Overactive Adrenal Glands

What are overactive adrenal glands?

Your body has 2 adrenal glands. They are found on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands make certain types of hormones. If they make too much of (overproduce) these hormones, they are called overactive.

What causes overactive adrenal glands?

Your adrenal glands may start to make too many hormones on their own for unknown reasons. They can also become too active if your pituitary gland makes too much of the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropin). Or they can become too active if tumors in other parts of your body make too much CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) or ACTH.

Some people who take high doses of steroid medicines for a long time will also show signs of extra adrenal hormone effect.

What are the symptoms of overactive adrenal glands?

Symptoms depend on which hormones are being overproduced:

  • Androgenic steroids (androgen hormones). These include hormones related to testosterone. Having too much of them can lead to strong male traits in both men and women. These may include extra hair growth on the face and body, baldness, acne, a deeper voice, and more muscle mass.

  • Cortisol. Too much cortisol can lead to Cushing syndrome. This disorder can also be caused by taking high levels of similar steroid hormones. Symptoms of Cushing syndrome include fragile skin that bruises easily, pink or purple stretch marks, irritability, and depression. Upper body obesity, increased fat around the neck, round puffy face, and thin arms and legs are also common.

  • Aldosterone.  Too much aldosterone can cause high blood pressure. It can also cause low levels of potassium. That may result in weakness, muscle aches, spasms, and sometimes paralysis.

  • Epinephrine or norepinephrine. Too much of these hormones leads to high blood pressure, sudden and severe headaches, and anxiety symptoms.

These symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are overactive adrenal glands diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your health history. You will also need a physical exam. Your provider may also see if you have any signs of Cushing syndrome, a condition that can occur if your body makes too much cortisol hormone. People with this condition have symptoms that include easy bruising, muscle weakness, and red or purple stretch marks. Upper body obesity and thin arms and legs are also common.

Other tests that may help with a diagnosis include:

  • Blood and urine tests. These can measure hormone levels.

  • Imaging tests. These may include a CT scan, ultrasound, or X-ray.

How are overactive adrenal glands treated?

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment depends on what is causing the overactive glands. You may need to have your adrenal glands removed. If external steroid use is the cause, you may need to slowly cut back or stop taking the steroid. You may also need to take medicine that blocks the production of certain hormones.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Tell your healthcare provider if your symptoms return or get worse. Also let your provider know if you have new symptoms.

Key points about overactive adrenal glands

  • Your 2 adrenal glands are found just above each kidney. They make certain types of hormones. If your adrenal glands make too much of these hormones, they are called overactive.

  • Symptoms depend on which hormones are being overproduced.

  • You may need to have blood and urine tests, as well as imaging tests such as a CT scan or ultrasound.

  • Treatment depends on the cause of the disease. It may include medicine or surgery.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are and when you should report them to your healthcare provider.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.