Secondary Addison’s disease happens when the pituitary gland doesn’t tell the adrenal gland to make enough hormones. The adrenal glands are located at the top of each kidney and make certain steroid hormones. Two of these hormones are cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels, how the body makes energy and how it responds to stress and injury. Aldosterone helps maintain blood pressure by balancing potassium, salt and fluid levels. When there isn’t enough of these two hormones, symptoms may include muscle weakness, weight loss, change in skin color, nausea, depression, and low blood pressure. Testosterone and progesterone levels (both sex hormones) may also be low causing loss of pubic and underarm hair. The symptoms can begin anytime during childhood or adulthood.
In secondary Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands can actually function fine. The pituitary gland tells the adrenal gland how much cortisol and aldosterone to release. The pituitary gland is a pea sized gland at the base of the brain. It talks to the adrenal gland by sending the hormone adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). If there is not enough ACTH sent to the adrenal gland, not enough cortisol and aldosterone will be released. A tumor or infection can cause the pituitary gland to not work well. Another cause of secondary Addison’s disease is long term use of corticosteroids (a steroid medication)
A diagnosis of secondary Addison’s disease can be confirmed by testing cortisol and aldosterone blood levels. The symptoms of Addison’s disease can be effectively treated with steroids and medication. Other diagnostic tests and treatments will likely be necessary to treat or cure the cause of the pituitary gland dysfunction. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with secondary Addison’s disease, talk with your doctor and specialists about the most current treatment options. Support groups are also a good source of information.