Diseases of the Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands are small, endocrine organs located just above each kidney. They are partially controlled by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in the brain. These organs produce several hormones and play a critical role in the body’s ability to adapt to stress and illness. Early detection of adrenal disease or disorder can help prevent serious health consequences.

Addison’s Disease

Two of the major hormones secreted by the adrenal glands are cortisol and aldosterone. With Addison’s disease, the adrenals are unable to produce enough of these hormones. An autoimmune process wherein the body attacks the adrenal glands, is responsible for most cases of Addison’s disease. The National Endocrine and Metabolic Disease Information Service reports that 1 to 4 out of every 100,000 people have Addison’s disease.

Cortisol helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, the immune system, and nutrient metabolism. Aldosterone regulates water balance, and blood pressure. A lack of hormones with such broad acting effects can create profound disturbances in the body. People with Addison’s experience fatigue, muscle weakness, weight loss, and a loss of appetite. They might also have diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and they may crave salt. Some with the condition develop a darkening of the skin. Treatment of the disease involves taking medicines to replace the deficient hormones.


Pheochromocytoma is a disorder caused by an adrenal tumor in the inner part of the adrenal gland, called the medulla. The tumor causes the gland to make too much of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. Increased levels of these hormones lead to episodes of high blood pressure in most people with the condition. The rise in blood pressure can be long lived, or may occur in “attacks,” with heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating and headache. Treatment involves the use of blood pressure medications, as well as surgery to remove the tumor.

Conn’s Syndrome

Conn’s syndrome is a condition in which he adrenal gland makes too much aldosterone. Too much aldosterone causes the body to retain sodium and lose potassium, resulting in an increase in blood pressure. The disease is caused by a tumor, or by an enlargement of the adrenal gland due to another disease process, such as cirrhosis of the liver. In addition to high blood pressure, Conn’s syndrome causes episodes of numbness, muscle weakness, headache, increased thirst, and increased urination. Treatment consists of medications to reduce the size of the affected adrenal gland, or surgical removal of tumors. Treatment can either induce remission or control the symptoms of Conn’s syndrome, according to Merck Manuals Medical Library.

About this Author

Kalli Harrison is a naturopathic physician living in Portland, Ore. She graduated from National College of Naturopathic Medicine in the year 2000, and also holds a degree as a medical laboratory technician. Dr. Harrison has been writing health and medical information for patients and clients for more than 10 years.