What Are the Adrenal Glands | UCLA Endocrine Center

Hi, I'm Dr. James Wu, an Endocrine Surgeon at UCLA. A question we get all the time is what is an endocrine surgeon? Endocrine surgeons focus on parts of your body that make hormones, mostly the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands. Today I'd like to talk to you about what the adrenal glands are and what they do.

What are the adrenal glands and what do they do?

The adrenal glands are small triangular organs located on top of your kidneys, each about the size of an Oreo cookie. Responsible for producing various hormones, these glands actively engage during adrenaline-inducing situations, such as riding a roller coaster. Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, along with norepinephrine, are crucial “fight-or-flight” hormones that facilitate your body's response to perilous circumstances, such as escaping from predators during our evolutionary history.

The adrenal glands also make aldosterone, a hormone that regulates blood pressure by stimulating the kidneys to retain both salt and water. Lastly, the adrenal glands make cortisol, a hormone that is secreted in response to stress. Excess cortisol production, termed Cushing’s syndrome, can cause physical changes like bruising and weight gain, as well as an increased risk of diabetes. Cushing’s syndrome arises most often from medications (glucocorticoids such as prednisone) that are given to treat inflammatory conditions. Cushing’s syndrome may also arise from tumors of the pituitary gland or adrenal glands. One cannot get Cushing’s syndrome from the situational stressors of everyday life, even in extreme cases.

Tumors called adrenal nodules can develop within your adrenal glands. Most people don't feel their adrenal glands or adrenal nodules, as they are positioned deep within the human body. Oftentimes, patients will come to our office with incidentally discovered adrenal masses, that is, lumps or nodules in the adrenal gland that were found on scans performed for other reasons (such as back pain, abdominal pain, or a recent car accident).

When to see us for an adrenal mass or nodule.

Sometimes patients come to see us because the adrenal nodule is making too much of one of the hormones mentioned earlier. If too much adrenaline is produced, this condition is called a pheochromocytoma, which can cause episodes of flushing or headaches and may increase your risk of strokes or heart attacks. An adrenal tumor that overproduces aldosterone leads to high blood pressure and often low blood potassium levels. Left untreated, aldosterone-producing adrenal tumors can cause heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes. Finally, adrenal tumors that secrete excessive cortisol can cause weight gain, easy bruising (patients with Cushing’s syndrome almost always have multiple bruises on their arms and legs that can be seen), and diabetes or prediabetes. It is important to note that Cushing’s syndrome is an extremely rare cause of weight gain/obesity, as most weight gain is related to diet and exercise behaviors.

Key Insights:

  • Endocrine surgeons specialize in treating conditions related to the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands.
  • The adrenal glands produce hormones such as adrenaline, aldosterone, and cortisol, which play key roles in the body's response to stress and maintaining blood pressure.
  • Adrenal nodules are tumors that can develop on the adrenal glands and may require medical attention if they cause hormonal imbalances.
  • Excessive adrenaline production, known as pheochromocytoma, can lead to symptoms like flushing, headaches, and an increased risk of strokes or heart attacks.
  • Overproduction of aldosterone can result in high blood pressure and low blood potassium levels.
  • Excess cortisol production can cause physical changes like bruising and weight gain, as well as an increased risk of diabetes.

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