Pituitary and Adrenal Diseases
Addison’s disease, also called adrenal insufficiency, is an uncommon disorder that occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones. In Addison’s disease, your adrenal glands, located just above your kidneys, produce too little cortisol and, often, too little aldosterone.
Addison’s disease occurs in all age groups and both sexes, and can be life-threatening. Treatment involves taking hormones to replace those that are missing.
Addison’s disease symptoms usually develop slowly, often over several months. Often, the disease progresses so slowly that symptoms are ignored until a stress, such as illness or injury, occurs and makes symptoms worse. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Weight loss and decreased appetite
- Darkening of your skin (hyperpigmentation)
- Low blood pressure, even fainting
- Salt craving
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting (gastrointestinal symptoms)
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle or joint pains
- Depression or other behavioral symptoms
- Body hair loss or sexual dysfunction in women
Addison’s disease is caused by damage to your adrenal glands, resulting in not enough of the hormone cortisol and, often, not enough aldosterone as well. Your adrenal glands are part of your endocrine system. They produce hormones that give instructions to virtually every organ and tissue in your body.Your adrenal glands are composed of two sections. The interior (medulla) produces adrenaline-like hormones. The outer layer (cortex) produces a group of hormones called corticosteroids. Corticosteroids include:
- Glucocorticoids. These hormones, which include cortisol, influence your body’s ability to convert food into energy, play a role in your immune system’s inflammatory response and help your body respond to stress.
- Mineralocorticoids. These hormones, which include aldosterone, maintain your body’s balance of sodium and potassium to keep your blood pressure normal.
- Androgens. These male sex hormones are produced in small amounts by the adrenal glands in both men and women. They cause sexual development in men, and influence muscle mass, sex drive (libido) and a sense of well-being in both men and women.
Addison’s disease can’t be prevented, but there are steps you can take to avoid an addisonian crisis:
- Talk to your doctor if you always feel tired, weak, or are losing weight. Ask about having an adrenal shortage.
- If you have been diagnosed with Addison’s disease, ask your doctor about what to do when you’re sick. You may need to learn how to increase your dose of corticosteroids.
- If you become very sick, especially if you are vomiting and you can’t take your medication, go to the emergency room.
Some people with Addison’s disease worry about serious side effects from hydrocortisone or prednisone because they know these occur in people who take these steroids for other reasons.
However, if you have Addison’s disease, the adverse effects of high-dose glucocorticoids should not occur, since the dose you are prescribed is replacing the amount that is missing. Make sure to follow up with your doctor on a regular basis to make sure your dose is not too high.