Cortisol isn’t bad; you need it to help regulate your responses to life. Regulation involves a very complex interplay of feedback loops between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, says Dr. Singh.
“In general, cortisol levels tend to peak in the late morning and gradually decline throughout the day,” he explains. “When a stressful event occurs, the increased cortisol will work alongside our ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms to either upregulate or downregulate bodily functions. [Affected systems include] the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, or immune system.”
In addition to normal processes that trigger or suppress cortisol release, levels can also be affected by different medical conditions, Dr. Singh says. For example, if someone has abnormally high levels of cortisol, this is called Cushing’s syndrome, which is typically caused by a tumor affecting any of the glands that take part in the process of cortisol production.
When people suffer from abnormally low levels of cortisol, it’s called Addison’s disease. It generally occurs due to adrenal gland dysfunction, but could also be the result of abnormal functioning of any of the other glands in the cortisol production process.
Finally, if you use corticosteroid medications such as prednisone or dexamethasone, prolonged use will result in excessive cortisol production, Dr. Singh says.
“If the medication is not adequately tapered down when discontinued, the body’s ability to create cortisol can become permanently impaired,” he says.
Myth: Even though you are chronically ill, you should have the same amount of energy every day. “You look SO good and you went to that party last month! Why can’t you come to MY party?!” When you say you are not well enough to do something, you are just making excuses. You could do it, just like you did that other thing; you are just choosing not to!
Fact: You may have heard me talk about “The Spoon Theory”. It was created by someone named Christine Miserandino, to explain the experience of someone with chronic illness in terms of using energy to live and to complete tasks every day. Though the myth assumes that one should have the same amount of energy all the time; the fact is that energy levels fluctuate and people who are chronically ill must make conscious decisions about what they can spend their energy on.
Christine Miserandino (2010) uses the spoon theory to answer the question, “What does it feel like to be sick?” The spoons serve as a symbol for resources available and energy spent to get through every moment of every day. Miserandino states that “The difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to”. Most people who get sick feel a loss of a life they once knew. When you are healthy, you expect to have a never ending supply of spoons. But, when you are not well, you need to count your spoons to keep track and you can never forget about it or take it for granted. Each task costs a spoon and each spoon is not to be taken for granted. Miserandino (2010) asks, “Do you know how many spoons people waste every day?”
Patients use the metaphor of a banking system. In this system, patients must make a withdrawal of a spoon every time they complete a task. Cushing’s and Adrenal Insufficiency patients talk about the “Cortisol Bank” metaphor. The concept is the same and the idea is that certain stressors and/or tasks cause one’s body to make a cortisol withdrawal from the body. Bad things happen when there is a cortisol deficit, meaning that there is not enough cortisol in the body for one to live everyday because of the amount of cortisol that has already been used up. If a person continues to draw from the bank on an account that is already negative, the situation can become worse and worse as each day passes.
Something needs to happen in order to start making appropriate deposits. This can include, taking more medication (stress dosing or an emergency shot), resting, getting adequate physical and emotional support and help, and saying “NO!”. Even when in a deficit, many patients have a difficult time saying “no” to an invitation to an event, completing a task, or engaging someone in a way that will use up more energy because of their fear of their loved one’s reactions. Much of the time, this fear is warranted because of the actual reactions they have received. Ever heard, “But you volunteered for the bake sale last week! You must be better! Why can’t you come to church this week?!”. You may have heard something similar.
It is important for loved ones to understand the amount of “spoons” it takes for a chronically ill person just to get through every single day. EVERYTHING costs spoons! The amount of spoons paid by each person varies from person to person. It all depends on that individual’s situation, body, level of illness, etc. What is common for all, though, is that spoons must be used and eventually those spoons run out. In order to avoid becoming sick or to recuperate from getting sick, the chronically ill patient must evaluate how he/she will use spoons and what tasks can be feasibly completed that day or week. Please understand that when the chronically ill patient says, “YES” to you; he/she is making a conscious choice to use up spoons to meet your need, request, or demand. Talking on the phone, going out to lunch, making dinner, coming to your event all required a sacrifice of another task that day or week. Your friend may have come to lunch with you but that required that she skipped washing the dishes that day or washing her hair, or is even giving up doing something important the next day. Instead of being angry at your friend, please consider why the request is denied at times.
