Endocrine System Home > Addison's Disease

Addison's disease is an illness that occurs when the adrenal glands stop producing certain hormones. This can result in symptoms such as chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, and loss of appetite. The most common cause of this condition is an autoimmune disease; other causes include tuberculosis and chronic infection. Although the disease in incurable, it is a condition that can be treated and controlled with medication.

What Is Addison's Disease?

Addison's disease is a medical condition in which the adrenal glands stop making hormones important for certain bodily functions. Addison's disease is characterized by weight loss, muscle weakness, fatigue, low blood pressure, and sometimes darkening of the skin in both exposed and non-exposed parts of the body.
Other names for Addison's disease include primary adrenal insufficiency and hypocortisolism.
The late President John F. Kennedy had Addison's disease. Addison's disease affects about 1 in 100,000 people.

Understanding the Adrenal Glands

There are two adrenal glands, one above each kidney in the back of the upper abdomen. The adrenal glands are also called the suprarenal glands. The inside layer of the adrenal gland is called the adrenal medulla. The adrenal medulla produces epinephrine (adrenaline). The outside layer is called the adrenal cortex. The cells in the adrenal cortex make two important hormones that help the body function properly. The two hormones are cortisol and aldosterone.
Cortisol belongs to a class of hormones called glucocorticoids, which affect almost every organ and tissue in the body. Scientists think that cortisol has possibly hundreds of effects in the body. Cortisol's most important job is to help the body respond to stress. Among its other vital tasks, cortisol helps:
  • Maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function
  • Slow the immune system's inflammatory response
  • Balance the effects of insulin in breaking down sugar for energy
  • Regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
  • Maintain proper arousal and sense of well-being.
Because cortisol is so vital to health, the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenals is precisely balanced.
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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