Disorders of the endocrine system affect the levels of hormones that circulate throughout the body. Glands, such as the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands, produce hormones. By regulating the amount of hormones they produce, these glands have a direct effect on the function of various organs. Hormones are chemical messengers that aid in instructing organs to increase or decrease productivity. The adrenal glands secrete hormones including aldosterone, cortisol and epinephrine.
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Redistribution of Body Fat
Cushing’s syndrome is an adrenal disorder wherein the gland produces abnormally high amounts of cortisol. Gary Thibodeau, Ph.D., author of “The Human Body in Health and Disease” explains that cortisol causes an increase in the conversion of proteins and fats into glucose, resulting in an increase in the levels of glucose in the blood. Cortisol also produces an anti-inflammatory effect, moderating the body’s response to infection. In Cushing’s syndrome, body fat is redistributed in such a way that a noticeable hump appears between the shoulder blades, and the face becomes swollen and rounded.
Abnormal Secondary Sex Characteristics
The adrenal gland also produces androgens that are weaker versions of the male hormone testosterone. Disorders, such as functional tumors of the inner layer of the adrenal cortex, can cause production of androgens to increase, even in women. This can result in masculinizing effects such as facial hair growth and increased muscle. Women can also notice their menstrual periods becoming abnormal.
Additionally, tumors of the adrenal gland can produce excess estrogens in men, leading to the enlargement of male breasts and impotence, according to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Fatigue and Weakness
Adrenal insufficiency occurs when the adrenal gland is underproductive in its secretion of hormones. This can occur in cases of Addison’s disease, a disorder wherein adrenal tissue has been destroyed by an autoimmune disorder or infection. A drop in the adrenal hormone aldosterone causes blood pressure and blood volume to decline. Cortisol affects blood pressure, cardiac function and blood glucose, all factors that have an impact on energy levels and strength. The National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service notes that fatigue and muscle weakness are typical consequences of a drop in cortisol and aldosterone. These symptoms tend to worsen with time.
Low blood pressure from adrenal insufficiency can lead to orthostatic hypotension, a phenomenon wherein sudden positional changes, such as moving from a sitting to a standing position, induce dizziness and sometimes fainting.