Health & Wellness

Addison’s Disease (Adrenal Insufficiency): Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

While it’s considered to be relatively rare, Addison’s disease is also known as adrenal insufficiency and is a condition in which your adrenal glands can no longer produce sufficient hormones for your body.

But how does it differ from adrenal fatigue, and are there things you can do to prevent this worsening disorder? Can you live a normal life with it? And, finally, can it be improved and/or cured?

Keep reading to get the answers to these questions and more as we dive into the topic of Addison’s disease.

 

What is Addison’s Disease?

As I mentioned above, Addison’s disease is a condition in which your adrenal glands are unable to produce the hormones your body needs to function properly—specifically cortisol and aldosterone in some situations as well. It’s also commonly known as adrenal insufficiency or adrenal disease.

Because it affects approximately 100 to 140 out of every 1 million people, Addison’s disease is considered to be relatively rare. [1]

That said, recent data has shown that it is on the rise, with an increase of 1.8 percent in prevalence each year. Interestingly, the rate is increasing much faster for females at a rate of 2.7 percent each year. [2]

One of the most common questions I receive about Addison’s disease is this: Is adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease the same as adrenal fatigue?

In short, the answer is no. Addison’s disease is just that—a disease in which your adrenal glands are incapable of producing cortisol.

Conversely, adrenal fatigue is a functional situation, meaning your adrenal glands are capable of producing cortisol but are overtaxed and, as the name suggests, fatigued.

Symptoms of Addison’s Disease

Now that you have a basic understanding of what Addison’s disease is, let’s address what really brought you here: Could you have Addison’s disease?

Here are the top eight signs you may have it:

  1. Extreme fatigue
  2. Unexplained weight loss
  3. Decreased appetite
  4. Low blood pressure and/or blood sugar
  5. GI upset
  6. Irritability and/or depression
  7. Hair loss
  8. Low libido

Addison's disease - Dr. Pingel

 

Causes of Addison’s Disease

Unlike adrenal fatigue, which is caused by stress and lifestyle factors, Addison’s disease is mainly caused by autoimmunity. In fact, autoimmune disease accounts for up to 90 percent of all diagnoses of Addison’s disease. [3]

Other causes include:

  • Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis
  • Adrenal gland injury
  • Adrenalectomy (the surgical removal of your adrenal glands)
  • Neoplasia (the abnormal growth of cells and tissue; cancer)
  • Genetic causes


Diagnosing Addison’s Disease

Now that you know the most common symptoms and causes, let’s discuss how Addison’s disease is diagnosed.

In addition to performing a physical exam and discussing your history, the following methods are used to help diagnose Addison’s disease:

  • X-rays and CT scans of the adrenal glands.
  • Blood tests to check your levels of cortisol, ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone, which prompts the adrenal glands to produce cortisol), sodium, and potassium.
  • ACTH stimulation test, which tests your adrenal glands’ response to synthetic ACTH.

 

Treatments for Addison’s Disease

If you discover that you have Addison’s disease, know that there are treatment options available to you.

Your physician may prescribe synthetic hormones (known as hormone replacement therapy) to make up for your body’s lack of cortisol (hydrocortisone) or aldosterone (fludrocortisone acetate).

In addition, there are certain lifestyle measures you need to take, such as supporting your body’s stress response, eating a balanced diet, and making sure you’re consuming enough sodium.

Just remember that you can live a normal, active, and full life with the proper measures in place.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Addison’s disease is also known as adrenal insufficiency and is a condition in which your adrenal glands can no longer produce sufficient hormones for your body.
  • Because it affects approximately 100 to 140 out of every 1 million people, Addison’s disease is considered to be relatively rare.
  • Treatment options include hormone replacement therapy and lifestyle support.

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