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What Is Adrenal Suppression?

Secondary cases of adrenal suppression are caused by disorders of the hypothalamus.
An adrenal gland on top of a kidney.
Patients with low levels of adrenal hormones may experience depression and irritability.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2014
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Adrenal suppression is a decline in function of the adrenal glands, leading to decreased levels of adrenal hormones like aldosterone and cortisol in the body. Deficiencies in these hormones can cause a variety of symptoms and can be a medical emergency when hormone levels drop suddenly. Treatments for adrenal suppression include identifying and treating the cause, as well as providing supplemental hormones to stabilize the patient. An endocrinologist, a physician who specializes in disorders involving hormones, may supervise treatment.

The adrenal glands are located just above the kidneys. In cases of primary adrenal suppression, the patient develops low hormone levels because of a problem with the glands themselves, such as cancer, trauma, or autoimmune disease. Secondary cases of adrenal suppression are caused by disorders of the hypothalamus or pituitary gland, leading to alterations in the levels of hormones used to control adrenal function.

Patients with low levels of adrenal hormones can crave salt and experience symptoms like nausea, darkening skin, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, weight loss, irritability, depression, and muscle pain. Blood testing can identify low hormone levels and additional medical tests may be used to learn more about the patient's endocrine system to pinpoint the source of the problem. Patient history is also important, as things like a history of using certain medications or infection with particular diseases can increase susceptibility to adrenal suppression.

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Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Addison's disease, and Cushing's disease are all linked to adrenal suppression, as is the prolonged use of steroid hormones. In some cases, a patient can enter adrenal crisis, a medical emergency characterized by critically low levels of cortisol. Patients in crisis need immediate emergency medical attention so they can be stabilized and treated.

If a doctor knows a patient is at risk of adrenal suppression, the doctor may recommend periodic exams to identify early warning signs. These exams can include bloodwork and other diagnostic workups to check on adrenal health. If signs of complications are identified, treatment can be provided promptly, before a patient experiences serious health problems.

In other cases, a patient may not have known risks for adrenal suppression and the change in hormone levels could come as a surprise. People who experience symptoms suggestive of an ongoing medical problem should seek medical attention so they can be evaluated, diagnosed, and treated, if necessary. Doctors prefer to see patients who don't need attention rather than see patients too late, and patients should not be shy about expressing concerns if they are experiencing worrying symptoms.

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