Overactive Adrenal Glands: Causes and Symptoms

Adrenal glands are deemed overactive if the amount of hormones produced by them exceeds the normal levels. Such health problems may lead to adrenal gland disorders, including Cushing’s syndrome, depending on what hormone is supplied in excess. Besides the infamous Cushing’s, there are other health issues that may result from adrenal glands being overactive.

Image Credit: shutterstock.com / decade3d – anatomy online

What are adrenal glands?

The glands in question are found above the kidneys. They are part of the endocrine system and specialize in production of various hormones, such as adrenaline and steroids, like cortisol. Many dysfunctions of the glands lead to endocrine diseases. If there is not enough cortisol, it can lead to Addison’s disease. Conversely, if the glands produce excessive amounts of the hormone, Cushing’s syndrome occurs.

What can overactive adrenal glands cause?

Depending on what hormones are produced in excess, there may be different health problems and symptoms.

  • Corticosteroids. This is one of the most widely discussed health problems pertaining to adrenal gland functioning. If the body is exposed to large amounts of corticosteroids for a long time, it is likely to cause Cushing’s syndrome.
  • Androgen hormones. These are also called androgenic steroids. One of these steroids is testosterone. Should there be too much of this kind of steroids, male characteristics become exaggerated regardless of gender. The voice becomes deeper, hairiness and muscularity are also more pronounced, and other things like acne and baldness may follow. All these symptoms affect both sexes.
  • Aldosterone. If produced in excess, aldosterone causes hypertension, spasms, muscle aches, and since potassium levels are low, it can even lead to paralysis.

Why do adrenal glands become overactive?

The underlying problems may vary depending on what hormone is released in excessive amounts.

  • Hyperaldosteronism (see above) may have two causes. The biological reason behind the problem is usually either a non-cancerous tumor in an adrenal gland, or abnormal multiplication of healthy cells in both glands. As of this moment, it remains unknown whether any gene mutations contribute to the risk of this disorder.
  • Cushing’s syndrome is likely to strike people who take prednisone and other hormone-based medications for long-term treatment of asthma and other diseases inducing inflammation in the body, like rheumatoid arthritis. In such cases, it is the exposure to medicines containing corticosteroids that underlies the syndrome. Among other causes are tumors that force the glands to churn out large amounts of hormones in the bloodstream.

Signs of Cushing’s syndrome

Among the most commonly observed symptoms are:

  • Fatty hump
  • Rounded face
  • Stretch marks (these are usually purple or reddish)
  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Bone loss
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Thin, fragile skin
  • Slow healing
  • Acne

How is Cushing’s syndrome treated?

If it is caused by a tumor, it is removed surgically or some other way, including chemotherapy and radiation.

If it is hormone-based medications that are behind the syndrome, they should be tapered off. In some cases, oral prednisone can be substituted with inhaled fluticasone, but such adjustments to therapy can be done only by a professional.

If functioning improperly, the glands can be removed completely, or the excessive amounts of hormones produced by them can be neutralized pharmaceutically.


Overactive Adrenal Glands/Cushing’s Syndrome – hopkinsmedicine.org

What causes adrenal gland disorders? – nichd.nih.gov

Cushing syndrome – mayoclinic.org

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