Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Overactive Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands, also called the suprarenal glands, are two small triangular glands located above the kidney on each side. They make hormones that control important functions in the body, such as heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, immune function, and stress response.
The adrenal glands are controlled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain. When they don’t produce enough hormones, it can lead to adrenal insufficiency (this condition is called Addison’s disease).
When the adrenal glands are overactive, they produce excessive amounts of hormones, which can lead to various health issues. Please continue reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment for overactive adrenal glands.
What causes adrenal glands to be overactive?
The pituitary gland's overproduction of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) (a hormone that controls the adrenal glands) is the main cause of the adrenal glands becoming overactive. This condition is called Cushing’s syndrome.
Other causes include taking high doses of steroid medicines like prednisone for the long term to treat chronic diseases. This can lead to an overproduction of ACTH. Tumors that produce ACTH or CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) can also lead to overactive adrenal glands. Rarely, Cushing syndrome can be an inherited endocrine disorder.
Benign or cancerous tumors of the adrenal glands can lead to an overproduction of adrenal hormones. Sometimes, the adrenals become overactive for unclear reasons.
What symptoms do overactive adrenal glands cause?
The symptoms of overactive adrenals depend on the hormones being overproduced. The adrenals make four hormones in the human body—steroid hormones (cortisol and androgenic steroids), aldosterone, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
Overproduction of cortisol (Cushing syndrome)
Common symptoms of Cushing syndrome include fragile skin, purple or pink stretch marks, easy bruising, moon face, upper body obesity, formation of a fatty hump, increased fat accumulation in the neck and shoulders, thinning arms and legs, weak bones, poor wound healing, and increased susceptibility to infections.
Overproduction of androgen hormones
These hormones are related to male sex hormones like testosterone. Too many androgenic steroids can lead to excessive masculine traits. These traits may include excess facial hair, body hair growth, baldness, deepening of the voice, acne, and increased muscle mass in women and men. In women, irregular or stopped menstrual cycles can occur.
Overproduction of aldosterone
This hormone regulates the salt and water levels in the body and blood pressure. The most common symptoms of excessive aldosterone include high blood pressure, low potassium levels, weakness, muscle spasms, muscle aches, and rarely, paralysis.
Overproduction of adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine)
High levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline due to overactive adrenal glands can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, and headaches.
Many of the symptoms of overactive adrenal glands are nonspecific and can mimic other health conditions. That’s why it’s important to seek professional medical care for an accurate diagnosis if you suspect that your adrenal glands may be overactive.
How are overactive adrenal glands diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose overactive adrenal glands based on your symptoms, health history, and physical exam. They may order some blood tests and urine tests to check hormone levels. Imaging tests (X-rays, ultrasounds, or CT scans) may be used to detect any tumors that could be secreting hormones. A dexamethasone suppression test is used to detect Cushing syndrome.
Can overactive adrenal glands be cured?
Treatment for overactive adrenal glands is based on the underlying reason for the problem, your symptoms, the severity of your condition, other health problems, and general health status.
For example, if external steroid use is the cause, your doctor may ask you to gradually reduce the dose or discontinue the steroid medication. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe medications that stop the formation of specific hormones. In some cases, it may be necessary to remove the adrenal glands surgically.
How do I control my adrenal glands?
You cannot control your adrenal glands. They are controlled by the pituitary gland in your brain. However, you can improve your adrenal function naturally by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, keeping stress levels under control, and getting plenty of rest and sleep every day.