From salivation to perspiration, your body relies on glands to carry out many vital functions. Your endocrine system contains eight main glands to keep it running smoothly. These include Hypothalamus, Pineal body, Pituitary, Thyroid, Thymus, Pancreas, Ovary, and Adrenal glands. All of these glands secrete hormones that control energy levels, metabolism, sexual function, growth and development, pain response, stress, and mood.
At The Medical Group of South Florida, our endocrinologist provides expert care for patients suffering from endocrine-related disorders and diseases. Here, we take a deeper dive into the potential problems with adrenal glands to give you a better understanding of the symptoms, causes, and treatments available when things go wrong.
About adrenal glands
Each of your two kidneys is topped by a small, triangular-shaped adrenal gland — they’re also known as suprarenal glands. Only about 3 inches long, they’re powerful hormone producers. The adrenal glands generate:
- Cortisol, which affects blood pressure, metabolism, immunity, bones and nerves, and the heart
- Aldosterone, which affects fluid retention
- Androgen, which converts into sex hormones
- Adrenaline, which regulates blood pressure, metabolism, and heart function
If these glands overproduce or underproduce, you may experience significant health issues, including one of the following four adrenal diseases.
Adrenal cancer is extremely rare, affecting only about 200 people in the United States every year. Because there are two distinct parts of the adrenal gland — the outer part called the cortex, and the inner part called the medulla — cancers that attack the adrenal glands are categorized according to the portion of the gland they affect.
Cancer of the adrenal cortex is a carcinoma, while cancer in the medulla is a neuroblastoma. It’s also possible to develop benign tumors in either section. Although researchers can’t definitively say the causes, it’s often associated with certain genetic syndromes that also increase your risk for other types of cancer. Adrenal cancer symptoms include unexplained weight loss or gain, weakness, nausea, abdominal or back pain, blood sugar spikes, bloating, and loss of appetite.
Because adrenal cancer is aggressive, our treatments must be as well. Although radiation therapy and chemotherapy are options, surgical removal of the affected tissue is often the most prudent course.
As its name suggests, adrenal incidentalomas are incidental or unexpected tumors. We typically find them accidentally during an imaging test, as they don’t usually cause warning signs. When they are symptomatic, you may notice:
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss or gain
- Mood or sleep problems
- Easily bruised skin
About 85% of adrenal incidentalomas are considered nonfunctioning, meaning they need no treatment. However, if the tumor is producing excess hormones — a functioning adrenal incidentaloma — we may need to surgically remove it.
Out of every 100,000 people, only four have Addison’s disease, a condition marked by underactive adrenal glands. Adrenal insufficiency results in potentially life-threatening low levels of cortisol and aldosterone.
Primary Addison’s disease is often attributed to an autoimmune disorder, but it can also be triggered by tuberculosis or infection. Secondary Addison’s may be due to a lack of a certain hormone produced by the pituitary gland, called adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). Without ACTH, your cortisol level plummets.
The symptoms of Addison’s disease are similar to those of other adrenal problems but may also include:
- Craving salty foods
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Skin darkening
- Joint and muscle pain
We treat Addison’s disease by replacing the hormones you’re lacking.
High levels of the hormone cortisol can lead to Cushing’s disease. This can occur due to a malfunction that causes your adrenal glands to overproduce this hormone, or it may be the result of steroid treatments that are often used to combat conditions such as: inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis, severe asthma, or lupus. Those with Cushing’s disease experience:
- High blood pressure and blood sugar
- Increased abdominal fat
- Thin skin and weak bones
- Easy bruising and poor wound healing
- Mood disorders
- Rounded face
- Frequent thirst and urination
Cushing’s disease can often be countered by drugs that reduce your cortisol level, but sometimes radiation therapy is needed. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
Contact an Endocrinologist
If you suspect you have an adrenal gland condition, don’t wait — schedule an appointment with one of our specialists today. Request an appointment online, or call us at (561) 622-6111.