Hormones produced in the adrenal glands include cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone. Production that is too much or too little can result in adrenal disorders that affect the way your body functions. Adrenal crisis is a medical emergency that happens when there is a severe lack of cortisol.
There are many conditions that can lead to problems with the adrenal gland function. The adrenal glands are small and shaped liked triangles and are located just above each kidney. They are sometimes called suprarenal glands. Their job is to make hormones that you need to keep your metabolism, blood pressure, immune system and stress response in balance.
Adrenal disorders are the result of your glands making too much or not enough of certain hormones. Hormones produced by the adrenals include hydrocortisone (also called cortisol), adrenaline and aldosterone.
You can think of dominoes and how one movement by one domino sets off a chain reaction, making the next domino in line fall down. If something happens and the next domino doesn’t get the message, the effect is ruined.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
There are different conditions related to your adrenal glands. Some of the most common include:
There are also conditions of the adrenal glands related to growths (tumors). These include:
Adrenal disorders can happen to anyone. Within the individual conditions, some of them may happen more often to females than males, such as Cushing’s syndrome.
Adrenal insufficiency happens when the adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol and sometimes aldosterone. The production decreases when the adrenal cortex (the glands’ outer layer) is destroyed. This occurs most often when you have an autoimmune disease that causes your body to attack the glands. It can also be caused by tumors, tuberculosis and other types of infections. This condition is known as primary adrenal insufficiency.
Secondary adrenal insufficiency, which is more common than the primary form, happens because you don’t have enough of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), the hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. If your pituitary doesn’t make enough ACTH, your adrenal glands don’t make enough cortisol.
Secondary adrenal insufficiency most often happens when you have been taking glucocorticoids (like prednisone) for an extended amount of time and then stop too quickly rather than tapering down gradually. It can also develop due to tumors in the pituitary glands pressing on the normal pituitary cells or from surgery or radiation to the pituitary gland.
Adrenal crisis is a medical emergency. It’s the most serious complication of adrenal insufficiency and happens due to a severe lack of cortisol. An adrenal crisis can be life-threatening. Symptoms of adrenal crisis include:
If you have adrenal insufficiency, you should always have an injectable form of glucocorticoid medicine with you and you should wear some type of medical alert jewelry with that information. Make sure your family and friends know how to give the injection in the case of an emergency.
In many cases, the causes for adrenal disorders aren’t known. However, some types of adrenal disorders are linked to genetics. Others may result more frequency if you have to take or choose to take certain types of drugs, such as steroids. Steroids are used to treat many types of diseases, but you should always be aware of their many side effects.
Adrenal gland disorders are caused by problems with the glands themselves that cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones. They are also caused by problems in other glands, such as the pituitary gland. Genetics can also play a part in certain adrenal disorders. In many cases, no one really knows why the disorders develop.
The symptoms of adrenal disorders vary depending on which hormones are involved. Many of the symptoms of adrenal disorders are similar to those of other illnesses.
Symptoms of high levels of cortisone (Cushing’s disease) include:
Symptoms of high levels of aldosterone include:
Symptoms of high levels of male sex hormones are only apparent in females or in young boys before puberty. These include:
Developing masculine traits is called virilization.
Your healthcare provider will likely start by asking questions about your symptoms. They will then order tests to determine the levels of hormones in your saliva, blood and urine.
If your provider suspects tumors, they might order imaging tests such as CT scans, MRIs or nuclear imaging tests.
Your regular healthcare provider may refer you to an endocrinologist, a specialist in hormones and diseases of the endocrine system.
Treatment of adrenal disorders depend on the disorder itself. Some conditions will require medications to add to hormone levels. Your provider may suggest surgery or radiation for disorders that involve tumors.
The adrenal glands and the hormones they control are important to many of your body’s functions. Untreated disorders can have serious complications. Some of them may be life-threatening.
Since researchers don’t know why certain adrenal disorders happen, there seems to be no way to prevent them from happening.
In the cases where you might be tempted to take male hormones to build muscle mass, you should stop and consider that you may end up damaging other glands.
You should always contact your healthcare provider when you have symptoms that concern you, with or without a diagnosis of an adrenal disorder. Some of these might include:
If you have adrenal insufficiency, ask your doctor for an injectable glucocorticoid that you can carry with you. Make sure that you know how to inject yourself, and that your family and friends also know how and when to inject you.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The adrenal glands play an important part in keeping your body healthy. Disorders of these glands can affect many body functions. Your healthcare provider may suggest you see an endocrinologist regularly to monitor your condition. Your treatment plan might change when your situation changes, such as when you are in a high-stress time during an illness or surgery. Most of the adrenal disorders are manageable when you become an active part of your healthcare team.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/07/2021.
Learn more about our editorial process.