Cortisol plays a role in regulating your blood pressure, heart function, digestion, and a lot else, Hatipoglu explains. So if your adrenal glands poop out and your cortisol levels plummet, a lot can go wrong.
Here’s what you need to know about this condition—starting with its craziest symptom.
Hatipoglu once met with a patient who was suffering from fatigue, belly pain, and mild weight loss. “Her doctors thought she was depressed,” Hatipoglu recalls. Toward the end of their appointment, Hatipoglu noticed the woman’s teeth looked very white. She realized they looked white because the woman’s skin was tan. “I asked her if she’d been on vacation, and she said she hadn’t been in the sun, and that’s when I knew,” Hatipoglu says. Some Addison’s-related hormone shifts can make the skin appear darker, almost like a tan. “Addison’s is the only disease I know of that can cause darkening of the skin,” she says.
Along with darker skin, other symptoms of Addison’s include nausea, mild-to-severe abdominal or bone pain, weight loss, a lack of energy, forgetfulness, and low blood pressure, Hatipoglu says. Of course, those same symptoms are linked to many other health issues, from thyroid disease to cancer. “It’s very easy to confuse with other disorders, so many people see a lot of doctors before finally receiving a proper diagnosis,” she says. (One exception: For young women who develop Addison’s disease, loss of body hair is a warning sign, Hatipoglu adds.)
Doctors also miss or misinterpret the symptoms of Addison’s disease because it’s very uncommon. “I’m not sure if it’s quite one in a million, but it’s very rare,” Hatipoglu says. “It makes sense that many doctors don’t think of it when examining a patient with these symptoms.”
A lot of online resources mention Addison’s disease and adrenal insufficiency as though they were two names for the same condition. They’re not the same, Hatipoglu says. While a thyroid issue or some other hormone-related imbalance could mess with your adrenal function, Addison’s disease refers to an autoimmune disorder in which your body attacks and destroys your adrenal glands.
While it takes months or even years for some Addison’s sufferers to lose all hormone production in their adrenal glands, for others the disease can knock out those organs very rapidly—in a matter of days, Hatipoglu says. “That’s very uncommon,” she adds. But compared to other less-severe adrenal issues, the symptoms of Addison’s tend to present more dramatically, she explains. That means a sufferer is likely to experience several of the symptoms mentioned above, and those symptoms will continue to grow worse as time passes.
Addison’s is not picky. It can strike at any age, regardless of your sex or ethnicity, Hatipoglu says. While there’s some evidence that genetics may play a role—if other people in your family have the disease or some other endocrine disorder, that may increase your risk—there’s really no way to predict who will develop the disease, she adds.
If your doctor suspects Addison’s, he or she will conduct a blood test to check for your levels of cortisol and another hormone called ACTH. “Usually the results of that screening are very clear,” Hatipoglu says. If they’re not, some follow-up tests can determine for sure if you have the condition.
Those treatments involve taking oral hormone supplements. In extreme cases, if the patient’s body does not properly absorb those supplements, injections may be necessary, Hatipoglu explains. “But patients live a normal life,” she adds. “It’s a treatable disease, and the treatments are effective.”