The human body is a seemingly never-ending maze of complicated processes. No one knows everything there is to know about how we work, and more often than not only those who go into the medical field know much more than the basics. Because there is so much to know, it’s easy to ignore many parts of our bodies or never consider learning about them—until something goes wrong.
One of these often-ignored body parts are the adrenal glands and diseases that may affect them. While there is cause for concern if adrenal diseases go too long without being treated and become too serious, they are not common and rarely life-threatening if treated in a timely manner. But first, it’s important to understand the basics.
What are the adrenal glands and what do they do?
The adrenal glands are two small glands right above the kidneys. They are responsible for producing various hormones in the body, including those that control blood pressure (aldosterone) and metabolism and the immune system (cortisol).
They also produce catecholamines, a group of hormones responsible for that famous “fight or flight” response—better known as adrenaline.
Sometimes the adrenal glands do their jobs a little too well, and it can result in an adrenal disorder or disease.
Primary hyperaldosteronism, Cushing’s syndrome, & pheochromocytoma
All three of these diseases result from overproduction of the various hormones (aldosterone, cortisol, and adrenaline, respectively).
Symptoms can include:
- High blood pressure (particularly if the blood pressure remains high on multiple medications)
- Low potassium levels
- Fatty tissue around the midsection, face, and on the back between the shoulders
- Pink or purple stretch marks on thighs, arms, and stomach
- Heavy sweating
- Rapid heartbeat
These three diseases are often linked to genetics. They usually develop through the growth of a non-cancerous (benign) tumor in the glands, which stimulates overproduction.
On the other end of the spectrum, diseases like Addison’s disease are caused by the glands producing too little of the hormones, particularly cortisol.
Symptoms of Addison’s disease include:
- Hyperpigmentation (darkening) of your skin
- Salt craving
- Extreme fatigue
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Weight loss and lack of appetite
- Abdominal pain
With Addison’s disease and other similar diseases, you might also hear the term “adrenal fatigue” in reference to the condition, most often not being used by a doctor. However, adrenal fatigue in itself is not an accepted medical diagnosis, but rather simply a way to reference a grouping of these symptoms. The official term used in reference to the diseases themselves is “adrenal insufficiency.”
If you already have an autoimmune disease, you are more likely to develop Addison’s disease and other types of adrenal insufficiency diseases. Autoimmune diseases can injure or destroy the glands, causing them to fail to produce enough of the necessary hormones.
Prevention and treatment
These diseases do not have specific preventative measures that you can take. However, if you have an autoimmune disease or a family history of adrenal disease, keep a close eye on any symptoms you may show, and talk to your doctor if you suspect you may be developing one of these diseases.
For primary hyperaldosteronism, Cushing’s syndrome, and pheochromocytoma, patients will often undergo surgery to remove the benign tumor. If the patient is taking any corticosteroids, the medical professional might advise lowering the dosage if possible to avoid producing symptoms of overproduction of cortisol.
Conversely, for Addison’s disease and other similar conditions, medical professionals will often advise an increase in corticosteroid dosage, or beginning one in the first place.
Diseases like these are not common, and so it’s better not to worry unduly. Many of these symptoms separately, such as fatigue and weight loss, can be indicators of a vast array of conditions, even something as simple as stress. Knowing when these symptoms are serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit is an important distinction.
However, it is also important to know these symptoms to be able to recognize and treat them if necessary. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you are unsure if you might have an adrenal disease or to discuss risk factors for them.
Augusta University’s Adrenal Center is a great place to start. Dr. Wendy Bollag, the Center’s research director and also a professor in Augusta University’s Physiology Department says, “In the Adrenal Center we want not only to provide state-of-the-art clinical care but also to conduct the cutting-edge research that will lead to the next advances in medicine.”
Dr. Carlos Isales, director of the Adrenal Center, Chief of the Division of Endocrinology and professor of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, agrees, saying “the Augusta Adrenal Center is a unique clinical resource that we expect to grow into a major referral center for all of the southeast.” The Center is currently the only place in the Southeast for patients with adrenal disorders to get treatment.
Adrenal issues? We have the answers.
The Augusta University Adrenal Center multidisciplinary team consists of adrenal specialist from diverse disciplines including surgery, endocrinology, cardiology, radiology, pathology and research. It is one of only a few in the country that can provide complete care for patients with all aspects of adrenal disease. Learn more about the center at augustahealth.org/adrenal-center.