The adrenal glands are positioned above the kidneys in the human body, and they produce hormones that are necessary for the response to a stressful or emergency situation, namely cortisol and aldosterone. In certain cases, the adrenal glands can stop functioning properly and not produce enough of these hormones, such as in autoimmune disease, tumors, trauma, infection, or for unknown reasons. The lack of these hormones causes a condition known as adrenal insufficiency, and adrenal insufficiency symptoms can involve anything from gastrointestinal problems to psychological issues to life-threateningly low blood pressure.
This rare and potentially very serious disorder occurs in less than one-half of a percent of the population. The incidence of this condition is highest in middle-aged females. Adrenal insufficiency can occur in people of all ages, however, including children.
Due to the fact that adrenal insufficiency symptoms tend to begin slowly, many people do not recognize this disorder until they are very sick. Early adrenal insufficiency symptoms can be similar to many other conditions, and usually involve general tiredness, decreased stamina, and a need for extra sleep. A tendency to feel cold is also common.
Gastrointestinal problems are common adrenal insufficiency symptoms. A person with this disorder will usually experience nausea, diarrhea or constipation, and may lose interest in most foods. As the disease progresses, weight loss is likely. Psychological symptoms may also occur, and these may include general anxiety, depression, and a frequent feeling of disorientation or foggy thinking.
The adrenal glands help regulate electrolyte balance and blood sugar in the body, and therefore adrenal insufficiency symptoms often involve disruption of both of these processes. Disruption of electrolyte balance can cause strong cravings for salt, whereas poor blood sugar regulation can result in low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. Blood pressure may become dangerously low, causing dizziness and possible fainting upon standing from a seated position.
Despite the onset of all of these symptoms, the key symptom that usually results in diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency is abnormal skin pigmentation. This often appears as tanning, or bronzing, and usually occurs in skin creases like the inside of the elbow joint or in the hands. In some cases, it can occur all over the body.
Many alternative medicine practitioners propose that mild cases of adrenal insufficiency are actually quite common, especially among women of middle age. This is thought to be due to chronic stress leading to burnout of the adrenal glands. The adrenal insufficiency symptoms associated with burnout are thought to be similar to true adrenal insufficiency, but are milder.