Adrenal 101

The adrenal glands also known as the suprarenal glands. Supra meaning above, and renal meaning kidneys. So these glands are situated on top of the kidneys. These are endocrine glands that produce a variety of hormones, but most notable adrenaline, and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol. Each gland has an outer cortex which is divided into three different zones and an inner medulla. The three zones of the cortex are the zone glomerulosa, zone fasciculate, and zone reticularis.

This article will go briefly touch on the structure of the adrenal gland, including each zone of the cortex. Then it will dive into the function of the adrenal gland and the hormones it produces along with their specific cellular target. Finally the article will conclude with an overview of adrenal insufficiency and cortisol overproduction and diseases that illustrate those two conditions.

Structure

adrenal gland sections

As mentioned earlier, the gland is composed of an outer cortex, and an inner medulla. The outer cortex can be further divided into three zones that each have a specific function.

Zona Fasciculata

The zona fasciculata sits between the other two zones (zona glomerulosa, and zona reticularis) and consists of cells responsible for producing glucocorticoids such as cortisol. Its the largest of the three zones consisting of about 80% of the space in the cortex.

Zona Glomerulosa

The zona glomerulosa is the outermost zone of the adrenal cortex. The cells that are situated in this zone are responsible for the production of mineralocorticoids such as aldosterone. Aldosterone is an important regulator of blood pressure. Review the article covering the Renin-Aldosterone system.

Zona Reticularis

The zona reticular is the innermost cortical layer which is primarily responsible for producing androgens. Its main component synthesized is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and androstenedione, which is the precursor to testosterone.

Medulla

The medulla is in the centre of each adrenal gland with the cortex around the entire periphery. The chromatin cells within the medulla are the bodies main source of catecholamines. Catecholamines produced in the medulla are adrenaline (epinephrine), and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). Regulation of the synthesis of these catecholamines is driven by the sympathetic nervous system via the preganglionic nerve fibers stemming from the thoracic spinal cord (T5-T11) to the adrenal glands. When the medulla gets stimulated to produce these hormones it secretes them directly into the cardiovascular circulation system, which is unusual of sympathetic innervation as they usually have distinct synapses on specialized cells.

Mineralocorticoids

Mineralocorticoids such as aldosterone are named according to its function. They regulate minerals, such as salt and regulate blood volume (blood pressure). Aldosterone, the most prominent mineralocorticoid acts on the distal convoluted tubules and the collecting ducts by increasing the reabsorption of sodium and the excretion of both potassium and hydrogen ions. The amount of salt present in the body affects the extracellular volume, which influences the blood pressure.

Glucocorticoids

Glucocorticoids are also named due to its function. Cortisol is a prominent glucocorticoid that regulates the metabolism of proteins, fats and sugars (glucose). Cortisol increases the circulating level of glucose. They cause protein catabolism into amino acids and the synthesis of glucose from the amino acids in the liver. They also increase the concentration of fatty acids by increasing lipolysis (fat breakdown) which cells can use as an alternative energy source in situations of glucose absence. Glucocorticoids also play a role in suppression of the immune system. They induce a potent anti-inflammatory effect.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the prominent glucocorticoid produced by the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland secretes a basal level of cortisol depending on the time of day it is. Cortisol concentrations in the blood are highest in the early morning and lowest in the evening as part of the circadian rhythm of adrenalcorticotropic hormone (ACTH) secretion. The article on general endocrinology explains what ACTH is and how it affects the adrenal gland. Basically what happens is the hypothalamus secretes corticotropin releasing hormone that acts on the pituitary to produce ACTH that acts on the adrenal gland cortex to produce cortisol.

Androgens and Catecholamines

The primary androgen produced by the adrenal gland is DHEA, which is converted to more potent androgens such as testosterone, DHT, and estrogen in the gonads. DHEA acts as a precursor. Androgens drive sexual maturation.

Catecholamines are produced by the chromaffin cells from tyrosine. The enzyme tyrosine hydroxyls converts tyrosine to L-DOPA. L-DOPA is then converted to dopamine before it can be turned into norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is then converted to epinephrine by the enzyme phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase (PNMT). Epinephrine and norepinephrine act as adrenoreceptors throughout the body, whose primary effect is to increase the blood pressure and cardiac output by way of vasoconstriction. Catecholamines play a huge role in the fight-or-flight response.

Corticosteroid Overproduction

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The normal function of the adrenal gland can be impaired from infections, tumors, autoimmune diseases, or from previous medical therapy such as radiation and chemotherapy. Cushing’s syndrome is the manifestation of glucocorticoid excess. Symptoms and sign are a direct result of chronic exposure to glucocorticoids. Diagnosis is difficult because the symptoms are often nonspecific and pathognomonic of the syndrome in isolation. Symptoms include proximal (distant) muscle weakness, wasting of the extremities, increased fat in the abdomen and face often leading to a moon face, bruising without trauma, and a buffalo hump. A buffalo hump is fat on the back of the neck and supraclavicular pads. In women, menstrual irregularities are common such as oligomenorrhea (infrequent menstrual periods), amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods), and variable menses. Hyperpigmentation can occur by increased secretion of cortisol. Cortisol acts on the melanocyte-stimulating hormone receptors.

