The adrenals are two triangular-shaped glands that lie above each kidney and are approximately the size of your thumb. The hormones that are secreted from the adrenals include cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone. These hormones help to regulate metabolism, blood pressure, and the body’s response to stress. Another hormone produced by the adrenal glands, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), is used to make androgens and estrogens, the sex hormones.
Adrenal insufficiency is a disorder that happens when the adrenals do not produce enough of these hormones. Addison’s is the name used to describe primary adrenal insufficiency when the glands are damaged and do not produce enough cortisol and aldosterone.
When these glands are physically damaged and no longer function properly, we call this Addison’s Disease.
The adrenal glands in people who have Addison’s disease are not functioning properly. Adrenal insufficiency is a disorder that happens when the adrenals do not produce enough of these hormones. Addison’s is the name used to describe primary adrenal insufficiency when the glands are damaged and do not produce enough cortisol and aldosterone. Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when other glands such as the pituitary gland (a gland in the endocrine system located near the base of the brain) does not produce enough of its hormone (ACTH) that stimulates the adrenals to produce cortisol. If the ACTH is too low the adrenal glands can stop producing cortisol and may shrink in size. This secondary adrenal insufficiency is more common than Addison’s disease.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is also produced by the adrenals and is used to make androgen and estrogen (male and female sex hormones). Men get most androgens from the testes and women get most of their estrogen from the ovaries. When adrenal insufficiency exists, the glands may not make enough DHEA.
The most common symptoms of adrenal insufficiency include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Muscle weakness
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Other symptoms of the disease may include:
- Nausea, vomiting
- Low blood pressure that may cause dizziness or fainting with standing
- Irritability and depression
- Skin darkening on scars, skin folds, lips, elbows, knees, knuckles, toes, and mucous membranes of the cheek. This hyperpigmentation occurs only in Addison’s and not in secondary adrenal insufficiency.
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Craving salty foods
- Irregular or nonexistent menstrual periods
- Loss of interest in sex in women
Most cases of Addison’s disease are caused by autoimmune disorders.