Refer to the attached picture. This is not an exact science but gives some idea of the spoon bank. If you have time, try doing this exercise: Lay out 8-12 physical spoons. As you complete certain tasks throughout the day, use this chart to subtract spoons from your pile.
Each and every thing requires a spoon. Taking a shower, washing your hair, cooking, cleaning, watching a movie, going out to lunch, working, writing this post (Ha)! When you are done with your day, notice how many spoons you have left. Observe your feelings after this exercise. You can even do it for a week. Lay out a certain amount of spoons for every day for seven days. If you go into a deficit, borrow spoons from the following day. However, if you do borrow spoons; you must take away a task that you WERE planning to originally do that day. Notice what happens and notice how you feel at the end of the week.
Can you think of any other tasks that are not on this chart? Help our friends who are doing the activity. List those tasks and assign how many spoons each task will require. Spoon Bank Get out of bed- 1 Spoon Shower- 2 Spoons Attend Special Event- 5 Spoons Go out for Coffee- 4 Spoons Drive- 4 Spoons Make a Phone Call- 3 Spoons Work- 5 spoons Play Games-3 Spoons Clean the House- 5 Spoons Have a Meal- 2 Spoons Walk the Dog- 4 Spoons Study- 5 Spoons Watch TV- 3 Spoons Ironing- 5 Spoons Exercise- 4 Spoons Shopping- 4 Spoons Read- 2 Spoons Catch Public Transport- 4 Spoons Cook- 4 Spoons
Myth: “Each person requires the same dose of steroid in order to survive with Secondary or Primary Adrenal Insufficiency”
Fact: In simple terms, Adrenal Insufficiency occurs when the body does not have enough cortisol in it. You see, cortisol is life sustaining and we actually do need cortisol to survive. You have probably seen the commercials about “getting rid of extra belly fat” by lowering your cortisol. These advertisements make it hard for people to actually understand the importance of the function of cortisol.
After a Cushing’s patient has surgery, he/she goes from having very high levels of cortisol to no cortisol at all. For pituitary patients, the pituitary, in theory, should start working eventually again and cause the adrenal glands to produce enough cortisol. However, in many cases; the pituitary gland does not resume normal functioning and leaves a person adrenally insufficient. The first year after pit surgery is spent trying to get that hormone to regulate on its own normally again. For a patient who has had a Bilateral Adrenalectomy (BLA), where both adrenal glands are removed as a last resort to “cure” Cushing’s; his/her body will not produce cortisol at all for his/her life. This causes Primary Adrenal Insufficiency.
All Cushing’s patients spend time after surgery adjusting medications and weaning slowly from steroid (cortisol) to get the body to a maintenance dose, which is the dose that a “normal” body produces. This process can be a very long one. Once on maintenance, a patient’s job is not over. He/She has to learn what situations require even more cortisol. You see, cortisol is the stress hormone and also known as the Fight or Flight hormone. Its function is to help a person respond effectively to stress and cortisol helps the body compensate for both physical and emotional stress. So, when faced with a stressor, the body will produce 10X the baseline levels in order to compensate. When a person can not produce adequate amounts of cortisol to compensate, we call that Adrenal Insufficiency. If it gets to the point of an “Adrenal Crisis”, this means that the body can no longer deal and will go into shock unless introduced to extremely high levels of cortisol, usually administered through an emergency shot of steroid.
There are ways to help prevent a crisis, by taking more steroid than the maintenance dose during times of stress. This can be anything from going to a family function (good stress counts too) to fighting an infection or illness. Acute stressors such as getting into a car accident or sometimes even having a really bad fight require more cortisol as well.
