Metabolic Issues: Adrenal Gland Dysfunction

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Adrenal Gland Dysfunction

The adrenal glands sit on top of each kidney. They only weight one tenth of an ounce, but are responsible for producing key hormones. They have an outer cortex, which produces three types of hormones: glucocorticoids (cortisol), mineralocorticoid (aldosterone) and androgens (male hormones). The inner medulla of the adrenal gland produces catecholamines. There are two main disorders: one that affects the structure of the adrenal gland and one that interferes with the function of the gland. Let’s look at some common types of adrenal gland dysfunction.

Adrenal Gland Insufficiency 

Like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, adrenal gland insufficiency involves the endocrine organs and glands in the body. There are two categories of adrenal insufficiency: primary and secondary. If you have primary adrenal insufficiency (also called Addison’s disease), the glands are damaged or diseased. They stop working. Causes include autoimmune destruction of the gland, infections and rarely tumours in the gland. 

If you have secondary adrenal insufficiency, your pituitary gland isn’t sending the proper signals to stimulate its function. It’s caused by either pituitary disease or suppression of the function of the pituitary gland. This suppression may be caused by taking steroid medication, for example.

If you have adrenal insufficiency, your symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Hyperpigmentation

If you have symptoms of an adrenal gland dysfunction, your physician or endocrinologist may order a series of tests to make a diagnosis. Usually, they’re measuring urine or blood levels to check your production of cortisol.

Cushing's Syndrome

In patients with Cushing’s syndrome, their bodies produce excessive amounts of cortisol. It’s often caused by continued use of corticosteroid medications. Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include weight gain, high blood pressure and skin changes.

Adrenal Tumours

These tumours may be benign or malignant. They can interfere with your hormone production, and may even produce excess hormones.

Adrenal Crisis

If you’re experiencing adrenal crisis, this is a medical emergency. It occurs when there is a dangerous lack of cortisol.

Treating Adrenal Gland Dysfunction

If you’re diagnosed with adrenal gland dysfunction, treatment involves replacing the hormones that are missing. Your doctor or endocrinologist might prescribe cortisone or prednisone. They may also prescribe a mineralocorticoid to help maintain your blood pressure and salt balance. If you have an adrenal gland tumour, you may need surgery to remove it.

If you think you have symptoms of adrenal gland insufficiency, see your physician or endocrinologist for testing. They can help you with a diagnosis and management of any adrenal gland dysfunction.

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