Glucose intolerance is common in Cushing’s syndrome. Primarily due to stimulation of gluconeogenesis by cortisol and insulin resistance caused by the obesity. This leads to hyperglycemia, which can exacerbate any diabetic patient.

Bone loss and osteoporosis is common in patients with Cushing’s syndrome because there is less intestinal calcium absorption. Calcium is vital to bone health and growth. The decrease in bone formation is coupled with an increased rate of bone reabsorption which can lead to more pathological fractures.

Adrenal Insufficiency

Addison’s disease is considered primary hypoadrenalism. There is an inherent deficiency of glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids. Most commonly caused by an autoimmune condition. Autoimmune means that the body is attacking itself by production of antibodies against cells of the adrenal cortex. In cases of adrenal crisis due to autoimmune primary adrenal insufficiency clinical presentation is usually the patient presenting in a state of shock. Abdominal tenderness upon deep palpation is common. Patients present with hyperpigmentation due to chronic ACTH release by the pituitary. Proopiomelanocortin is overproduced which is a pro hormone that is cleaved into its biologically active hormones corticotropin and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH). This causes increased melanin synthesis, causing the hyperpigmentation. Other non-specific symptoms such as lethargy, fatigue, weakness, confusion, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, or even coma can occur. One of the most commonly presented symptoms is fever and infection, which can be exaggerated by the hypocortisolemia.

Its important to take this article slowly. There a lot of different parts, but the aim was to look at the hormones themselves and how they physiologically act on the body, then take what was learned about those and apply them to two scenarios, hypo/hyperadrenalism and how it affects the body. Cushing’s syndrome is where there is hyperproduction of cortisol primarily leading to many disastrous effects on the body. Addisons disease is an autoimmune disease where the body produces antibodies against the cells of the adrenal cortex, causing destruction of the gland itself, again leading to detrimental effects on the body.

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Ketosis and Ketoacidosis

Ketosis is a metabolic state in which the bodies energy supply comes from ketone bodies in the blood in contrast to a state of glycolysis in which there is adequate glucose breakdown. In most cases, ketosis results from a high metabolism of fatty acids which are converted to ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are formed from ketogenesis when liver glycogen stores are depleted. Most cells in the body utilize both ketone bodies and glucose for energy, and while in ketosis the body works to maintain normal metobolism so it ramps up gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is glucose synthesis used to go through glycolysis.

Most of the time ketosis is a short interval of time, although long-term ketosis may be a result of fasting or a dietary insufficiency of carbohydrates. In glycolysis, high levels of insulin are released which promotes storage of fat and delayed release of fat from adipose tissue. In ketosis, fat reserves are readily available and are consumed. For this reason, ketosis has become one of the more recent diet fads as a way to burn fat quickly and lose weight.

Ketoacidosis

Although similar, ketosis is not ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis is a physiological life-threatening situation due to insulin deficiency. Ketone bodies are acidic, and acid-base homeostasis in the blood is normally maintained through bicarbonate buffering, respiratory compensation, and renal compensation. Prolonged excess of ketone bodies can overwhelm the normal compensatory mechanisms and cause a state of acidosis when the blood pH falls below 7.35.

There are multiple precipitating factors that leads to ketoacidosis, which is most prevalent in patients with type 1 diabetes. Ketoacidosis in the case of a patient with type 1 diabetes is deemed diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). In established type 1 diabetes, patients often forget to take insulin, with non-compliance being the bigger issue. This does not rule out other causes of ketoacidosis, as those are still prevalent. Acute major illnesses such as a myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular accident, sepsis, or pancreatitis. Certain drugs that affect carbohydrate metabolism such as glucocorticoids, diuretics, or anti-psychotic agents can cause ketoacidosis. General malnutrition associated with physiological problems can also lead to ketoacidosis. Such disorders lead to psychological starvation, which leads to ketone production and if prolonged ketoacidosis.

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Clinical Presentation

The clinical presentation of DKA is a two headed monster. The earliest symptoms of marked hyperglycemia is polyuria, polydipsia, and unexplained weight loss. As the duration of hyperglycemia continues neurological symptoms, including lethargy, focal signs and obtundation develop. Further progression can lead to a coma. The other head is the extent of the metabolic acidosis due to the excess ketone bodies. As the acidemia worsens accompanied with it is abdominal pain which can sometimes be severe. The electrolyte imbalance and metabolic acidosis causes delayed gastric emptying and an ileus (obstruction of the bowel). Vomiting and nausea are common.

Diagnostic Evaluation

The initial laboratory evaluation of patients with suspected DKA should include a serum glucose to establish whether or not the patient is hyperglycemic or not. Its helpful to measure the serum electrolytes and calculate the anion gap, BUN, plasma creatinine, and a plasma osmolality. This gives a broad picture of the metabolic state of the patient. Urinalysis is commonly performed along with urine ketones measured by dipstick method. Serum ketones are also measured to assess whether or not the patient is undergoing ketogenesis. An arterial or venous blood gas can be helpful to determine whether the serum bicarbonate is substantially reduced, which presumptively leads to metabolic acidosis. This also aids in determining hypoxia if it is present.

