The adrenal glands, as the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) explains, are small glands that are located on top of the kidneys. These glands produce hormones called corticosteroids that affect many of the body's functions. Corticosteroids are involved in the body's reaction to and management of stress, and also suppresses inflammation throughout the body. The hormones also play a role in how the body processes nutrients such as fats and proteins. When the adrenal glands produce too many hormones, they are classified as "overactive," a condition that is also called Cushing's syndrome. Overactivity can be the result of tumours that grow on the adrenal or pituitary glands or from other medical conditions. The signs and symptoms of overactive adrenal glands vary by the individual, and by the extent to which the glands are malfunctioning.
A change in your body's shape can be a sign that you have Cushing's syndrome. This progression can be slow and involve many different body parts. Symptoms include the development of a very round face--the "moon face" that is sometimes described when people take synthetic steroid medications--and fatty tissue that collects in the neck area. People with adrenal dysfunction of this kind may gain weight that settles mostly in the upper trunk area (called central obesity). At the same time as this ballooning of the upper body, the limbs may actually thin out significantly.
Certain areas of your body may become more fragile in a response to Cushing's syndrome. These symptoms can vary and you may not experience all of them. You may feel very tired and weak, both in your bones and muscles. Fragile skin that easily bruises is a symptom of overactive adrenal glands and can occur with a thinning of the skin, making you more susceptible to infections and sores. Stretch marks may develop on your stomach, limbs and buttocks, and can be an "angry" red or purple in colour.
Reproductive System Symptoms
The adrenal glands secrete hormones and any dysfunction in this area can affect the reproductive systems and sexual life of both genders. Women may no longer menstruate if they are suffering from Cushing's syndrome, or if they do menstruate, their periods may be extremely irregular. Due to the abnormal levels of hormones produced by their bodies, some women may grow more hair on their faces and legs. Men may experience a drop in libido and may discover a decrease in fertility if they are actively trying to start a family. In some cases, men may become impotent as a result of excess corticosteroids running through their bodies.
Psychological symptoms may also present themselves in patients who have excessive adrenal activity. Emotions such as depression, anxiety and irritability are common in people with Cushing's syndrome. These symptoms can be the result of the hormonal imbalance that you are experiencing, as well as the confusion and fear you may feel about having a potentially serious medical condition. Once treatment is underway and your hormone levels return to normal, you may feel a drop in the adverse reactions and a sense of peace. Ask your doctor to refer you to a support group if you feel that talking about your illness may make you feel better.
Medical Test and Signs
A range of diagnostic testing will show signs of overactive adrenal glands, and will be ordered by your physician upon a physical exam. Urine testing, usually done for 24 consecutive hours, is used to determine if corticosteroid levels are elevated. MRIs and X-rays will show abnormalities of the adrenal or pituitary glands themselves, such as growths on the glands, and are an important key to diagnosis. Other tests may be done to stimulate hormone production, so that doctors can tell whether the overactivity is coming from the adrenal or pituitary glands.