Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders

Pituitary and adrenal gland disorders disrupt hormone levels, which can cause health complications and conditions related to hormone regulation.

What Are Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders?

Glands produce hormones, which are chemicals that circulate in the bloodstream and play important roles in many bodily functions.

The two adrenal glands above the kidneys produce aldosterone, cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels, growth and development, metabolism, the body’s responses to stress and infection, along with other processes.

The pituitary gland at the base of the brain makes hormones that influence the entire body, including controlling the adrenal gland. For example, the pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the adrenal gland to produce cortisol.

Pituitary and adrenal disorders cause an imbalance of several hormones, leading to an array of health problems.

Types of Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders

There are many types of pituitary and adrenal disorders including:

  • adrenal insufficiency (AI) — a lack of cortisol that can become one of three conditions: primary AI, called Addison's Disease, an autoimmune disorder of the adrenal glands; secondary AI, a pituitary gland disorder; and tertiary AI, related to an area of the brain near the pituitary gland
  • congenital adrenal hyperplasia — a group of genetic disorders that cause adrenal hormone imbalances
  • Cushing’s syndrome — a rare condition involving overproduction of cortisol
  • hyperaldosteronism — too much of the hormone aldosterone
  • hypopituitarism — not enough pituitary hormones
  • pheochromocytoma and paraganglioma — rare tumor-causing disorders resulting in too much adrenaline or noradrenaline

Causes of Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders

Many medical conditions can cause pituitary and adrenal disorders. Tumors are the most common for pituitary disorders. Other causes may include:

  • autoimmune disorders
  • diseases such as tuberculosis and certain cancers
  • genetic abnormalities, both inherited or acquired
  • long-term use of certain medications, such as prednisone, dexamethasone and other steroids
  • medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery to remove the hypothalamus
  • severe infections

"Adrenal fatigue” due to chronic stress is not a recognized condition or cause of these disorders.

Signs and Symptoms of Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders

Symptoms of pituitary and adrenal disorders vary widely depending on the underlying cause, which hormones are out of balance and which organs or glands are affected. Signs may include:

  • abnormal growth and development, such as breast enlargement in males or absence of menstruation in females
  • body hair loss or excessive growth
  • blood pressure that is too low or too high
  • blood sugar levels that are too low or too high
  • extreme fatigue
  • mood changes, such as anxiety, irritability and depression
  • sexual dysfunction and infertility
  • unintended weight gain or loss
  • weakness or muscle spasms

How Are Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders Diagnosed?

Pituitary and adrenal disorders are typically diagnosed by endocrinologists, physicians who specialize in endocrine gland disorders. They may use any of the following to diagnose a condition:

  • blood and urine tests of hormone levels
  • imaging studies such as CT and MRI scans to look for tumors
  • samples to find masses that imaging studies cannot detect

Treatments for Pituitary and Adrenal Disorders

Treatment depends on the underlying cause and severity of symptoms, and may include:

  • hormone replacement
  • medications to restore hormonal balance by suppressing or stimulating hormone production
  • surgery to remove a tumor or entire affected gland
  • treatments for cancer if needed, such as chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or targeted therapies

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