It was once believed that everyone responded to every stressor in the exact same way. So, there are general guidelines about how much more cortisol to introduce to the body during certain stressors. For instance, during infection, a patient should take 2-3X the maintenance dose of steroid (cortisol). Also, even the maintenance dose was considered the same for everyone. Now a days, most doctors will say that 20 mg of Hydrocortisone (Steroid/Cortisol) is the appropriate maintenance dose for EVERYONE. Now, we know that neither is necessarily true. Although the required maintenance dose is about the same for everyone; some patients require less and some require more. I have friends who will go into an adrenal crisis if they take LESS than 30 mg of daily steroid. On the other hand, 30 mg may be way too much for some and those folks may even require LESS daily steroid, like 15 mg. Also, I want to stress (no pun intended) that different stressors affect different people differently. For some, for instance, an acute scare may not affect them. However, for others, receiving bad news or being in shock WILL put their bodies into crisis. That person must then figure out how much additional steroid is needed.
Each situation is different and each time may be different. Depending on the stressor, a person may need just a little more cortisol or a lot. Every person must, therefore, learn their own bodies when dealing with Adrenal Insufficiency. This is VERY important! I learned this the hard way. As a Clinical Psychologist; I assumed that my “coping skills” would be enough to prevent a stressor from putting me into crisis. That was FAR from the truth! I have learned that I can not necessarily prevent my body’s physiological response to stress. People often ask me, “BUT you are a psychologist! Shouldn’t you be able to deal with stress?!!!!” What they don’t realize is that my BODY is the one that has to do the job of compensating. Since my body can not produce cortisol at all, my job is to pay close attention to it so that I can take enough steroid to respond to any given situation. We all have to do that. We all have to learn our own bodies. This is vitally important and will save our lives!
To those we have lost in our community to Adrenal Insufficiency after treatment of Cushing’s, Rest in Peace my friends! Your legacies live on forever!
Cushing’s Conventions have always been special times for me – we learn a lot, get to meet other Cushies, even get referrals to endos!
As early as 2001 (or before) my pituitary function was dropping. My former endo tested annually but did nothing to help me with the symptoms.
In the fall of 2002 my endo refused to discuss my fatigue or anything at all with me until I lost 10 pounds. He said I wasn’t worth treating in my overweight condition and that I was setting myself up for a heart attack. He gave me 3 months to lose this weight. Those 3 months included Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Needless to say, I left his office in tears, again.
Fast forward 2 years to 2004. I had tried for a while to get my records from this endo. He wouldn’t send them, even at doctors’ or my requests.
I wanted to go see Dr. Vance at UVa but I had no records so she wouldn’t see me until I could get them.
Finally, my husband went to the former endo’s office and threatened him with a court order. The office manager managed to come up with about 13 pages of records. For going to him from 1986 to 2001 including weeks and weeks at NIH and pituitary surgery, that didn’t seem like enough records to me.
In April of 2004, many of us from the message boards went to the UVa Pituitary Days Convention. That’s where the picture above comes in. Other pictures from that convention are here.
By chance, we met a wonderful woman named Barbara Craven. She sat at our table for lunch on the last day and, after we learned that she was a dietitian who had had Cushing’s, one of us jokingly asked her if she’d do a guest chat for us. I didn’t follow through on this until she emailed me later. In the email, she asked how I was doing. Usually I say “fine” or “ok” but for some reason, I told her exactly how awful I was feeling.
Barbara emailed me back and said I should see a doctor at Johns Hopkins. I said I didn’t think I could get a recommendation to there, so SHE referred me. The doctor got right back to me, set up an appointment. Between his vacation and mine, that first appointment turned out to be Tuesday, Sept 14, 2004.
Just getting through the maze at Johns Hopkins was amazing. They have the whole system down to a science, moving from one place to another to sign in, then go here, then window 6, then… But it was very efficient.
My new doctor was wonderful. Understanding, knowledgeable. He never once said that I was “too fat” or “depressed” or that all this was my own fault. I feel so validated, finally.