Findings

Hyperglycemia and hyperosmolality are the two primary laboratory findings in patients with DKA. Patients with DKA have a high anion gap metabolic acidosis. Serum glucose often times exceeds 350-500 mg/dL. Three ketone bodies are produced and accumulate in DKA; acetoacetic acid, beta-hydroxybutyric, and acetone. Acetoacetic acid is the only true ketoacid. A serum ketone measurement gives levels of beta-hydroxybutyric, while a urine dipstick measures the presence of acetoacetic acid using the nitroprusside method.

Other findings that may or may not be present are leukocytosis, and lipidemia. The majority of patients with hyperglycemic emergencies present with leukocytosis, which is proportional to the degree of ketonemia. Patients with DKA also present with marked hyperlipidemia. Lipolysis, primarily caused from insulin deficiency, and to a lesser extent elevated levels of lipolytic hormones including catecholamines, GH, ACTH, and glucagon. Lipolysis releases glycerol and free fatty acids into circulation which causes insulin resistance and serves as the substrate for ketoacid generation in the hepatocyte mitochondria.

To recap, ketosis is a dietary manipulation that if done right can lead to results. Ketoacidosis is a life-threatening metabolic state that requires immediate medical care.

This discussion will be continued with the next article focusing on ketoacid generation.

General Endocrinology

Hormones make up the endocrine system and act on almost every tissue in the body. Hormones are substances that are produced by a specialized cell that circulates in the blood. The best example of this is insulin which is secreted by the beta cells in the pancreas.

hormoneoverview

Credit for the photo goes to Pearson Education, Inc.

There are multiple forms of chemical signaling that hormones utilize. The first is autocrine where the cell targets itself. Signaling across gap junctions occurs when a specialized cell targets another cell that is connected via a gap junction. Paracrine is when the targeted cell is nearby. Endocrine which will be the primary focus for today is when the cell produces hormones or chemical signals that have to travel through the blood stream to act on distant cells. Depending on the receptor type to these hormones distinguishes the action it has on the recipient tissue or cell. Receptors can by cytoplasmic, ion channels, tyrosine kinase receptors, or a G-protein coupled receptor. There can also be different types of hormones. Protein hormones utilize calcium as a secondary messenger. The action potential of protein hormones is quick as opposed to steroid hormones. The action of steroid hormones is slow as steroids are not as membrane permeable as protein hormones. Its important to note that hormones are released in pulses. Each pulse has an amplitude and period.

The endocrine system needs feedback control loops to function properly. Negative control loops maintain hormonal balance. Positive control loops are actually what causes physiological changes in the tissues involved.

The endocrine system starts in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases releasing hormones to stimulate the anterior and posterior pituitary to secrete effector hormones that act on various sites of the body.

The anterior pituitary otherwise known as the adenohypophysis secretes the majority of the hormones. Releasing hormones are secreted by the hypothalamic neurons into the hypothalamopituitary portal system. These hormones are then carried down the pituitary stalk by this portal system into the adenohypophysis. The anterior pituitary secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), growth hormone (GH), prolactin (PRL), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH). These all act on their respectable tissues/cells to secrete specific hormones. ACTH acts on the adrenal gland, which sits on top of the kidneys. The adrenal gland is responsible for secretion of catecholamines (epinephrine/norepinephrine) that influences the flight or fight response as well as glucocorticoids such as cortisol which have physiological effects throughout the entire body. TSH acts on the thyroid gland to secrete the thyroid hormones T3 and T4. These hormones also have wide-spread physiological function throughout the body. GH acts on the liver and influences bone, muscle, and tissue growth. PRL acts on the mammary glands such as the breast glands to stimulate growth and to start lactation. FSH and LH act on the testes of males to secrete inhibin and testosterone as well on the ovaries in females to secrete estrogen, progesterone, and inhibin. Decreased or elevated levels of any of these hormones can have detrimental effects on normal physiological processes. These discrepant levels can either be from primary disease (In the organ where the hormones are produced) or it can be secondary disease, i.e. from the hypothalamus, or pituitary.

Oxytocin and vasopressin (ADH) are the hormones secreted by the posterior or neurohypophysis pituitary. These are synthesized in the paraventricular supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus and are carried down the pituitary stalk by axonal transport. These hormones are then released into the general circulation in the neurohypophysis. Oxytocin works in females and males. It effects the uterine smooth muscle and mammary glands in females and in males it effects the smooth muscle in the ductus deferens and the prostate gland. Vasopressin or ADH promotes water retention in the distal tubules and collecting ducts of the kidneys. SIADH is excess ADH secretion and results in concentrated urine, and a low serum concentration. In other words there is low serum sodium which is bad! Diabetes insipidus on the other hand is deficiency in ADH.

-Caleb