The adrenal glands produce several important hormones. Too much or too little of these hormones can result in an adrenal disorder.
Effectively managing adrenal gland disorders requires a comprehensive and individualised approach.
What Do Our Adrenal Glands Do?
The adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney, are involved in regulating hormones that are essential for overall health. They have two main parts: the outer adrenal cortex and the inner adrenal medulla.
The adrenal cortex produces hormones like cortisol and aldosterone, which help with stress response and maintaining the balance of certain substances in the body. The adrenal medulla produces hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are involved in the body’s response to stress and danger. These glands work together with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in a system called the HPA axis to keep hormones in balance.
What Are Some Common Types Of Adrenal Gland Disorders?
Adrenal gland disorders encompass a range of conditions that affect the normal functioning of the adrenal glands.
Addison’s Disease (Adrenal Insufficiency)
Addison’s disease is when the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol is an important hormone in the regulation of stress, while aldosterone helps to regulate blood pressure and blood sodium levels.
Addison’s disease is most often caused by an autoimmune response, where your body’s own antibodies attack the outer layer of the adrenal glands.
Symptoms may include fatigue, muscle weakness, weight loss, low blood pressure, darkening of the skin, and salt cravings. In severe cases, when Addison’s disease isn’t treated, it can lead to an adrenal crisis, which requires immediate medical attention. An adrenal crisis may cause a loss of blood flow, siezures or even, a coma.
Cushing’s syndrome is caused by an excessive production of cortisol. It can be caused by prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol due to the use of corticosteroid medications, pituitary gland tumours, or adrenal gland tumours.
Symptoms may include weight gain, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, mood swings, and thinning of the skin.
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a genetic condition where the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol, leading to elevated levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). It can result in higher levels of male hormones and may cause virilisation (development of male physical characteristics) in both boys and girls before puberty.
This condition involves the overproduction of aldosterone, leading to elevated blood pressure and potassium loss.
Adrenal Gland Tumours
Adrenal gland tumours can be benign or malignant. Although adrenal adenomas are usually benign, they can disrupt hormone production. Adrenocortical carcinoma is a rare form of cancer that develops in the outer layer of the adrenal glands.
Pheochromocytoma is a tumour that causes the overproduction of epinephrine and norepinephrine, leading to symptoms such as elevated blood pressure and a racing heart.
What Causes Adrenal Gland Problems?
Adrenal gland problems can be caused by many different factors, including:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Infections (such as tuberculosis or fungal infections)
- Pituitary gland problems
Prolonged use of high-dose corticosteroids, which are often prescribed for inflammatory conditions, can suppress the adrenal glands and result in adrenal insufficiency or Cushing’s syndrome.
The adrenal glands produce hormones as a response to signals from the pituitary gland. Abnormal growths or tumours in the pituitary gland can impact hormone production and lead to adrenal gland disorders.
Certain genetic conditions, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, are inherited and can cause abnormalities in the enzymes responsible for hormone production in the adrenal glands.
How Are Adrenal Gland Disorders Treated?
When it comes to diagnosing adrenal gland disorders, healthcare providers use a range of methods. The process usually begins with a comprehensive medical evaluation in which your symptoms are assessed. The hormone levels in your saliva, blood, and urine might also be tested.
Imaging tests such as CT scans, MRIs, or nuclear imaging might be ordered, to investigate the presence of tumours or other abnormalities.
For hormonal imbalances that are not caused by tumours, hormone replacement therapy might be an option. This can help to regulate hormone production or replace deficient hormones in the body. In the case of tumours, surgical intervention could be recommended.
You may also be prescribed medications to reduce cortisol levels, block cortisol production, or simply manage symptoms.
Who Can Assist With The Management Of Adrenal Gland Disorders?
Endocrinologists are specialists who commonly diagnose and treat adrenal gland disorders. They have expertise in hormones and the endocrine system, which includes the adrenal glands.
Endocrinologists often work closely with other healthcare professionals, such as surgeons, radiologists, and primary care physicians, in order to provide you with comprehensive care for your adrenal gland disorder.
Frequently Asked Questions
The adrenal glands increase their cortisol production in response to an increase in stress. If you experience a prolonged period of high stress, your glands might become fatigued and might not produce enough cortisol to keep up with demand.