Types of Adrenal Gland Disorders

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Dr. Khoshaba

May 12, 2023

Adrenal gland disorders are medical conditions that affect the proper functioning of the adrenal glands. These small, triangular glands above the kidneys produce hormones that help regulate the body's response to stress, metabolism, blood pressure, and other vital functions.
When the adrenal glands do not produce the right hormone balance, various health issues can occur. This article will provide an overview of the different types of adrenal gland disorders, their symptoms, and treatment options.

Addison's Disease (Primary Adrenal Insufficiency)

Adrenal insufficiency is a medical condition characterized by the inadequate production of hormones by the adrenal glands. These hormones, such as cortisol and aldosterone, regulate various bodily functions, including metabolism, blood pressure, and the immune system's response to stress. 

Adrenal insufficiency can be classified into primary and secondary forms, with Addison's disease being the primary form of adrenal insufficiency. It is a rare disorder characterized by insufficient production of cortisol and aldosterone hormones due to the adrenal glands' damage.

The leading cause of this condition is an autoimmune response where the body mistakenly attacks its adrenal glands. Other causes may include infections, genetic mutations, or exposure to certain medications.

Symptoms of Addison's disease can be nonspecific and include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Skin discoloration

If left untreated, an adrenal crisis or a life-threatening situation may occur, with symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, vomiting, dehydration, and loss of consciousness.
Treatment for Addison's disease involves hormone replacement therapy, which requires lifelong administration of cortisol and, in some cases, aldosterone. Patients must also learn to manage their medication in response to stress or illness to prevent an adrenal crisis.

Cushing's Syndrome

Cortisol structure

Cushing's syndrome is a rare hormonal disorder resulting from prolonged exposure to excessive levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is vital for various bodily functions, including regulating metabolism, maintaining blood pressure, and controlling the body's response to stress. However, when present in abnormally high concentrations, cortisol can lead to numerous health problems.

Cushing's syndrome can be caused by various factors, including:

  • Endogenous factors: Overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands may be due to an adrenal gland tumor. This pituitary gland tumor produces adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) or an ectopic ACTH-producing tumor elsewhere in the body.
  • Exogenous factors: Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone or dexamethasone, can develop Cushing's syndrome. These medications are commonly prescribed to treat conditions like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.

The symptoms of Cushing's syndrome can be diverse and may develop gradually over time. Common symptoms include:

  • Rapid weight gain, particularly in the face (moon face), upper back (buffalo hump), and abdomen
  • Thinning and fragile skin that bruises easily
  • Stretch marks (striae) on the skin, typically pink or purple
  • Muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Osteoporosis leads to an increased risk of fractures
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia), which may result in diabetes
  • Mood changes, such as irritability, anxiety, or depression
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods and increased facial and body hair growth (hirsutism) in women
  • Decreased fertility and libido and erectile dysfunction in men

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a group of inherited genetic disorders that affect the adrenal glands' ability to produce vital hormones, such as cortisol and aldosterone. 

In CAH, a deficiency of specific enzymes involved in hormone synthesis leads to an overproduction of androgens (male sex hormones). This hormonal imbalance can cause a range of symptoms and complications, depending on the severity of the enzyme deficiency.

There are two main types of CAH, classified based on the severity of the enzyme deficiency:

Classical CAH

This form is more severe and typically becomes apparent shortly after birth or during early childhood. Classical CAH can be further divided into salt-wasting and simple virilizing types. 

The salt-wasting type is the most severe, involving both cortisol and aldosterone deficiency. The simple virilizing type primarily affects cortisol production, with a lesser impact on aldosterone levels.

Symptoms include dehydration, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, and electrolyte imbalances due to aldosterone deficiency; ambiguous genitalia in newborn girls; and early puberty and rapid growth in both sexes.

Non-classical CAH

Also known as late-onset or adult-onset CAH, this milder form of the disorder usually becomes apparent during adolescence or adulthood. Non-classical CAH mainly affects cortisol production, and symptoms are less severe than in classical CAH.

Symptoms may be mild or absent in some cases. When present, they may include acne, excessive body hair growth (hirsutism), irregular menstrual periods or absence of menstruation (amenorrhea) in females, and reduced fertility in both sexes.

Overall, congenital adrenal hyperplasia is a lifelong condition that requires ongoing medical management and monitoring. Early diagnosis, appropriate hormone replacement therapy, and regular follow-up with healthcare providers can help individuals with CAH lead healthy, fulfilling lives while minimizing complications and long-term effects.

