adrenal gland (ədrēnˈəl) [key] or suprarenal gland sōprərēnˈəl, endocrine gland (see endocrine system) about 2 in. (5.1 cm) long situated atop each kidney. The outer yellowish layer (cortex) of the adrenal gland secretes about 30 steroid hormones, the most important of which are aldosterone and cortisol. Cortisol regulates carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism, and its secretion is controlled by the output of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. Aldosterone regulates water and salt balance in the body; its secretion is only slightly influenced by the pituitary. Steroid hormones also counteract inflammation and allergies and influence the secondary sex characteristics to a limited degree. The adrenal cortex controls metabolic processes that are essential to life and if it ceases to function death ensues within a few days. Artificial synthesis of the steroid hormones has made it possible to treat many conditions related to underactivity of the adrenal cortex, e.g., Addison's disease. The inner reddish portion (medulla) of the adrenal gland, which is not functionally related to the adrenal cortex, secretes epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. The release of these hormones is stimulated when an animal is excited or frightened, causing increased heart rate, increased blood flow to the muscles, elevated blood sugar, dilation of the pupils of the eyes, and other changes that increase the body's ability to meet sudden emergencies.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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