Adrenal Gland Disorders

Information on adrenal gland health and adrenal gland disorders.

  1. What are Adrenal Glands?
  2. Causes of Adrenal Gland Disorders
  3. Help for Adrenal Gland Disorders
  4. More Info on Adrenal Gland Disorders


What are Adrenal Glands?

The adrenal glands are two small, triangular-shaped endocrine glands located on top of the kidneys. They are orange in color and covered in a connective tissue capsule that is hidden in a layer of fat. These glands are made up of two parts – the adrenal cortex (outside) and the adrenal medulla (inside).

The adrenal glands work together with the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in the brain to produce a number of different hormones. These hormones are key components for your health and vitality.

They are responsible for the functioning of every tissue, organ and gland in the body, as well as affecting the way we think. Adrenal glands maintain metabolic processes by managing blood sugar levels and regulating inflammation as well the balance of salt and water.

The primary function of the adrenals is to assist your body in dealing with all forms of stress including physical, emotional and psychological stress. Many circumstances cause an individual to feel stressed - ranging from illness, injury, feeling overworked, under pressure, having too little sleep (insomnia), a family quarrel or financial problems. When one has a low adrenal function, the body struggles to adapt to these stresses.

Causes of Adrenal Gland Disorders

Adrenal gland disorders occur when the body produces either too much or too little of the adrenal hormones. There are various types of adrenal gland disorders, some with different effects and symptoms.

Types of Adrenal Gland Disorders
  • Cushing's Syndrome - Cushing’s syndrome is caused when the body produces more cortisol than it needs. The high level of hydrocortisone may be due to an adrenal gland tumor, enlargement of both adrenal glands due to a pituitary tumor secreting excessive stimulatory hormones or it can be secondary to taking corticosteroid drugs for a long period of time.
  • Addison’s Disease - Addison’s disease is a rare disorder caused by a deficiency of hydrocortisone and aldosterone. This disease is usually caused by an autoimmune disorder as a result of the immune system attacking the adrenal gland. It progresses slowly, and acute episodes called Addisonian crises are brought about by injury, infection or other stresses.

  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia - Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a genetic disorder. There are six major variants but each involves a missing enzyme in the pathway of cortisol production, The body produces increasingly more stimulatory hormones to try to increase the production of cortisol but, because this pathway cannot be completed, the stimulus is mistakenly directed into over-producing the androgenic hormones.
  • Adrenal Virilism - Adrenal virilism is usually genetic, but in rare cases adrenal virilism is caused by an adrenal gland tumor. It is the development or premature development of male secondary sexual characteristics as a result of the male sex hormones (androgens) being excessively produced by the adrenal gland. This disorder can occur before birth and can lead to sexual abnormalities in newborns. It may also occur in girls and women later in life.
  • Pituitary Tumors - The pituitary gland is located in the brain and assists with regulating the activity of the adrenal glands as well as most of the other glands in the body. Benign (non-cancerous) tumors may grow on the pituitary gland restricting the release of the stimulatory hormones or occasionally the tumor may secrete excessive amounts of stimulatory hormones.
  • Adrenal Gland Cancer - Adrenal gland cancer is rare and occurs in the endocrine tissue of the adrenals. It can affect any group, but mostly affects young adults. A cancer that occurs in the adrenal cortex is called an adrenocortical carcinoma and brings about symptoms that include high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, weakening of the bones and excess body hair. A cancer in the adrenal medulla is called a pheochromocytoma and may cause high blood pressure, palpitations, headaches, and excessive perspiration.
  • Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) - Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) is rare genetic disorder characterized by symptoms that include progressive adrenal gland dysfunction and a loss of myelin – the fatty substance that insulates and surrounds the nerve cells in the brain. This is generally a severe childhood disease affecting only boys as a result of the genetic defect being sex linked recessive (carried on the X chromosome). It is a progressive disorder that leads to complete disability or death.

Help for Adrenal Gland Disorders

Adrenal gland disorders can be life threatening conditions and treatment is aimed at restoring the adrenal glands health so they are producing normal levels of corticosteroid hormones. Treatment usually depends on the specific disorder or the specific cause of the disorder.

Using a combination of treatment options such as conventional medicine, complementary therapy can also be effective in treating an adrenal gland health disorder.

Treatment Options for Adrenal Gland Disorder

Conventional Medicine

Depending on the cause, medication may need to be taken for the rest of the patient’s life and in certain circumstances surgery may be required.

  • Depending on the patient’s condition, corticosteroids such as prednisone may be taken orally or intravenously
  • Fludrocortisone may also be administered to restore the body’s level of sodium and potassium
  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Microsurgery

More Information on Adrenal Gland Disorders

Roles of the Adrenal Medulla and Adrenal Cortex

Adrenal medulla

The adrenal medulla is the inner region of the gland which is responsible for producing hormones called epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline and noradrenaline). These hormones play an important role in the way we respond to stress and regulate a number of different body functions.

Epinephrine (also called adrenaline)

  • Facilitates the flow of blood to the brain and muscles
  • Increases the heart rate and encourages heart contractions
  • Helps muscles to relax
  • Helps to convert glycogen to glucose in the liver

Norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline)

  • Has strong vasoconstrictive effects thereby increasing blood pressure.

Adrenal cortex

The adrenal cortex is the outer region of the gland and produces corticosteroid hormones, androgens and aldosterone

Corticosteroid hormones

  • Consists of hydrocortisone and corticosterone hormones.
  • The hydrocortisone hormone controls how the body uses fats, proteins and carbohydrates, while the corticosterone hormone represses inflammatory responses in the body and affects the immune system.

Aldosterone hormone

By controlling the amount of sodium excreted into the urine Aldosterone is the main hormone responsible for fluid and electrolyte balance which in turn is an integral part of maintaining blood pressure and blood volume.

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