Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison’s Disease

Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison’s Disease are rare conditions that affect up to four out of 100,000 people.

addison’s disease

Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison’s Disease are rare conditions that affect up to four out of 100,000 people. Both are neither age nor gender specific. Adrenal insufficiency and its primary kind called Addison’s Disease are hormonal disorders that disrupt a person’s normal functioning.

Adrenal Hormones and What They Do

Adrenal hormones produce cortisol and aldosterone.  You can say that cortisol’s territory encompasses pretty much the entire body.  We are talking about every organ and tissue. Cortisol does a lot of things from helping the body cope with stress to maintaining levels of glucose in the blood.  Other tasks include regulating metabolism, boosting the immune system, keeping allergic reactions in check, and stabilizing both blood pressure and cardiovascular function.

Aldosterone, on the other hand, focuses on the delicate balance of salt and water in the body.  It helps expel potassium while storing sodium via the kidneys.

Both hormones are essential to a human body’s proper functioning.  A decrease in production of either of the two can spell trouble. Lack of aldosterone, for example, results to kidneys not being able to regulate the level of water and salt which could then lead to problems like high blood pressure.

Primary and Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency

When talking about adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease, these two terms should not be used interchangeably.  One is the umbrella term and the other is the specific kind. Adrenal insufficiency comes in two kind: Primary and Secondary.  Primary adrenal insufficiency is called Addison’s disease. This happens when adrenal glands have ceased proper functioning and no longer churns out enough cortisol and aldosterone.

Secondary adrenal insufficiency, in contrast, has something to do with the pituitary gland located in the brain. For some reason or another, it does not produce enough adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) which is the hormone that goads the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol.  The secondary type of adrenal insufficiency is relatively more common than Addison’s disease.


For both Addison’s disease and secondary adrenal insufficiency, the tricky part is diagnosis since its symptoms are not condition-specific.  This means, at the onset, both condition exhibit symptoms that are present in other conditions. The primary symptoms include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss appetite
  • Weakness in Muscle

However, other symptoms can still manifest.  These are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Salty foods cravings
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Low blood glucose
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Irregular menstrual periods

There are some symptoms that are adrenal insufficiency type-specific.  One example is hyperpigmentation. This happens when the skin darkens particularly on elbows, knees, neck, toes, lips, and cheeks. Hyperpigmentation only happens in Addison’s disease.  Other Addison’s disease-induced symptoms not present in secondary adrenal insufficiency include:

  • Pain all over the body; worse in the lower back, abdomen, and legs
  • Fainting/Dizziness
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Profuse vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure

One has to note that all these symptoms of Addison’s disease can cause death. Immediate medical attention should be given at the onset of any of these symptoms.

Causes of Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison’s Disease

For this article, we will focus on primary adrenal insufficiency otherwise known as Addison’s disease. For quite some time, medical practitioners were stumped as to what causes Addison’s disease. It would take a couple of years of research before we could pinpoint what causes Addison’s disease. Here are some of them:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • 90% of adrenal cortisol have been destroyed
  • Schmidt’s syndrome
  • Polyendocrine deficiency syndrome
  • Tuberculosis
  • Fungal infection
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Amyloidosis
  • Cancer
  • Removal of adrenal glands
  • Bleeding


Only a qualified health practitioner can diagnose whether a patient is suffering from adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease. If you suspect that you or a loved one has these conditions, it would be best to go to the doctor as soon as possible.  Remember, Addison’s disease can be fatal so immediate medical response should take place when a so-called Addisonian crisis occurs.


Treatment really depends on the seriousness of the case.  For relatively milder ones, you can actually take a maintenance medication after the initial intervention.  This can include taking oral supplements that are infused with hydrocortisone, prednisone, or dexamethasone if cortisone is the problem and fludrocortisone acetate if aldosterone is inadequate.

For more serious cases, it is a lot different.  If a person is in the midst of an Addisonian crisis, intravenous injections of large saline volumes, as well as glucocorticoids, should be administered immediately. If medical attention is not sought, this crisis can be fatal.

Special Treatment

The section above talks aboutthe general treatment of adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease.  However, if the following conditions apply to you, special treatment should be given.

  • Pregnancy. Injection of hormone supplements might be needed for pregnant women or it would lead to chronic vomiting. Gain clearance from your ob gynecologist before doing so.
  • Flu or Injury. Remember, these hormones help the body respond to stress well.  Without them, recovery from illnesses and injuries could be prolonged. You can take supplements for this one but you have to, again, consult your physician before doing so.
  • Surgery.  Before going under the knife, make sure you declare that you are suffering from adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease or you suspect that you are living with any of the two conditions.  This way, the doctors can keep a steady flow of both cortisone and aldosterone during your surgery.

Adrenal insufficiency and Addison’s disease are not death sentences. With proper intervention, things can go back to a normal functioning state. Just make sure you visit the doctor for an accurate diagnosis before doing anything else.

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