people love the thrill they feel when adrenaline is released and enjoy their heart racing, their pupils dilating, and breaking into an excited sweat.

Activities that can cause the feeling of an adrenaline rush may include:

  • Skydiving, ziplining, and other extreme sports
  • Roller coasters and similar types of entertainment
  • Watching a scary movie or television show
  • Taking a test
  • Public speaking
  • Talking to someone you have a crush on or admire

What signs and symptoms does adrenaline cause in your body?

Adrenaline carries with it many hallmark physical sensations. Symptoms of an adrenaline rush may include:

  • A “pounding” sensation in your heart
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fast breathing or hyperventilation
  • Shallow breathing
  • Increased sweating
  • Increased ability to run and lift heavy objects
  • Dilated pupils—so things might look really bright, or a little unreal; some people experience light sensitivity when anxious
  • Feeling shaky or nervous
  • Trembling or shaking in your arms, legs, and hands
  • Dizziness

What problems are associated with adrenaline?

Adrenaline is an important and healthy part of normal physiology. Your body has evolved its adrenal system over millions of years to help you survive danger. However, sometimes psychological stress, emotional worries, and anxiety disorders can trigger the release of adrenaline when it’s not needed.

Consistent, long-term exposure to adrenaline and other stress hormones can affect your body in different ways.

Overexposure to adrenaline can cause:

  • Digestive problems
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Weight gain
  • Metabolic issues
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Memory and concentration impairment
  • Sleep disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

What symptoms are caused by having too much adrenaline?

  • Weight loss
  • Heart palpitations
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety

Aside from chronic stress, which can expose your body to too much adrenaline, an adrenal tumor could be a culprit for having an excess of adrenaline. Another cause of overproduction of adrenaline is untreated obstructive sleep apnea, because as people struggle to breathe in their sleep, the body perceives lack of oxygen as danger, which then creates a physical stress response.

Too little adrenaline is very rare. Ninety percent of the precursor to adrenaline, called noradrenaline, is produced in the nervous system. So, even if your adrenal glands were removed, you could still produce adrenaline, although you would likely suffer a diminished stress response and diminished excitement.

Dr. Elena Christofides explains, “The bulk of adrenaline is made in the nervous system, but that adrenaline stays local—it doesn’t go elsewhere. The adrenaline made in adrenal glands is more systemic. If the adrenal glands were destroyed or removed, you might experience hypoglycemia, a poor stress response, and diminished excitement. Things would probably feel flatter.”

Is there treatment for adrenaline disorders?

The main treatment for addressing an adrenal disorder is to treat the underlying cause. If sleep apnea is the culprit, a CPAP mask could help. If it’s a biological disorder, your doctor can work with you to find a medication or other treatment.

The vast majority of problems with adrenaline stem from stress. Adrenaline and other stress hormones are great to have at our disposal when the situation requires we fight or flee, but it’s also important to learn how to turn adrenaline off, so that our heartrate and blood pressure return to normal, our digestion and reproductive systems resume regular functioning, and we can feel relaxed, present, and focused.

While it’s not always easy to turn off the stress response, especially when life circumstances are challenging or when we’ve become habituated to feeling stress for a long time, there are some very effective treatments to help you get back to a relaxed state.

What are the treatments for issues with adrenaline?

There are several treatment options for increased adrenaline production. Let’s take a closer look at some of the things that can help.

Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is generally regarded as the most effective type of therapy for most anxiety disorders. CBT generally involves identifying triggering situations, thoughts, and people, and then learning and practicing healthy coping skills. Therapists offer techniques and cognitive reframing for dealing with stress without going into fight-or-flight mode.  

According to Brittany Johnson LMHC, “Any type of mindfulness intervention, like deep breathing, yoga, and guided meditation for keeping stress and adrenaline in check can be very helpful. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can also help. It works by identifying negative beliefs you hold about yourself or the world, and helping you come up with positive or alternative beliefs that are more empowering, and less scary or negative.” In EMDR, you learn to use internal resources like problem-solving skills, positive self-talk, relaxing and calming statements, and reprocessing past trauma to bring down your overall stress and anxiety levels.

Dr. Ivanov says, “Most people these days are under chronic stress. Medicines can help, but using different behavioral techniques for stress-reduction and anxiety along with medication is more effective than relying on medication alone. Some people feel much better when they exercise twice a day for fifteen minutes, while for others various meditation techniques work for balancing emotions—different strategies work differently for each of us.”

“Any kind of hobby where you can sublimate the extra tension and anxiety will help. However, for many people who come to us, anxiety is taking over their lives. For them, medication can help un-push the button that has gotten stuck on worry and anxiety. Overall, having both a therapist and a psychiatrist works better than having either one alone.”

