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What causes adrenal gland disorders?

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Adrenal gland disorders can be caused by a problem in another gland, such as the pituitary gland, or when a disease or infection affects one or both of the adrenal glands. Specific disorders can develop when the adrenal glands produce too few or too many hormones, or when too many hormones are introduced from an outside source.1

Cushing’s Syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome occurs when the body is exposed to high levels of the hormone cortisol over a long period of time.

Sometimes Cushing’s syndrome develops when people take certain hormones for asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other inflammatory diseases. The syndrome also can occur when hormones are taken to suppress the immune system so that a patient’s body will not reject a transplanted organ.

Other people develop Cushing’s syndrome because their bodies produce too much cortisol.2 Other causes of Cushing’s syndrome include pituitary adenomas (a type of benign tumor), ectopic adrenocorticotropic hormone syndrome, adrenal tumors, or familial Cushing’s syndrome.3 Cushing’s syndrome due to tumors occurs more commonly in women.

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)

CAH is a group of inherited disorders of the adrenal glands. It affects men and women equally. Both parents must carry the gene in order for a child to be born with CAH. Researchers have identified the location of the gene that causes the most common forms of CAH as chromosome 6.4

Pituitary Tumors

Scientists have not yet discovered what causes pituitary tumors. Most pituitary tumors are not inherited; only a small percentage of cases run in families.5,6

Pheochromocytoma/Paraganglioma

Most of the time, these tumors are "sporadic," meaning why they develop is not associated with any known risk factor or genetic mutation. However, an increasing number of patients—greater than 20%—that have genetic mutations responsible for tumor development.7 In these patients, family members may also be affected.

Addison’s Disease

In all cases of Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol. In most cases, the glands also make too little of the hormone aldosterone.8 This is also termed primary adrenal insufficiency. This disease can be caused by an autoimmune disorder, infection (for example, tuberculosis), or other rare diseases that cause infiltration and thus destruction of the adrenal glands (for example, sarcoidosis or amyloidosis). The most common cause of Addison’s disease in developed countries is autoimmune disorders.

Hyperaldosteronism

There are two causes of hyperaldosteronism. One cause is an excessive growth of normal cells in both adrenal glands. The other cause is a noncancerous tumor in one of the glands.9 There are no known gene mutations associated with this disorder at this time. However, rarely, hyperaldosteronism can run in families.


  1. American Urological Association Foundation. (2011). Adrenal gland disorders. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from http://www.urologyhealth.org/urology/index.cfm?article=89 External Web Site Policy [top]
  2. Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation. (June 2002). Cushing’s fact sheet. (NIH Publication No. 02-3007). Retrieved June 1, 2012, from http://csrf.net/understanding-cushings/fact-sheet/#causes External Web Site Policy [top]
  3. National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2012). Cushing’s syndrome. Retrieved June 21, 2012, from http://endocrine.niddk.nih.gov/pubs/cushings/cushings.aspx [top]
  4. CARES Foundation. (2007). Overview: What is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)? Retrieved June 1, 2012, from http://www.caresfoundation.org/what-is-cah/ External Web Site Policy [top]
  5. Asa, S. L., & Ezzat, S. (2002). The pathogenesis of pituitary tumours. Nature Reviews Cancer, 2, 836-849. [top]
  6. Melmed, S. (2011). Pathogenesis of pituitary tumors. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 7, 257-266. [top]
  7. Ilias, I., & Pacak, K. (2008). A clinical overview of pheochromocytomas/paragangliomas and carcinoid tumors. Nuclear Medicine and Biology, 35, S27-S34 [top]
  8. National Library of Medicine. (2011). Addison’s disease. Retrieved July 20, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001416 [top]
  9. American Urological Association Foundation. (2011). Adrenal gland disorders. Retrieved June 4, 2012, from http://www.urologyhealth.org/urology/index.cfm?article=89 External Web Site Policy [top]

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Last Updated Date: 11/30/2012
Last Reviewed Date: 09/30/2013
Vision National Institutes of Health Home BOND National Institues of Health Home Home Storz Lab: Section on Environmental Gene Regulation Home Machner Lab: Unit on Microbial Pathogenesis Home Division of Intramural Population Health Research Home Bonifacino Lab: Section on Intracellular Protein Trafficking Home Lilly Lab: Section on Gamete Development Home Lippincott-Schwartz Lab: Section on Organelle Biology