Addison’s Disease: Primary Adrenal Deficiency

addison's disease

So, you’ve noticed a slow and steady increase in fatigue. Maybe you didn’t connect them, but you’ve had a few other symptoms too. Like a loss in appetite and probably weight loss. Perhaps you even have low blood pressure. You likely haven’t even realized that was the case, but you can definitely relate to getting lightheaded when you stand up. Sometimes you get sick to your stomach and may even vomit or have diarrhea. Then there are the strange muscle spasms. And don’t forget the depression and irritability. And how are those salt cravings going for you? Do you feel pretty sick but also have an inexplicable tan?

If you’re dealing with these symptoms, then you probably fall into one of two camps. A.) You never thought about all of these symptoms being related. Or B.) You have fibromyalgia or an autoimmune disease that makes it difficult to separate out symptoms, so you just lumped them all in together under one umbrella condition. Either way, you need to get to your physician because you could very well be dealing with Addison’s disease. Monitored treatment is important, especially to prevent a life-threatening Addisonian crisis.

Adrenal Insufficiency

Addison’s is allegedly a rare condition. Only about one in 100,000 get it, including John F. Kennedy of all people. However, the National Adrenal Diseases Foundation says that there are no accurate statistics on this disease in the U.S. and that the numbers are likely underestimated. Addison’s disease is also referred to as primary adrenal insufficiency. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an autoimmune response. You see, the adrenal glands produce various hormones, including adrenaline and steroids like cortisol. But with Addison’s, the adrenals fail to produce enough cortisol or, in some cases, aldosterone. And what happens when these get out of whack?

The experts tell us, “Cortisol’s most important function is to help the body respond to stress. It also helps regulate your body’s use of protein, carbohydrates, and fat; helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function; and controls inflammation. Aldosterone helps your kidneys regulate the amount of salt and water in your body — the main way you regulate blood volume and keep your blood pressure under control. When aldosterone levels drop too low, your kidneys cannot keep your salt and water levels in balance. This makes your blood pressure drop.”

The Mayo Clinic explains that “Addison’s disease symptoms usually develop slowly, often over several months, and may include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weight loss and decreased appetite
  • Darkening of your skin (hyperpigmentation)
  • Low blood pressure, even fainting
  • Salt craving
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle or joint pains
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Body hair loss or sexual dysfunction in women

Addisonian Crisis

One of the difficulties in diagnosing Addison’s is just how slowly it develops. The symptoms are slow and progressive. You may associate them with aging or some other condition. Or you may just ignore them all together. Suddenly, you are struck with the flu, get into a car accident, or experience some kind of intense emotional or physical trauma like surgery. Your adrenals are supposed to be working for you during these times, but with Addison’s disease they have been slowly failing. Now that you’re in an emergency situation, they aren’t helping and you quickly find yourself in an “Addisonian crisis.”

The Mayo Clinic explains that this crisis includes low blood pressure, low blood sugar, and high potassium levels. You will require immediate medical care that usually includes intravenous injections of:

  • Hydrocortisone
  • Saline solution
  • Sugar (dextrose)

So, if you have Addison’s and are about to have surgery or if you are pregnant, it is imperative that you seek treatment ahead of time to avoid a crisis situation. Furthermore, anyone with Addison’s should always wear some sort of awareness piece, such as a bracelet or necklace, to alert emergency personnel.

Treatment

Since your body isn’t producing the necessary volume of hormones to maintain proper life functions, all treatment options for Addison’s will involve hormone replacement or substitution therapy. These usually involve oral corticosteroids or corticosteroids injections. But they have to be adjusted for your individual size and any co-existing medical conditions.

You may wish to pursue alternative treatment methods, such as through Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This is my personal favorite when it comes to medicine. However, Addison’s is an autoimmune disease with many complications. If you decide to go this route, I cannot encourage you enough to do your research in order to find a highly qualified and reputable acupuncturist. Optimally, they will find the energy patterns specific to your body that are the cause. But the greater likelihood is that they will merely find a “branch” of the problem and treat that. Addison’s is tricky business and nothing to mess around with. So, just be extra diligent in finding a well-established TCM practitioner.

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