Located at the top of each kidney, the adrenal glands produce hormones that help the body control blood sugar, burn protein and fat, react to stressors like a major illness or injury, and regulate blood pressure. Two of the most important adrenal hormones are cortisol and aldosterone. The adrenal glands also produce adrenaline and small amounts of sex hormones called androgens, among other hormones. Adrenal disorders can be caused by too much or too little of a particular hormone. For example, Cushing syndrome is caused by an overproduction of cortisol, or more commonly, the use of medications called glucocorticoids—cortisol-like drugs—which are used to treat inflammatory disorders such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Untreated Cushing syndrome can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and other health issues.
When the adrenal glands produce too much aldosterone, blood pressure rises. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can put you at risk for stroke, heart attack, heart failure, or kidney failure.
Adrenal insufficiency occurs when the adrenal glands don’t make enough cortisol, and sometimes, aldosterone. Symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, decreased appetite, and weight loss. Some people experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Adrenal insufficiency is treated with hormones that replace the hormones your body is lacking.
A genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia also causes the adrenal glands to make too little cortisol and/or aldosterone, and too much androgen.
The good news is that the conditions caused by overproduction or underproduction of adrenal hormones are treatable. Read more about adrenal disorders and treatment in this section.