Addison’s disease (also known as primary adrenal insufficiency or hypoadrenalism) is a rare disorder of the adrenal glands. It affects the production of two hormones – Cortisol and Aldosterone – which help to regulate blood pressure.
The adrenal glands are two small, pyramid-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys.
Each gland has inner and outer layers, each of which has a separate function:
In Addison’s disease, usually the cortex of the both adrenal glands has been destroyed. This disrupts the production of two steroid hormones, called cortisol and aldosterone.
Cortisol is released in stressful situations and helps to maintain your energy levels, your blood sugar levels and carbohydrate metabolism. Aldosterone maintains the balance of salt and water in your body, which helps to control blood pressure.
When the adrenal glands don't produce enough cortisol and aldosterone, symptoms of Addison's disease can appear.
Addison’s disease is usually caused by an autoimmune condition, where the immune system produces antibodies that attack the body. This can damage the adrenal glands and disrupt the production of cortisol and aldosterone.
There is also research to show that people with certain genes may be more likely to develop Addison’s disease, especially those who already have another autoimmune condition, such as diabetes. Other potential causes include conditions that might damage the adrenal glands, such as tuberculosis (TB).
Addison's disease is rare. It is estimated that it affects around 14 people in every 100,000 in the UK. It can affect anyone of any age and both men and women equally.
Addison’s disease is treated with medication to replace the missing hormones. You will need to take medication for the rest of your life.
The medication is reasonably effective at controlling the symptoms, although there may be times, particularly when you are feeling stressed or under pressure, where you experience tiredness, lethargy (a lack of energy), depression and, in women, a reduced libido (sex drive).
Due to advancements in treatment, the average life expectancy for people with Addison’s disease has improved significantly over the last 50 years and is now similar to the population at large. However, people with Addison’s disease do have a higher than average risk of developing serious conditions in later life, such as heart disease and cancer.
If Addison’s disease if left untreated and your levels of cortisol reach dangerously low levels, it can lead to complications such as hypoglycaemia or a situation known as an adrenal crisis.
An adrenal crisis is a medical emergency. If left untreated it can be fatal. If you or someone you know has Addison’s disease and is experiencing severe symptoms, dial 999 to request an ambulance.