The adrenal glands, which form part of our endocrine system, are situated just above each kidney. The adrenal glands produce hormones which affect every organ and tissue in our bodies.

The adrenal glands consist of the medulla (interior) and cortex (outer layer). The medulla produces adrenaline-like hormones, while the cortex secretes corticosteroids, including glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids and sex hormones. Glucocorticoids, which includes cortisol:
  • Influence how the body converts food into energy
  • Are involved in our immune system's inflammatory response
  • Help the body respond to stress.
Mineralocorticoids, which includes aldosterone: An autoimmune condition

Addison's disease occurs when the outer layer of the adrenal glands (adrenal cortex) is faulty or damaged. This is mainly caused by our immune system attacking it, as if it were harmful bacteria or viruses. In other words, Addison's disease may be the result of an autoimmune condition.

Our immune system is our body's defense mechanism against disease, toxins or infection. When we are ill our immune system produces antibodies which attack whatever is causing us to be ill. Some people's immune system may start attacking healthy tissue and organs - this is called an autoimmune condition/disorder.

Our adrenal glands stop producing enough steroid hormones (cortisol and aldosterone) when 90% of the adrenal cortex is destroyed. As soon as levels of these hormones start to drop, Addison's disease signs and symptoms begin to emerge.

According to The National Health Service (NHS), UK, approximately 80% of all cases of Addison's disease are caused by autoimmune conditions in industrialized nations (rich countries). Addison's disease which is the result of an autoimmune condition is sometimes known as Autoimmune Addison's Disease).

Recent studies have demonstrated that some people with specific genes are more likely to have an autoimmune condition.

The NHS states that up to 50% of patients with autoimmune Addison's disease have at least one other autoimmune disorder, such as hypothyroidism, type 1 diabetes, or vitiligo.

Tuberculosis (TB) - a bacterial infection which affects the lungs and can spread to other parts of the body. Some patients with TB have a higher risk of damage to the adrenal glands, making them more likely to develop Addison's disease.

Addison's disease may also be caused by:
  • A genetic defect in which the adrenal glands do not develop properly
  • A hemorrhage
  • Adrenalectomy - the surgical removal of the adrenal glands
  • Amyloidosis
  • An infection
  • Cancer.
Written by Christian Nordqvist