What is adrenal insufficiency?

Adrenal insufficiency is an endocrine-or hormonal-disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of certain hormones. The adrenal glands are located just above the kidneys. Adrenal insufficiency can be primary or secondary.

Primary adrenal insufficiency, also called Addison's disease, occurs when the adrenal glands are damaged and cannot produce enough of the hormone cortisol and often the hormone aldosterone. Addison's disease affects one to four of every 100,000 people, of all age groups and both sexes.

Secondary adrenal insufficiency occurs when the pituitary gland-a bean-sized organ in the brain-fails to produce enough adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. If ACTH output is too low, cortisol production drops. Eventually, the adrenal glands can shrink due to lack of ACTH stimulation. Secondary adrenal insufficiency is much more common than Addison's disease.

This answer is based on source information from the National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service.

Adrenal insufficiency is a life-threatening problem where the body is not making enough cortisol. This complication can happen in patients with Cushing's syndrome where the other adrenal gland is not making enough cortisol because it has been suppressed by the tumor or in patients who have had bilateral adrenalectomy (both adrenal glands removed) who are not on enough steroids post-operatively. Symptoms of this condition include feeling generally unwell, nausea, vomiting and confusion. Patients in this situation may need steroid medication for up to one year following surgery and for those who have had both adrenals removed, will require lifelong steroids.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.