He looked through my records, especially at my 2 previous Insulin Tolerance Tests (ITT). From those, he determined that my growth hormone has been low since at least August 2001 and I’ve been adrenal insufficient since at least Fall, 1999 – possibly as much as 17 years! I was amazed to hear all this, and astounded that my former endo not only didn’t tell me any of this, he did nothing. He had known both of these things – they were in the past records that I took with me. Perhaps that was why he had been so reluctant to share copies of those records. He had given me Cortef in the fall of 1999 to take just in case I had “stress” and that was it.
The new endo took a lot of blood (no urine!) for cortisol and thyroid stuff. I went back on Sept. 28, 2004 for arginine, cortrosyn and IGF testing.
He said that I would end up on daily cortisone – a “sprinkling” – and some form of GH, based on the testing the 28th.
For those who are interested, my new endo is Roberto Salvatori, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins
Medical School: Catholic University School of Medicine, Rome, Italy
Residency: Montefiore Medical Center
Fellowship: Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University
Board Certification: Endocrinology and Metabolism, Internal Medicine
Research Interests: Control of growth hormone secretion, genetic causes of growth hormone deficiency, consequences of growth hormone deficiency.
Although I have this wonderful doctor, a specialist in growth hormone deficiency at Johns Hopkins, in November, 2004, my insurance company saw fit to over-ride his opinions and his test results based on my past pharmaceutical history! Hello??? How could I have a history of taking GH when I’ve never taken it before?
Of course, I found out late on a Friday afternoon. By then it was too late to call my case worker at the drug company, so we had to appeal on Monday. My local insurance person also worked on an appeal, but the whole thing was just another long ordeal of finding paperwork, calling people, FedExing stuff, too much work when I just wanted to start feeling better by Thanksgiving.
As it turned out the insurance company rejected the brand of hGH that was prescribed for me. They gave me the ok for a growth hormone was just FDA-approved for adults on 11/4/04. The day this medication was approved for adults was the day after my insurance said that’s what is preferred for me. In the past, this form of hGH was only approved for children with height issues. Was I going to be a guinea pig again?
The new GH company assigned a rep for me, submitted info to pharmacy, and waited for insurance approval, again.
I finally started the Growth Hormone December 7, 2004.
In March of 1987, after the endo finally confirmed that I had Cushing’s, I was sent to a local hospital where they repeated all those same tests for another week and decided that it was not my adrenal gland (Cushing’s Syndrome) creating the problem. The doctors and nurses had no idea what to do with me, so they put me on the brain cancer ward.
When I left this hospital after a week, we didn’t know any more than we had before.
As luck would have it, NIH (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland) was doing a clinical trial of Cushing’s. I live in the same area as NIH so it was not too inconvenient but very scary at first to think of being tested there. At that time I only had a choice of NIH, Mayo Clinic and a place in Quebec to do this then-rare pituitary surgery called a Transsphenoidal Resection.
My husband asked my endo if it were his wife, if he would recommend this surgery. The endo responded that he was divorcing his wife – he didn’t care what happened to her. Oh, my!
I chose NIH – closest and free. After I was interviewed by the doctors there, I got a letter that I had been accepted into the clinical trial.
The night before I was admitted, I signed my will. I was sure I was going to die there. If not during testing, as a result of surgery.
The first time I was there was for 6 weeks as an inpatient. More of the same tests.
There were about 12 of us there and it was nice not to be alone with this mystery disease. Many of these Cushies (mostly women) were getting bald, couldn’t walk, having strokes, had diabetes. One was blind, one had a heart attack while I was there. Several were from Greece.
My first roommate was a nurse. She spent the entire first night screaming in pain. I was very glad when they moved me to a new room!
Towards the end of my testing period, I was looking forward to the surgery just to get this whole mess over with – either a cure or dying. While I was at NIH, I was gaining about a pound a day!