Adrenal Tumors and Cancer

The adrenal glands, different types of adrenal gland disorders

The adrenal glands above each kidney produce essential hormones, such as cortisol, aldosterone, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Adrenal tumors are abnormal growths that can develop within these glands. 

While most adrenal tumors are benign (non-cancerous), some can be malignant (cancerous), leading to adrenal cancer. Adrenal tumors can be classified based on the part of the adrenal gland they originate from:

Adrenocortical tumors

Adrenocortical tumors arise from the adrenal cortex, the outer layer of the adrenal gland responsible for producing cortisol and aldosterone. Adrenocortical tumors can be categorized into benign (adenomas) and malignant (adrenocortical carcinoma) growths.

Symptoms include excess cortisol production that can lead to Cushing's syndrome, causing rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, and mood changes. Excess aldosterone production can result in Conn's syndrome, characterized by high blood pressure, low potassium levels, and muscle weakness.


These rare, usually benign tumors develop in the adrenal medulla, the inner part of the adrenal gland that produces adrenaline and noradrenaline. These tumors can cause an overproduction of adrenaline and noradrenaline, leading to high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, headaches, sweating, and anxiety or panic attacks.

Pheochromocytoma and Paraganglioma

Pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas are rare neuroendocrine tumors arising from chromaffin cells that produce catecholamines such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). While both tumor types share similarities, their primary distinction is their location within the body.

Pheochromocytomas develop in the adrenal medulla, the inner part of the adrenal gland. These tumors are usually benign, with approximately 90% being non-cancerous. However, they can cause significant health problems due to the overproduction of catecholamines, leading to high blood pressure and other symptoms associated with an adrenergic crisis.

Paragangliomas originate outside the adrenal gland, typically in the paraganglia—groups of chromaffin cells found near nerve cell clusters called ganglia. Depending on their location and function, these tumors can be categorized as sympathetic or parasympathetic paragangliomas. 

Sympathetic paragangliomas, usually found in the chest, abdomen, or pelvis, can produce catecholamines like pheochromocytomas. In contrast, parasympathetic paragangliomas, typically located in the head and neck region, are generally non-functional and do not produce catecholamines.

The symptoms of pheochromocytomas and functional paragangliomas are mainly due to the excess production of catecholamines:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension), which can be sustained or fluctuate
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat (tachycardia or palpitations)
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain


types of adrenal gland disorders

Hyperaldosteronism, also known as aldosteronism, is a hormonal disorder characterized by the excessive production of aldosterone by the adrenal glands. 

Aldosterone is a hormone responsible for regulating blood pressure by maintaining the body's sodium and potassium balance. Excessive aldosterone production can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and electrolyte imbalances, causing various symptoms and complications.

There are two main types of hyperaldosteronism:

  • Primary hyperaldosteronism: This form is also known as Conn's syndrome and results from a problem within the adrenal glands. Common causes include an adrenal adenoma (a benign tumor), unilateral or bilateral adrenal hyperplasia, or, in rare cases, an adrenal carcinoma.
  • Secondary hyperaldosteronism: This form occurs when excessive aldosterone production is triggered by factors outside the adrenal glands, such as kidney disease, heart failure, or certain medications.

The symptoms of hyperaldosteronism may vary depending on the severity of the condition:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension), which may be resistant to conventional antihypertensive medications
  • Fatigue and muscle weakness
  • Headaches
  • Frequent urination and excessive thirst
  • Low potassium levels (hypokalemia) which can cause muscle cramps, weakness, palpitations, and, in severe cases, abnormal heart rhythms

Final Words

Adrenal gland disorders encompass a wide range of conditions that can significantly impact an individual's overall health and well-being. Each of these conditions varies in terms of symptoms, causes, and treatment for options, including medication, hormone replacement therapy, and surgery.

Early diagnosis and appropriate management are essential to mitigate complications and improve the quality of life for individuals affected by these disorders. Increasing public awareness and understanding of adrenal gland disorders is vital to facilitate early intervention and support those living with these conditions. 

By staying informed about the latest research and advancements in the field, patients and healthcare providers can work together to optimize treatment outcomes and promote better overall health.

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Dr. Linda Khoshaba is the Leading Integrative Health and Hormone Doctor in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has extensive experience working in the field as a Hormone Specialist and Natural Endocrinologist.

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