Adrenal Disorders FAQs

Your adrenal glands sit at the top of each of your kidneys. They release hormones that affect your metabolism, sexual health, stress response and other important body functions.

Adrenal disorders are generally rare, but they can develop when your adrenal glands aren’t working properly.

What are adrenal disorders?

Adrenal disorders occur when your adrenal glands don’t make enough – or produce too much – of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, aldosterone (regulates blood pressure) and others.

How do you test for adrenal disorders?

Your Mercy endocrinologist may order tests such as:

  • Blood and urine tests – Measure adrenal hormone levels, which can signal the presence of tumors
  • CT scans, MRIs or other imaging tests – Detect and help diagnose tumors
  • Venous sampling – Tests blood from the veins of each adrenal gland to help identify tumors, especially small ones not seen on imaging tests

What’s adrenal insufficiency?

Adrenal insufficiency is a disorder that occurs when your adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones. Three types of adrenal insufficiency can develop, including:

  • Primary adrenal insufficiency – Adrenal glands become damaged and don’t make enough cortisol (also called Addison’s disease)
  • Secondary adrenal insufficiency – The pituitary gland doesn’t produce enough adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), affecting cortisol levels in the body
  • Tertiary adrenal insufficiency – The hypothalamus (a part of the brain that controls the pituitary) doesn’t make enough corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which signals the pituitary to release ACTH

What’s Addison’s disease?

Addison’s disease (also called primary adrenal insufficiency) is a rare condition that occurs when damaged adrenal glands can’t produce enough cortisol or aldosterone (regulates blood pressure).

Addison’s disease affects both genders and people of all ages. It can lead to a life-threatening condition known as Addisonian crisis, causing multiple organ failure and other complications.

Addison’s is considered an autoimmune disease – an illness that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the body. With Addison’s, the immune system attacks and damages the adrenal glands. 

Is Addison’s disease hereditary?

People who develop Addison’s disease often have family histories of autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes or thyroid diseases. A family history of autoimmune illnesses can be a factor, but Addison’s disease is rare.

What causes adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue isn’t recognized as a medical condition. It’s a term describing the belief that chronic stress affects the adrenal glands’ function and ability to produce cortisol. But no medical evidence exists to support these effects on the adrenals.

Talk with your Mercy provider if you’re having symptoms like fatigue, body aches, sleep disturbances, nervousness or weight changes. Your provider can help determine whether a medical condition is causing your symptoms.

What causes cortisol imbalance?

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. Damage to either the adrenal or pituitary glands (which signal the adrenals) can cause a cortisol imbalance.

Too much cortisol in the body for a long time can lead to Cushing's syndrome – a condition linked to obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other problems.

Too little cortisol may be caused by Addison’s disease, which increases the risk of serious complications like organ failure.

How do you fix adrenal problems?

Treatments for adrenal disorders may include:

  • Medication to stop excess hormone production
  • Hormone replacement, if levels are too low
  • Surgery to remove tumors of the adrenal or pituitary glands

Your Mercy endocrinologist will discuss treatment options and help you decide what’s right for you.

Find an Endocrinologist

Mercy has adrenal disorder specialists across most of our communities.

Find an endocrinologist near you.