What medications are effective in reducing adrenaline or blocking its effects on your body?

  • Beta blockers help stress symptoms by preventing adrenaline from making contact with your heart’s beta receptors. This prevents the heart-thumping sensation and increased heart rate that so many associate with adrenaline and fear. Beta blockers can also relax your blood vessels, reducing blood pressure, making it a first-line treatment for people with high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues. Beta blockers work short-term and can be helpful to use in a specific situation that you’re nervous about, like a public performance, flying in an airplane, or visiting the dentist. They can take an hour or two to reach their full effect, which lasts for about twelve to twenty-four hours. The most commonly prescribed beta-blockers are atenolol, propranolol, and metoprolol.
  • Benzodiazepines are another fast-acting short-term medication. They work on your neurotransmitters to relax your muscles and calm your mind, and are mostly used to treat anxiety disorders, like panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. While Beta blockers can be helpful to take when you anticipate a stressful experience, benzodiazepines are the most effective in the peak of an anxiety or panic attack. Dr. Ivanov says, “If you’re experiencing difficulty breathing, tremors, or dizzy spells from panic attacks that come out of the blue, benzodiazepines can relieve symptoms quickly by immediately deactivating extra adrenaline in your blood.” Alprazolam, clonazepam, lorazepam, and diazepam are regularly prescribed benzodiazepines.
  • Buspirone is used to treat both short-term anxiety and chronic (long-lasting) anxiety disorders. It acts on neurotransmitters to regulate mood, and can help relieve worry, irritability, jitteriness, pounding heartbeat, and other anxiety symptoms, and can take up to several weeks to become fully effective.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) decrease anxiety and regulate mood by increasing available levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is our feel-good neurotransmitter, and if not enough of it is floating around in our brain synapses, we can feel anxious, panicky, distraught, focus on looking for threats and dangers, and get trapped in negative thinking. SSRIs can reduce adrenaline cycles by decreasing stress and anxiety in general, making one less likely to panic and spark the fight or flight response. SSRIs can work for some within a few days. For others it can take four to six weeks to reach full effectiveness. Because of this, many doctors will prescribe a shorter and faster-acting anxiety medication alongside an SSRI to start, so that patients can slowly build up to an effective dose, while still getting some immediate relief from adrenaline, stress, anxiety, and panic. Escitalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine and sertraline are regularly prescribed SSRI’s.
  • Tricyclics. Like SSRIs, tricyclics work on your neurotransmitters to stabilize mood and decrease anxiety and depression. Tricyclics work by increasing the availability of both serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain’s synapses. Clomipramine and imipramine are tricyclics used to treat anxiety.
  • MAOIs or Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are used to treat panic disorder and social phobia. They work by increasing the number of neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Isocarboxazid, phenelzine, selegiline, and tranylcypromine are MAOIs that are FDA-approved to treat depression but also used off-label to treat anxiety.

What lifestyle changes can help prevent adrenaline spikes?

Dr. Christofides says, “Adrenaline is sensitive to circadian rhythm. You can prevent adrenal stress by exercising, eating, sleeping, and working at the right time of day. Try eating your biggest meal and exercising in the early part of the day. This allows you to have proper spiking of the adrenal gland when you most need the energy, and enough time, up to six hours after peak, for your adrenal glands to reach their lowest point before bed.”

  • Identify your triggers. You can’t always eliminate or avoid stressful things in your life, but you can learn the things that trigger your stress and incorporate healthful ways to cope with them. Strategize ways to anticipate the impact stressors can have on you, and what you can do to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in preparation.
  • Meditate. A regular meditation practice, even just ten minutes twice a day, can have dramatic effects on stress levels and adrenaline levels. Studies show that meditation is effective at reducing blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, slowing heart rate, and improving immune-system and digestive functioning. This is all due to meditation’s relaxing effects on your body, which switch it from a state of stress, or sympathetic fight or flight nervous system activation (read: adrenaline), to one of relaxation, or parasympathetic nervous system activation, decreasing amounts of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps to reduce stress, lower heart and breathing rates, and release the feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins, which have a positive effect on mood and induce relaxation. Even just a ten-minute walk a few times a day can be enough to reap the benefits of physical movement to lower stress and anxiety levels that can trigger the release of unwanted adrenaline.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eating a diet of plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and lean proteins will help keep your stress response in check. When your blood sugar is stable, and your body has the nutrients it needs, your nervous system can operate more smoothly and efficiently, helping you keep calm, and deescalating the stress response when it happens. You can also work with a doctor, naturopath, nutritionist, or other complementary health-care provider to take vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements to help support your adrenal health and stress response.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is when your body can be free from the demands of the day and focus on repair and rejuvenation. When you sleep deeply, your brain forms new pathways, encodes memories, and “declutters” excess information. Studies show that regular quality sleep improves concentration, learning, memory, mood, judgment, decision-making, hormonal health, and helps you cope with stress to keep adrenaline production in check. Aside from stress management, getting enough sleep has been shown to be essential in keeping healthy blood-pressure levels, weight, immune-system functioning, and cardiovascular and mental health. So, prioritize your eight to ten hours!
  • Maintain a strong support system. People with endocrine conditions are advised to have a strong support system to help with physical tasks related to their condition, as well as emotional support. Johnson advises, “Interview people in your life and see where they might be a good fit. Family, friends, colleagues, gym buddies, religious groups, community centers, yoga classes, or other areas of your life are all great possibilities for widening your circle of support.”

