Adrenal glands are some of the tiniest in the body (about the size of a pea), but they’re hard workers. Their job is to produce a variety of hormones needed to live and function. When the adrenals aren’t working right, you’ll feel it, but matching the symptom to the right hormone disorder is a complicated process.
Fortunately, endocrinologists are skilled at diagnosing and treating all types of adrenal problems, so they can help you get your body and life back in balance.
Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and produce several different hormones, including cortisol, aldosterone and sex hormones called androgens. Adrenal disorders signal that your body is producing either too much or too little of one or more hormones. Remedies for each disorder vary.
Cortisol and Cushing Syndrome
Cortisol is one of the most important hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol helps burn protein and fat, control blood sugar, manage stress and regulate blood pressure. When the body produces too much cortisol, the condition is called Cushing’s Syndrome. Symptoms of high cortisol levels in the body include:
- Weight gain, especially around the abdomen
- Swelling of the hands and feet
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thin skin
Cushing’s syndrome can be caused by taking cortisol-like drugs used to treat asthma and rheumatic arthritis. High Cortisol hormone levels can also lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and other disorders. Diagnosing Cushing’s usually involves testing saliva or urine. The most effective treatment is generally the surgical removal of the adrenal glands, but sometimes treating the symptoms (such as medicine for high blood pressure) is sufficient.
Addison’s Disease and Adrenal Insufficiency
A person with adrenal glands producing too little cortisol is generally diagnosed with Addison’s Disease. This condition can affect all ages of people, and some are even born unable to produce cortisol. The term “adrenal insufficiency” sometimes points to too little cortisol or aldosterone. Symptoms can be fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. It’s identified with a blood test, and hormone replacement usually is the best treatment.
Your adrenal glands can also develop tumors, detected through a blood test, CT scan or another diagnostic tool. Usually, these are treated by surgically removing the adrenals.
Aldosterone is a hormone that helps regulate the body’s sodium and water balance. How can this type of imbalance affect how you feel? Producing too much or too little affects blood pressure, which we all know can be very dangerous. We also need aldosterone to help our salivary glands, sweat glands, colon and kidneys work correctly; an imbalance can lead to a stroke, heart attack or kidney failure. Overproduction of aldosterone (and some other adrenal hormones) can be treated with medication and under-producing can usually be treated through hormone replacement.