The adrenal glands produce a number of hormones, complex chemical substances that regulate many vital functions of the body. These include adrenaline, also called epinephrine, and other hormones released during stress, hydrocortisone and other steroids, which help control the immune system as well as regulate blood glucose levels and blood pressure; aldosterone, which maintains proper fluid and chemical balances; and androgens, progesterone, and estrogen, which are essential for reproduction. Some of these hormones are also produced else where in the body, but the adrenal cortex is the sole source of epinephrine, aldosterone, and hydrocortisone.
Symptoms of adrenal disorders vary. In Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands are gradually destroyed, resulting in severe weight loss, darkened skin, fatigue, low blood pressure, and some times low glucose levels. Excessive androgen production is the cause of premature sexual development in boys and masculinization beard growth, deepening of the voice, acne, and perhaps balding in women. In Conn’s syndrome, increased aldosterone upsets the body’s sodium and potassium balance, leading to muscle weakness, high blood pressure, and excessive thirst and urine production. Cushing’s syndrome, which is often due to the long term use of steroid drugs, is marked by excessive cortisone, which causes thinning of the skin and bones, easy bruising, mood changes, high blood pressure, and weight gain, especially on the trunk and upper back. A pheochromocytoma is a tumor that produces excessive adrenaline and other stress hormones. This overproduction leads to erratic high blood pressure, palpitations, profuse sweating and extreme anxiety.
Diagnostic Studies and Procedures
Adrenal disorders are diagnosed by characteristic symptoms and blood and urine tests to measure hormone levels. In some instances, all of the patient’s urine is collected for a 24 hour period, then analyzed for the presence of potassium, sodium, and hormones.
Medical Treatments to Get Rid of Adrenal Disorders
The objective is to restore normal hormonal levels and function. In some disorders, such as Addison’s disease, this requires lifelong replacement of hormones. When Cushing’s syndrome is the result of taking steroid medications, it can be reversed by slowly tapering off these drugs. This process must be done under a doctor’s supervision, because stopping the medication too abruptly can lead to shock. Adrenal virilism is treated with medications that suppress overproduction of androgen, or by surgery if a tumor is the source of the excessive hormones. Conn’s syndrome and pheochromocytoma usually are treated surgically to remove the hormone producing tumors. But drugs may also be used to suppress hormone production.