Which hormones are involved in the pathophysiology of adrenal crisis?

Updated: Feb 14, 2018
  • Author: Lisa Kirkland, MD, FACP, FCCM, MSHA; Chief Editor: George T Griffing, MD  more...
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The adrenal cortex produces 3 steroid hormones: glucocorticoids (cortisol), mineralocorticoids (aldosterone, 11-deoxycorticosterone), and androgens (dehydroepiandrosterone). The androgens are relatively unimportant in adults, and 11-deoxycorticosterone is a fairly weak mineralocorticoid in comparison with aldosterone. The primary hormone of importance in acute adrenal crisis is cortisol; adrenal aldosterone production is relatively minor.

Cortisol enhances gluconeogenesis and provides substrate through proteolysis, protein synthesis inhibition, fatty acid mobilization, and enhanced hepatic amino acid uptake. Cortisol indirectly induces insulin secretion to counterbalance hyperglycemia but also decreases insulin sensitivity. Cortisol exercises a significant anti-inflammatory effect by stabilizing lysosomes, reducing leukocytic responses, and blocking cytokine production. Phagocytic activity is preserved, but cell-mediated immunity is diminished, in situations of cortisol deficiency. Finally, cortisol facilitates free-water clearance, enhances appetite, and suppresses adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) synthesis.

Aldosterone is released in response to angiotensin II stimulation via the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, hyperkalemia, hyponatremia, and dopamine antagonists. Its effect on its primary target organ, the kidney, is to promote reabsorption of sodium and secretion of potassium and hydrogen. The mechanism of action is unclear; an increase in the sodium- and potassium-activated adenosine triphosphatase (Na+/K+ ATPase) enzyme responsible for sodium transport, as well as increased carbonic anhydrase activity, has been suggested. The net effect is to increase intravascular volume. The renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system is unaffected by exogenous glucocorticoids, and ACTH deficiency has a relatively minor effect on aldosterone levels.

Adrenocortical hormone deficiency results in the reverse of these hormonal effects, producing the clinical findings of adrenal crisis.

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