What is adrenal insufficiency?

The condition known as Adrenal Insufficiency (AI) does not actually describe a lack of adrenaline, but a lack of cortisol, the stress hormone that regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart muscle tone. Symptoms of AI include dehydration, weight loss, fatigue, dizziness, low blood pressure, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

What causes adrenal insufficiency?

More than 60 different factors can cause AI, including:

  • autoimmune disease
  • infections
  • genetic mutations
  • steroids

Other adrenal gland disorders affect cortisol but not adrenaline. With Cushing’s syndrome, for example, there is too much cortisol, but with Addison’s disease, there is too little.

Is adrenal fatigue real?

Adrenal fatigue has been a controversial term for a constellation of symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, salt and sugar cravings, and other typical symptoms of burnout. The theory goes that long-term exposure to stress exhausts the adrenal glands, which can’t keep producing adequate stress hormones (mostly cortisol) so people don’t get the energy boost they’d normally receive when under pressure or stress.

Most scientific studies can’t find evidence that such symptoms would be caused by a deficiency in, or fatigue of, the adrenal glands. Most doctors likewise don’t diagnose this as a condition.

More scientifically founded is adrenal insufficiency, described above, which is caused by damage to the adrenal glands, diagnosable by blood test, and treated with medication. Either way, adrenal fatigue and adrenal insufficiency both are related to your body’s production and release of the stress hormone cortisol, as opposed to adrenaline.

What is adrenaline used for pharmacologically?

One of the most important pharmacological uses of adrenaline is to treat anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction characterized by:

  • Hives
  • Facial swelling
  • Airway constriction
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting

Adrenaline is administered to reverse anaphylaxis by reducing the swelling of your face and airways and increasing blood pressure. So, while the vaso-constricting, heart-pounding effects of adrenaline can torture you when you’re trying to give a speech in front of a large crowd, they sure come in handy if you’re experiencing an anaphylactic reaction.

Adrenaline is also medically used:

  • As a local anesthetic
  • To reduce the chance of hemorrhage
  • As an aid during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) when trying to get the heart muscles to contract.

While adrenaline can be a life-saving medication, its use can pose a risk to those on tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and beta blockers, elderly patients, and those with high blood pressure, arteriopathies, and a history of ischemic heart disease.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

What other hormones are released during stress?

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is also produced by the adrenal glands. It increases sugar (glucose) in your bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of that glucose, and ups the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune-system responses and suppresses your digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also sends messages to your brain’s regions that control mood, motivation, and fear.

Are adrenaline, epinephrine, and epinephrime all the same thing?

Yes. Epinephrine (sometimes spelled epinephrime) is another name for the same hormone and neurotransmitter. So, if your doctor is talking about the epinephrine effect on the heart, epinephrime effects on your sympathetic nervous system, epinephrine function, or your epinephrine pathway – it’s all adrenaline.

What is adrenochrome?

Adrenochrome is an organic compound made when adrenalin oxidizes in the body. It has been the subject of many baseless claims and fake-news conspiracy theories about elite vampire drug rings online. In reality, there has been very little study or research done on the innocuous, naturally occurring substance, which has not been of much interest to researchers or doctors since the 1970s, when it was briefly considered to have a possible connection to schizophrenia.

When should I see a doctor if I’m having issues with adrenaline?

In the short term, an adrenaline rush has no significant impact on health. But over time, chronically high levels of adrenaline in your body can cause real health problems. If you feel perpetually stressed out, on high alert, anxious, or panicky, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor, who can evaluate what might be causing your distress, refer you to a therapist or psychiatrist, and rule out any other underlying conditions.

Adrenaline Fast Facts

  • Increases heart rate, blood flow, and alertness
  • Decreases sensitivity to pain
  • Dilates pupils to improve vision
  • Rapid effects last a few minutes to an hour
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