Adrenal Glands: Facts, Function & Disease
What are your adrenal glands?
You have two adrenal glands. They’re located on top of each of your kidneys. They’re part of your endocrine system, a collection of glands that produce hormones.
While they’re small in size, your adrenal glands are responsible for numerous hormone-related functions in your body. As a result, disorders that affect your adrenal glands can have a broad impact on your health. If you suspect that you have an adrenal disorder, talk to your doctor.
What do your adrenal glands do?
You have one triangular-shaped adrenal gland at the top of each kidney. Each adrenal gland contains an outer adrenal cortex. It’s responsible for producing certain steroid hormones, including aldosterone and cortisol. Each gland also contains an inner adrenal medulla, which produces several other hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Aldosterone helps control your blood pressure by managing the balance of potassium and sodium in your body. Cortisol works in conjunction with adrenaline and noradrenaline to help regulate your reaction to stress. Cortisol also helps regulate your metabolism, sugar levels, and blood pressure.
Your adrenal glands are controlled by your pituitary gland, another part of your endocrine system. Located in your head, your pituitary gland is the main controller of your endocrine glands. Abnormal signals can disrupt the amount of hormones that your pituitary gland tells your adrenal glands to produce. This can cause them to produce too little or too much hormone. Hormonal imbalances can result, causing a variety of symptoms and health problems.
Which disorders affect your adrenal glands?
Adrenal gland disorders can develop when:
- your pituitary gland fails to control your hormone production properly
- benign, or noncancerous, tumors grow in your adrenal glands
- malignant, or cancerous, tumors grow in your adrenal glands
- infections develop in your adrenal glands
- you inherit certain genetic mutations
These disorders include the following medical conditions:
- Addison’s disease: This rare autoimmune disease develops when your adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol or aldosterone. This is a self-destructive disease, in which your own immune system may attack your adrenal tissues.
- Cushing’s syndrome: This rare disorder occurs when your adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. Long-term steroid use can cause similar symptoms.
- Pheochromocytoma: In this condition, tumors develop in the medulla of your adrenal glands. These tumors are rarely cancerous.
- Adrenal cancer: This condition occurs when malignant tumors develop in your adrenal glands.
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH): People who have this inherited hormonal disorder have difficulties producing adrenal hormones. This disorder can affect the development of sex organs in men.
What are the symptoms of adrenal gland disorders?
Symptoms of adrenal gland disorders may include:
- excessive fatigue
- increased salt cravings
- low blood sugar
- low blood pressure, also known as hypotension
- irregular periods
- dark patches on your skin
- muscle and joint pain
- weight gain or loss
Symptoms of adrenal gland disorders tend to appear subtle at first. Over time, they typically worsen and become more frequent. If you experience any of these health issues on a recurrent basis, make an appointment with your doctor.
How are adrenal gland disorders diagnosed?
Your doctor will likely use blood and imaging tests to diagnose adrenal gland disorders. They will probably start by ordering blood tests. They can use these tests to measure your levels of:
- adrenal hormones
- pituitary hormones
If they suspect you have an adrenal gland disorder, they might order imaging tests next. They can use ultrasound, MRI, and X-ray imaging to create pictures of your adrenal and pituitary glands. This can help them detect possible tumors, deterioration of your endocrine tissues, and other signs of disease.
How are adrenal gland disorders treated?
If you’re diagnosed with an adrenal gland disorder, your doctor will prescribe treatment to help your adrenal glands function properly again. They will likely prescribe hormone replacement therapy if you have low adrenal function, such as that caused by Addison’s disease. They may also recommend medications, as well as radiation treatment, if your glands are producing too much of a hormone.
Surgery is another treatment option for certain adrenal disorders. Your doctor may recommend surgery if:
- you have malignant tumors that can be removed
- you have tumors on your adrenal or pituitary glands
- hormone suppressants fail
During treatment, your doctor will need to test your blood periodically to check your hormone levels. Since your adrenal glands are related to other organs in your endocrine system, your doctor will likely check for signs of disease in your pancreas, sex organs, thyroid gland, and pituitary gland too.
What is the outlook for adrenal gland disorders?
Your adrenal glands, and the hormones they produce, are essential for everyday health. If you’re diagnosed with an adrenal gland disorder, it’s important to follow your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan. Your outlook will vary, depending on your diagnosis. Ask your doctor for more information about your specific diagnosis, treatment plan, and long-term outlook.