Adrenal Disorders

The adrenal glands are responsible for many processes in the body. When functioning correctly, they produce various hormones that trigger chemical activity in every system.

What are the adrenal glands?

Located on top of both kidneys, the adrenal glands are triangular-shaped and measure approximately half an inch in height and three inches in length. The inner part (adrenal medulla) of the adrenal glands secretes hormones such as adrenaline that affect blood pressure, heart rate and sweating. The outer part (adrenal cortex) secretes many different hormones that control the use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates in the body. The cortex also secretes male sex hormones as well as mineralocorticoids that control blood pressure and the levels of salt and potassium in the body.

What can go wrong with adrenal glands?

Addison's Disease: The adrenal glands don't make enough of a hormone called cortisol, or less often, a related hormone called aldosterone. That's why doctors sometimes call the illness ''chronic adrenal insufficiency,'' or hypocortisolism. Cortisol's most important function is to help the body respond to stress. It also helps regulate your body's use of protein, carbohydrates, and fat; helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function; and controls inflammation. Aldosterone helps your kidneys regulate the amount of salt and water in your body -- the main way you regulate blood volume and keep your blood pressure under control. When aldosterone levels drop too low, your kidneys cannot keep your salt and water levels in balance. This makes your blood pressure drop. Symptoms include

  • Major weight loss
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Stomach pains and occasionally nausea and vomiting

 

Cancer of the adrenal gland: Also characterized by overproduction of hormones, adrenal gland cancers are very rare afflicting only one or two per one million people. When they occur, however, these tumors may secrete excess amounts of cortisol or other adrenal products. Some symptoms are

  • High blood pressure
  • Low potassium level
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nervousness
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic attacks
  • Headache
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Diabetes
  • Abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Abdominal stretch marks
  • Excessive hair growth
  • Unusual acne
  • Change in libido (sex drive)

 

Cushing's Syndrome: Cushing's syndrome is a hormonal disorder. The cause is long-term exposure to too much cortisol, a hormone that your adrenal gland makes. Sometimes, taking synthetic hormone medicine to treat an inflammatory disease leads to Cushing's. Some kinds of tumors produce a hormone that can cause your body to make too much cortisol. Cushing's syndrome is rare. Some symptoms are

  • Upper body obesity
  • Thin arms and legs
  • Severe fatigue and muscle weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Easy bruising

 

Hyperaldosteronism: The disorder, hyperaldosteronism, is defined by the body's overproduction of aldosterone, a hormone that controls sodium and potassium levels in the blood. The overproduction of aldosterone leads to hypertension. Exceedingly rare, most cases occur in women, ages 30 to 50. The condition results from a benign tumor of the adrenal gland and occurs more frequently in women than men. It leads to potassium loss and increased sodium re absorption by the kidneys. Some symptoms are

  • Moderate hypertension
  • Constipation
  • Muscle weakness (especially in the legs)
  • Excessive urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Headache and personality changes

 

Pheochromocytoma: Usually benign, pheochromocytoma refers to a rare tumor of the medulla that secretes excessive amounts of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, resulting in high blood pressure. An estimated 800 cases are diagnosed yearly in the United States, making it extremely rare. The most common symptoms are

  • Headache
  • heart palpitations
  • excessive and inappropriate perspiration