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Adrenal glands

4-minute read

Key facts

  • Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys.
  • Your adrenal glands make many hormones, including cortisol, aldosterone and adrenaline.
  • Some conditions affecting the adrenals glands include Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease — these are uncommon.

What are the adrenal glands?

Your adrenal glands are 2 triangle-shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They form part of your body’s hormonal system.

Illustration of the endocrine glands.
The endocrine (hormone) system.

What do my adrenal glands do?

Your adrenal glands make hormones that are involved in:

  • controlling your blood pressure
  • your metabolism
  • your body’s response to stress

What hormones do my adrenal glands make?

Your adrenal glands makes many hormones, including:

Adrenaline is involved in your body’s stress (or ‘fight or flight’) response. It:

  • makes your heart beat faster
  • sends more blood to your muscles
  • causes other changes in your body that prepare it for fight or flight

Cortisol does many things, including:

  • influencing your metabolism (how your body uses energy)
  • changing your blood sugar levels
  • lowering inflammation
  • helping to control your blood pressure and heart rate

Aldosterone also plays a part in controlling blood pressure and helps keep your salt and water levels balanced.

The adrenal glands also make a hormone called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and small amounts of testosterone.

Illustration of the endocrine glands.

What medical conditions are related to my adrenal glands?

Adrenal gland disorders are rare.

Some conditions that can affect the adrenal glands are:

  • Cushing syndrome
  • Addison’s disease
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
  • Conn syndrome

Cushing syndrome

Cushing syndrome is when your body has too much cortisol. This causes a range of symptoms, such as:

  • weight gain
  • a puffy or rounded face
  • thin skin
  • bruising
  • high blood sugar levels or diabetes

Cushing syndrome is usually caused by taking corticosteroid medicine for a long time. It can sometimes be caused by a tumour in your adrenal gland.

Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease is a rare condition where your adrenal glands don’t make enough cortisol and aldosterone. It’s also called primary adrenal insufficiency.

Symptoms of Addison’s disease are:

  • poor appetite
  • salt cravings
  • darkening of your skin
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • muscle pain and/or weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling lightheaded
  • irregular menstruation (periods)

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia is an inherited condition that is usually found in babies and children.

Conn syndrome

Conn syndrome is the most common cause of 'primary aldosteronism' — where there is too much of the hormone aldosterone. In Conn syndrome, the excess aldosterone is made by a benign (non-cancerous) tumour in one of the adrenal glands.

The main treatment for Conn syndrome is surgery to remove your affected adrenal gland.

Resources and support

Hormones Australia offers support and resources about the adrenal glands and conditions that affect them.

To learn more about Addison’s disease and adrenal insufficiency, visit the Australian Addison’s Disease Association.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2023

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