Overview of Addison’s Disease: What are the Causes and Warning Signs?

What is Addison’s Disease?

Addison’s disease is also known as chronic adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism – a hormonal disorder that involves a malfunction in the adrenal glands, causing them to fail to produce the hormone cortisol. Dr. Thomas Addison, in 1885, first described the disease in his publication, “On the Constitutional and Local Effects of Disease of the Suprarenal Capsules.” The hormone, cortisol, is important for different physiological functions. It is therefore necessary to understand the source, function, and effects of cortisol, when it is not produced in an adequate amount.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid which is produced by the adrenal glands. The two tiny structures, called the adrenal glands are situated at the top of each kidney and produce steroids which are categorized into three classes:

  • Glucocorticoids (cortisol)
  • Mineralocorticoids (aldosterone)
  • Androgens (testosterone)

Cortisol belongs to the class glucocorticoids, and it is responsible for many body functions. The hormone regulates blood pressure, and cardiovascular function; however, it also helps regulate the metabolism of body proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The hormone secretion increases with stress, which may include physical illness, trauma, and temperature. Moreover, the hormone secretion is regulated by the brain’s hypothalamus, and the pituitary gland.

Causes of Addison’s Disease:

The destruction of the adrenal glands leads to the cessation of the hormone, cortisol, and causes Addison’s disease. Primarily, the disease was thought to be the result of an infection of the adrenal glands, and the most common infection was found to be tuberculosis. This kind of infection is chiefly dominated in developing countries; however, scientific studies have revealed that autoimmune disorders are also the cause of Addison’s disease. In this case the immune system attacks its own body tissues and organs and destroys the adrenal glands.

Symptoms of Addison’s Disease:

Symptoms of Addison’s disease include the following:

· Loss of appetite

· Nausea

· Weight loss

· Vomiting

· Muscle weakness

· Low blood pressure

· Salt craving

· Hypoglycemia

Treatment of Addison’s Disease

Since Addison’s disease is the result of the destruction of the adrenal glands and the cessation of the hormone, cortisol, treatment involves replacement or substitution of the hormone. Hormone replacement is done orally with tablets or by oral doses. Patients involved with hormone replacement therapy are advised to increase their salt intake. Doctors also treat for low blood pressure and glucose problems, which are often found in these patients. Patient education is very important when dealing with Addison’s disease.

Reference Section

MayoClinic. “Addison’s disease.” Retrieved on December 1, 2008 from Addison’s disease

Wehner. “On The Constitutional and Local Effects of Disease of the Supra-renal Capsules.” Retrieved on December 1, 2008 from ON THE CONSTITUTIONAL AND LOCAL EFFECTS OF DISEASE OF THE SUPRA-RENAL CAPSULES