The Side Effects of Adrenal Supplements

The adrenals are small triangular shaped glands located on top of each kidney. The pituitary gland, located in the brain, stimulates the adrenal glands to produce a variety of hormones such as cortisol. In response to chronic emotional or physical stress, the adrenal glands constantly secrete cortisol; over time the adrenals become fatigued and produce less cortisol, which causes general malaise and an inability to cope with stress. Certain adrenal supplements can support adrenal function and lessening adrenal fatigue; however, they can cause side effects.

Sleep Disturbances

Adrenal supplements, such as rhodiola rosea, licorice and adrenal extracts, promote the function of the adrenal glands. Promotion of function; however, can lead to sleep disturbances such as insomnia. Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep more than three days per week. The stimulatory effect of adrenal supplements causes nervous system excitement that prevents relaxation and sleep. Therefore, temper your dose if sleep disturbances occur and consult a physician before taking adrenal supplements.

Mineral and Hormonal Effects

Licorice, an adrenal supplement, lowers potassium levels; a low potassium level causes muscle spasms, irregular heart rate, nausea, vomiting and weakness. Licorice also alters estrogen levels; therefore, if you are taking birth control pills, do not take licorice root extract, since it will prevent estrogen absorption.

Gastrointestinal Upset

All adrenal supplements, adrenal extracts in particular, can cause gastrointestinal upset, such as nausea and vomiting. Adrenal extracts are typically derived from the adrenal glands of cows, sheep and pigs; therefore, adrenal extract capsules contain dried adrenal gland tissue. The potency of adrenal extracts can cause stomach and intestinal irritation; therefore, begin using adrenal gland extract in small doses.

Prescription Interference

Licorice root can alter the effects of some prescription medications and can prevent the liver from breaking down and excreting medication, thus causing increased side effects from prescription medications and toxicity. Consult your physician before taking licorice if you regularly take prescription medications.


In addition to cortisol, the adrenal glands also produce dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, a hormone that produces both estrogen and testosterone. DHEA is available as a supplement, which is thought to support adrenal gland function; however, in doses between 50 and 200 mg per day, DHEA can cause the maculinization of the body, according to the University of Michigan Health System. DHEA, in high doses, promotes the production of testosterone; therefore, women grow facial hair, increase sweating and develop acne. Consult a physician before taking DHEA.

Mood Effects

All adrenal gland supplements can affect the levels of adrenal gland hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Raising levels of these hormones can lead to increased irritability, anxiety and restlessness. Patients with bipolar disorder are advised to avoid adrenal supplements because they can interfere with hormones related to mood and can adversely alter the effects of prescribed medications.

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