Causes of Addison’s disease: Adrenal gland disruption, autoimmune conditions, and others

Addison’s disease, or adrenal insufficiency, occurs when the outer layer of the adrenal glands are damaged.

Most commonly, it is caused by the immune system attacking the glands as if they were harmful bacteria or viruses. However, it can be caused in other ways.

The adrenal glands, which form part of the endocrine system, are situated just above each kidney. They produce hormones that affect every organ and tissue in our bodies. The adrenal glands consist of 2 layers, the medulla (interior) and cortex (outer layer). The medulla produces adrenaline-like hormones, while the cortex secretes corticosteroids.

Fast facts on Addison’s disease

Here are some key points about Addison’s disease. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Addison’s disease is caused by disruptions to the adrenal glands, preventing normal secretions of corticosteroids.

Disruptions may be caused by immune system response, genetic defects, or other conditions, including cancer.

The most common cause is an immune system response.

Adrenal gland disruption

Person holding a model of a kidney against their body.
The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. They produce hormones, but when this process is disrupted, it can cause Addison’s disease.

Disruptions to the hormone production of the adrenal glands cause Addison’s disease. This disruption can be caused by a number of factors, including an autoimmune disorder, tuberculosis, or a genetic defect. However, approximately 80 percent of cases of Addison’s disease in industrialized nations are caused by autoimmune conditions.

The adrenal glands stop producing enough steroid hormones (cortisol and aldosterone) when 90 percent 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.

Vitiligo on the skin of a caucasian man.
Some autoimmune disorders, such as vitiligo,
increase the risk of Addison’s disease.

The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism against disease, toxins, or infection. When a person is ill, the immune system produces antibodies, which attack whatever is causing them to be ill.

Some people’s immune systems may start attacking healthy tissue and organs – this is called an autoimmune disorder.

In the case of Addison’s disease, the immune system attacks cells of the adrenal glands,
slowly reducing how well they can function.

Addison’s disease that is the result of an autoimmune condition is also known as autoimmune Addison’s disease.

Genetic causes of Autoimmune Addison’s Disease

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

Although the genetics of Addison’s are not fully understood, the genes most commonly associated with the condition belong to a family of genes called the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) complex. This complex helps the immune system distinguish between the body’s own proteins and those made by viruses and bacteria.

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