Adrenal Gland Disorders & Treatments: Addison's Disease and Prednisone

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  • 0:05 Adrenal Glands
  • 1:19 Cushing's Syndrome
  • 2:21 Prednisone
  • 3:24 Addison's Disease
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

The adrenal glands secrete hormones that help maintain balance in your body. But, if these hormones are over- or under-secreted, disease can develop. In this lesson, you will learn about disorders of the adrenal glands, including Addison's disease and Cushing's syndrome, as well as their treatments.

Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands are endocrine glands. This means they secrete hormones into the blood. Hormones are secreted based on the needs of the body and are important in maintaining homeostasis, or internal balance. In a healthy body, endocrine glands such as the adrenal glands secrete just the right amount of hormones at just the right times. However, problems can arise that result in the secretion of too much or too little of certain hormones, and this can lead to disease. In this lesson, we will focus on the hyper- and hypo-secretions of the adrenal glands and the conditions that result.

Adrenal glands need to secrete just the right amount of hormones to maintain homeostasis.
Adrenals Maintain Homeostasis

The adrenal cortex secretes steroid hormones. The term 'steroid' is probably something you are familiar with. We often think of a hulking body builder who is juiced up on steroids - or, if you or someone you know has ever dealt with a chronic disease, you may be familiar with steroid medication such as prednisone, which we will discuss later in this lesson. Natural steroid hormones from the adrenal cortex help control a wide range of processes in your body, from inflammation and immune function to salt and water balance and your ability to handle stress.

Cushing's Syndrome

One type of steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex is glucocorticoids. The most important glucocorticoid in your body is called cortisol. Cortisol is very helpful when secreted in normal amounts because it regulates glucose metabolism and has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties.

However, if your body produces too much cortisol, the result can be a condition called Cushing's syndrome. Cushing's syndrome is defined as a disorder that occurs when your body is exposed to high levels of cortisol. The condition results in some hallmark symptoms that include facial roundness referred to as a 'moon face,' fat accumulation on the upper-back referred to as a 'buffalo hump,' weight gain above the waist, a thinning of the arms and legs, and purple stretch marks on the skin. Because Cushing's syndrome leads to fat accumulation in different parts of the body, it may help you think of Cushing's syndrome as making the body 'soft' or 'cushy.'

Physical signs of excessive cortisol production.


The most common cause of Cushing's syndrome is taking too much corticosteroid medications and, in particular, prednisone. Prednisone is a synthetic steroid drug prescribed for the treatment of severe inflammation or for immunosuppression.

Synthetic glucocorticoid medications, like prednisone, are helpful for treating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, severe allergies, and other chronic illnesses. And, they are designed to mimic cortisol's anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties. But, as we see in the case of Cushing's syndrome, too much of a good thing can lead to disease.

Treatment for Cushing's syndrome aims to lower cortisol levels in your body. If the cause of Cushing's syndrome is overuse of corticosteroid medication, then reducing corticosteroid medication use under a doctor's direction is often enough to treat the condition. If the disorder is due to a tumor or other disorder, then surgery, radiation, or the use of cortisol-inhibiting drugs may be used.

Addison's Disease

With Cushing's syndrome, there is too much hormone being secreted by the adrenal glands. With Addison's disease, there is too little. Therefore, Addison's disease is a condition caused by insufficient secretions of adrenal cortex hormones. In fact, this disease is also referred to as adrenal insufficiency. Because a person with Addison's disease does not have enough of the adrenal hormones, it might help you remember this term by thinking that a person with Addison's needs to 'add' hormones.

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