10 Symptoms of Addison's Disease

By albert
Reviewed: Dr. Gromatzky
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Addison’s disease is a medical condition that occurs when the body’s endocrine system does not produce sufficient adrenal hormones, especially cortisol and aldosterone. Insufficient adrenal hormone production affects many functions in the body which leads to Addison’s disease, or primary adrenal insufficiency.

Most cases of adrenal insufficiency result from an autoimmune disorder known as adrenalitis that causes the immune system to attack and damage cells of the adrenal glands. Adrenal insufficiency may also develop due to other diseases and infections like tuberculosis, cancers, damage to the adrenal glands, fungal infections and HIV.

Addison’s disease is rare; affecting 1 to 6 people per 100,000. And while it is impossible to clear it from the body, it is possible to manage the disease through hormone replacement. The following includes the top 10 Addison’s disease symptoms to watch out for:

Symptom #1: Fatigue

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of Addison’s disease. This is understandable considering that adrenal hormones have a role in energy metabolism. This means that when the adrenal glands don’t produce adequate amounts of adrenal hormones, the body is unable to produce all the energy that it requires for its various functions.

Consequently, some body functions slow down and you might not feel as energetic as usual. When this goes on for some time, it presents as chronic tiredness, lack of energy and fatigue. Adrenal hormones are also involved in the regulation of electrolyte and body fluid balance; factors that affect blood pressure. Without adequate adrenal hormone production, poor control of sodium-potassium and body fluid balance lead to low blood pressure compounding the feeling of weakness.

Addison's Disease

Symptom #2: Nausea, Vomiting And Diarrhea

Abdominal issues are common symptoms of Addison’s disease that occur in most of patients of the disease. It is not well understood how adrenal insufficiency causes these abdominal problems. However, this may occur because some adrenal hormones have a role in the digestion and absorption of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

When these hormones are absent or present in low quantities, there may be issues in the digestion and absorption of food. Additionally, because the hormones that stimulate appetite may not function properly, the stomach may not be adequately prepared for the processing of food. In the case of chronic nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain, consider requesting a test for Addison’s disease.

Symptom #3: Dizziness

If you get dizzy or have a fainting feeling especially upon standing up, it could be a symptom of Addison’s disease. Dizziness is a result of low blood pressure, which develops due to poor control of electrolytes and fluid in the body. This can cause the body to lose too much fluid, reducing the volume of blood and ultimately leading to low blood pressure.

Additionally, adrenal insufficiency affects energy metabolism so that the energy available is not adequate for all body functions including brain function. The combination of low blood pressure and low blood glucose means that the brain is starved of energy producing glucose and the little available does not get to the brain as needed. This interferes with proper and timely brain function which leads to dizziness or fainting.

Addison's Disease

Symptom #4: Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation or darkening of patches of skin can signify the presence of Addison’s disease. The parts of skin that are most prone to discoloration are those that are usually exposed to the sun which include the face, forearms and the elbows. Hyperpigmentation can also affect skin in other parts of the body such as the gums, nail beds and the labia.

Hyperpigmentation occurs due to overproduction of melanin, the pigmentation that gives skin color and is responsible for a tan when you spend a lot of time in the sun. Dark skin patches are some of the first symptoms of Addison’s disease that a doctor will notice.

Symptom #5: Salt Cravings

One of the roles of the adrenal hormone known as aldosterone is to regulate electrolytes in the body. These electrolytes include sodium and potassium, which are critical for healthy blood pressure. In the absence of adequate aldosterone hormones, more sodium may be excreted in urine. The excessive loss of sodium deprives the body of this important electrolyte and may lead to low blood pressure besides other effects.

The craving for salt is the body’s way of pushing you to replace the sodium lost through urine. If you experience a craving for salt, don’t just add more salt to your food. Consult your doctor and request for tests to determine your adrenal sufficiency.

Addison's Disease

Symptom #6: Loss of Weight

In addition to fatigue, Addison’s disease can lead to a steady loss of weight. This can be attributed to several factors, one of which is poor appetite. The body requires a certain amount of nutrients to function and to maintain a healthy weight. If your body uses more nutrients than you get from the food that you eat, it may have to get the balance from its tissues.

Low production of cortisol hormones adversely affect the functions of leptin and ghrelin hormones, which have a role in appetite stimulation. This means that these hormones do not stimulate hunger or the appetite necessary to cause you to eat. You may end up eating less than your body needs. Sustained poor appetite leads to loss of weight.

Symptom #7: Loss Of Body Hair

Adrenal insufficiency associated with Addison’s disease can lead to hair loss. This is more likely to happen in women. Androgen hormones including DHEA control hair growth. When these hormones are produced in small quantities as a result of adrenal insufficiency, they are inadequate to stimulate normal growth of body hair.

The reason why women are more prone to lose hair due to Addison’s disease is because in women androgen hormones are only produced by the adrenal glands. In men, Addison’s disease is unlikely to cause hair loss because testosterone, another androgen hormone produced in the testes, stimulates hair growth among other functions.

Addison's Disease

Symptom #8: Depression

While different conditions can lead to depression, it may also signify the presence of Addison’s disease. Still, on its own, depression cannot be relied on as an Addison’s disease symptom. However, when it occurs together with other symptoms like hyperpigmentation, it would be necessary to have tests conducted to determine the levels of adrenal hormones as well as sodium and potassium.

It is not clear how adrenal insufficiency causes depression. However, it is theorized that electrolytic and metabolic problems that arise as a result of low adrenal hormone production may cause some brain dysfunctions. These dysfunctions include over-excitability of neurons and heightened response to sensory input, which may lead to depression.

Symptom #9: Increased Heart Rate

A rapid heartbeat accompanied by other signs on this list may be a sign of Addison’s disease. As mentioned elsewhere, adrenal insufficiency leads to low blood pressure among other symptoms. But the body still needs glucose and oxygen to produce energy necessary for its many functions.

Low blood pressure means that there is less blood to transport oxygen and glucose. To compensate for this, the heart beats faster to make the available blood circulate faster throughout the body. Additionally, you may have breathing difficulties and extreme tiredness. In the case that you experience increased heartbeat besides the other symptoms, visit a medical facility for tests.

Symptom #10: Muscular Pain And Weakness

There are many conditions that can present with muscle pain and weakness. But these can also be symptoms of adrenal insufficiency. The muscle symptoms may be chronic or intermittent and affect different muscles of the body including the shoulders, hips, arms and legs. The symptoms may also affect different muscles at different times. In some instances, there may also be muscle stiffness making it difficult to move or use the affected muscles.

When muscular weakness and pain occur in addition to other signs like hyperpigmentation, loss of weight and fatigue, you would think it is easy to diagnose a case of Addison’s disease. However, because Addison’s disease is rare and these are also symptoms of other diseases, Addison’s disease can remain undiagnosed for months or years. If you notice some of these symptoms, ask to undergo testing for adrenal sufficiency.

Addison's Disease

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