What Are Adrenal Glands?

Human kidneys and adrenal glands, illustration

Kateryna Kon / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

What Are Adrenal Glands?

Adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands or "kidney hats") are triangle-shaped endocrine glands located on top of the kidneys. These glands release hormones that can have an effect on a wide variety of body processes, including regulating metabolism, helping the immune system, and managing stress responses.

The word "adrenal" comes from the Latin ad meaning "near" and renes meaning "kidney."

The Anatomy

The adrenal glands are part of the body's endocrine system, which is composed of a system of glands that release chemical messengers called hormones. These hormones are carried through the bloodstream to specific tissues and organs.

An adrenal gland is made of two main parts:

  • The outer part of the adrenal glands is known as the cortex and releases hormones including androgens (male sex hormones) and cortisol. The hormones released by the outer part of the adrenal glands help control things like the immune system and metabolism.
  • The inner area of the adrenal glands is known as the medulla and produces the hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine. The hormones released by the inner cortex control the body's stress response and is often referred to as the fight or flight response.

How the Adrenal Glands Work

The adrenal glands release hormones that regulate growth, the physical and chemical process of the metabolism, and sexual development and function directly into the bloodstream. The key hormones produced by the adrenal glands include:

  • Cortisol
  • Aldosterone
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
  • Epinephrine
  • Norepinephrine

Cortisol

Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid hormone that plays a role in a variety of body functions. Often called “the stress hormone,” cortisol is best known for its role in the body’s stress response and is also involved in the regulation of the following functions and more:

  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Glucose metabolism
  • Immune function
  • Inflammatory response
  • Insulin release

Aldosterone

Aldosterone plays an important role in regulating blood pressure as well as the body’s sodium and potassium levels. It sends signals to the kidneys to absorb sodium and release potassium through urine, regulating both blood pressure and the number of electrolytes in the body.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

Often called the “super hormone” or the “fountain of youth hormone,” DHEA is a naturally occurring steroid hormone that converts into a range of hormones, including androgens and estrogens, the male and female sex hormones.

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine

The hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) are released during the body's stress response. They help to cause that "adrenaline rush" you have probably felt when you're scared.

Adrenal Gland Disorders

When the adrenal glands produce too much or too little of a hormone, illness can result. If there's a disorder in the pituitary gland, which signals to the adrenal glands when to make certain hormones like cortisol and aldosterone, the adrenal glands can also be impaired. 

Different types of adrenal disorders include:

  • Addison’s disease develops when the adrenal glands can no longer adequately supply the body with cortisol and aldosterone.
  • Adrenal fatigue is a controversial syndrome of low cortisol production due to chronic stress.
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is an inherited group of diseases in which the body cannot make adequate amounts of key enzymes, often including cortisol and aldosterone.
  • Cushing’s syndrome occurs either because cortisol is being overproduced by the body or from the use of drugs that contain cortisol (like prednisone).
  • Pheochromocytoma is a rare type of tumor found in the adrenal glands that can secrete large amounts of certain hormones produced by the adrenal glands (catecholamines).

Symptoms

The symptoms of adrenal gland disorder will depend on the type of disorder you have and can range from mild to severe.

Addison's Disease

Common signs and symptoms of Addison’s disease include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Blurry vision
  • Decreased appetite
  • Depression
  • Dizziness when rising (postural hypotension)
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hyperpigmentation (skin pigmentation)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Low libido
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pins-and-needles sensations (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Salt craving
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • Weight loss

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia

Common signs and symptoms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia include:

  • Fertility problems
  • Hirsutism 
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Premature development of pubic hair
  • Severe acne (on the face and/or body)

Cushing’s Syndrome

Common signs and symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome include:

  • Acne
  • Buffalo hump (extra fat deposited on the back of the neck)
  • Elevated glucose levels
  • Excessive hair growth (Hirsutism)
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased urination
  • Menstrual changes
  • Obesity around the trunk
  • Psychological symptoms such as mood instability, depression, anxiety, panic attacks
  • Round, full face (known as moon face)
  • Skin changes
  • Stretch marks on the abdomen, arms, breasts, buttocks, and thighs
  • Weakness

Pheochromocytoma

Common signs and symptoms of pheochromocytoma include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Excessive sweating
  • Excessive thirst/urination
  • Headache
  • High blood sugar
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis

Typically, your healthcare provider will assess the function of your adrenal gland by taking a blood and/or urine sample and performing one of the following tests:

  • Aldosterone test to diagnose adrenal fatigue or insufficiency, or a possible tumor in the adrenal glands
  • Cortisol test to pinpoint Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease (when the adrenal glands make too much and too little cortisol, respectively)
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) test to diagnosis adrenal tumors or cancer, or any sex hormone imbalances that may be affecting a person's development

Treatment

There are a variety of treatments for adrenal gland disorder, depending on your specific diagnosis, including:

  • Medication to control the overproduction of the hormones
  • Hormone replacement therapy to replace the cortisol and/or aldosterone the body is lacking
  • Surgery to remove one or both adrenal glands, or to remove the tumor in the case of pheochromocytoma
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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Adrenal Diseases Foundation. Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)

  3. National Institutes of Health. Cushing's Syndrome: What is Cushing’s syndrome? National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). April 2012.

  4. National Institutes of Health. What are common symptoms of pheochromocytoma?

    National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. December 2016.

  5. National Institutes of Health. What are the treatments for adrenal gland disorders? National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. December 2016.