Prednisone belongs to a family of drugs called corticosteroids that is often prescribed when a person's body does not produce enough natural steroid hormones. Prednisone also alters the functioning of the immune system and is used to treat several diseases in people who have normal corticosteroid levels, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and severe allergic reactions. Because prednisone affects hormone levels in the body, it likewise affects the organs that make up the endocrine system. This includes the adrenal glands.
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Reduced Cortisol Levels
Prednisone has the general effect of suppressing the function of the adrenal glands, thereby reducing the levels of hormones secreted by the adrenal glands. Cortisol, a hormone that plays an important role in the body's response to stress, is greatly suppressed even after taking low doses of prednisone, according to a study published in the 2006 issue of "Alternative Medicine Review." Low levels of cortisol have been known to cause many symptoms, including chronic fatigue and weakness, weight loss, stomach upset, vomiting, headache and low blood pressure leading to dizziness and fainting, reports the National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service.
Several other hormones regulated by the adrenal glands are also suppressed by prednisone, including cortisone, dehydroepiandrosterone, androsterone, aldosterone and tetrahydrocorticosterone, reports Alternative Medicine Review. The suppression of these hormones has several different effects. For example, dehydroepiandrosterone, abbreviated DHEA, is involved in regulating hormones involved in reproduction, brain function and the immune response. Suppression of DHEA may reduce the levels of sex hormones, weaken the bones, reduce the immune response and affect moods and mental functioning. People taking prednisone may sometimes also be prescribed DHEA to counteract these effects.
A person who is taking prednisone should never suddenly stop taking the medication. Because prednisone is a hormone that alters the body's delicate balance of hormones, suddenly removing prednisone from the equation can cause a temporary case of secondary adrenal insuffciency, which is sometime called an adrenal crisis, explains MedlinePlus. An adrenal crisis can cause many of the same symptoms as low cortisol levels, including fatigue, abdominal or side pain, nausea and vomiting, fever, low blood pressure and loss of appetite. Doctors usually gradually reduce the dosage of prednisone before completely stopping the medication to reduce these effects.
- "Alternative Medicine Review"; Suppression of Adrenal Function by Low-Dose Prednisone: Assessment With 24-hour Urinary Steroid Hormone Profiles-a Review of Five Cases; Friel, PN et al; March 2006
- National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service: Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison’s Disease
- MedlinePlus: Acute Adrenal Crisis
- MedlinePlus: Prednisone
- Cushing's Help and Support: Adrenal Gland Disorders