A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

If I had the organ that makes adrenaline removed, would I stop getting nervous?

June 14, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

What organ generates adrenaline? And if I were to have it removed, would I no longer get nervous when I give a speech?

Adrenaline, AKA epinephrine, is produced by the adrenal glands. Surprise! These are small glands located over the kidneys, and I wouldn't advise you to remove them. At least you wouldn't have to worry about giving speeches anymore, though, because these glands are necessary for life.

The adrenal glands have two parts.  The outer part, the adrenal cortex, produces several classes of steroid hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, aldosterone and some others.  The inner part, called the adrenal medulla, secretes chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. These two parts of the adrenal glands are functionally very different, and have different embryological origins. In some species of fish and amphibians these functions are carried out by two different organs.

There are several diseases associated with or caused by overproduction of some hormones by the adrenal glands: Cushing's Syndrome and aldosteronism, for example.  Adrenal gland insufficiency is associated with Waterhouse Friderichsen syndrome and Addison's disease, among others.

Messing with any of the hormones or chemicals produced by the adrenal glands can create real havoc in your body. If you've ever attended an out-of-town conference and woken up in a bathtub full of ice with your kidneys and adrenal glands surgically removed by thieves who notoriously roam the country doing this to profit from the sale of body organs, you know what I'm talking about.  (Disclaimer: the former statement is an "urban myth" and has not ever happened that anyone can prove. I included it here as a "joke.")

The brain directs the adrenal glands to produce epinephrine and norepinephrine as part of the "fight or flight" response when you're in particularly stressful or frightening situations. This prepares the body for strenuous activity. When epinepherine is released into the bloodstream, you experience increased heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure and sugar metabolism. In addition, the small arteries in the muscles enlarge. Epinephrine is used medically as a stimulant in cardiac arrest, as a vasoconstrictor in shock, and as a bronchodilator and antispasmodic in bronchial asthma.

If you're just concerned about fear of public speaking, you might want to try starting your speech with a joke. Getting everyone to laugh right off the bat always does wonders for my stage fright.  If you insist on a medical solution, there is a class of drugs specifically for this problem called beta blockers--inderol is one. These drugs are often used by professional musicians and other performers. Ask your doctor.

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