What Causes Cushing's Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Nicole Long
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
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A high level of cortisol in the body causes Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol from various internal and external sources can lead to excessive levels of cortisol in the body. Some of the causes of Cushing’s syndrome include overproduction of cortisol by a person’s glands and organs, tumors, other disease, and high doses of corticosteroid medications.

Cortisol performs various functions in the human body. Blood pressure and cardiovascular health are all affected by the production of cortisol by various glands, including the adrenal glands. Cortisol also provides a person with energy through the conversion of carbohydrates and fat and also is a crucial piece of the puzzle in regards to how an individual responds to stress.

Internally, cortisol production is controlled by the endocrine system. Glands, such as the adrenal glands, thyroid gland, and pituitary gland, all contribute to hormone production and processes of the endocrine system, including the production of cortisol. Specifically, overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands causes Cushing’s syndrome.

Overproduction of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) also causes Cushing’s syndrome. This is typically a result of one of several conditions, including a pituitary gland tumor or an ectopic ACTH-secreting tumor. Other possible causes of an overproduction of ACTH include adrenal adenoma and genetics.


Cortisol can be found in medication used to treat a variety of conditions and diseases. This includes corticosteroids in pill and inhaler form to treat rheumatoid arthritis or asthma. Injectable corticosteroids can be used to help relieve back and joint pain. The doses administered are typically beyond the amount of cortisol a person’s body would produce on its own. This can lead to the development of Cushing’s syndrome.

Various signs and symptoms can provide visual evidence of the disease. This includes weight gain around the midsection, bruising of the skin, and acne. Signs also include an increase in body hair in women with the disease and erectile dysfunction in men with the disease. Other symptoms include fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, and frequent headaches.

Complications can develop if treatment is not received for this disease. They include high blood pressure, diabetes, and loss of muscle mass. Other possible complications include bone loss and frequent infections. Treatment for the disease can include medication, reduction in the amount of corticosteroids used, surgery, and radiation therapy. Additional treatment may be aimed at relieving symptoms and can include massage, eating a healthy diet, improving strength through exercise, and seeking help for depression.



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