During the time I was home the weekend before surgery, a college classmate of mine (I didn’t know her) DID die at NIH of a Cushing’s-related problem. I’m so glad I didn’t find out until reading the alumnae magazine a couple months later! She was the same class, same major, same home-town, same disease…
We have a Scottish doctor named James Lind to thank for the clinical trial. He conducted the first ever clinical trial in 1747 and developed the theory that citrus fruits cured scurvy. Lind compared the effects of various different acidic substances, ranging from vinegar to cider, on groups of afflicted sailors, and found that the group who were given oranges and lemons had largely recovered from scurvy after 6 days.
I’d like to think that I advanced the knowledge of Cushing’s at least a little bit by being a guinea pig in 1987-1989.
Several components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct and support research on Cushing’s syndrome and other disorders of the endocrine system, including the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Center for Research Resources.
NIH-supported scientists are conducting intensive research into the normal and abnormal function of the major endocrine glands and the many hormones of the endocrine system. Researchers continue to study the effects of excess cortisol, including its effect on brain structure and function. To refine the diagnostic process, studies are under way to assess the accuracy of existing screening tests and the effectiveness of new imaging techniques to evaluate patients with ectopic ACTH syndrome. Researchers are also investigating jugular vein sampling as a less invasive alternative to petrosal sinus sampling. Research into treatment options includes study of a new drug to treat the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome caused by ectopic ACTH secretion.
Studies are under way to understand the causes of benign endocrine tumor formation, such as those that cause most cases of Cushing’s syndrome. In a few pituitary adenomas, specific gene defects have been identified and may provide important clues to understanding tumor formation. Endocrine factors may also play a role. Increasing evidence suggests that tumor formation is a multistep process. Understanding the basis of Cushing’s syndrome will yield new approaches to therapy.
The NIH supports research related to Cushing’s syndrome at medical centers throughout the United States. Scientists are also treating patients with Cushing’s syndrome at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. Physicians who are interested in referring an adult patient may contact Lynnette Nieman, M.D., at NICHD, 10 Center Drive, Room 1-3140, Bethesda, MD 20892-1109, or by phone at 301-496-8935. Physicians interested in referring a child or adolescent may contact Constantine Stratakis, M.D., D.Sc., at NICHD, 10 Center Drive, Room 1-3330, Bethesda, MD 20892-1103, or by phone at 301-402-1998.
So, these are only seven of the many, many symptoms of Cushing’s. I had those above – and I often felt like I looked like one of those little bearded dwarves.
Cushing’s affects every part of the body. It’s not like when I had kidney cancer and only the kidney was affected.
Here are some of the many areas affected.
Progressive obesity and skin changes
Weight gain and fatty tissue deposits, particularly around the midsection and upper back, in the face (moon face) and between the shoulders (buffalo hump). Some symptoms such as sudden weight gain, are caused by excess cortisol. The excess cortisol in the body does not increase protein and carbohydrate metabolism. It slows or nearly disables metabolism function, which can cause weight gain (fat accumulation) in the buttocks, abdomen, cheeks, neck, or upper back.
Loss of muscle mass. Some areas of the body, such as the arms and legs, will remain thin.
Pink or purple stretch marks (striae) on the skin of the abdomen, thighs, breasts and arms
Thinning, fragile skin that bruises easily
Slow healing of cuts, insect bites and infections
Women with Cushing’s syndrome may experience:
Thicker or more visible body and facial hair (hirsutism)
Irregular or absent menstrual periods
Men with Cushing’s syndrome may experience:
Other signs and symptoms include:
Depression, anxiety and irritability
Loss of emotional control
New or worsened high blood pressure
Glucose intolerance that may lead to diabetes
Bone loss, leading to fractures over time
Hyperlipidemia (elevated lipids – cholesterol – in the blood stream)
Recurrent opportunistic or bacterial infections
Think you have Cushing’s? Get to a doctor and don’t give up!
Dexamethasone suppression test measures whether adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) secretion by the pituitary can be suppressed.
How the Test is Performed
During this test, you will receive dexamethasone. This is a strong man-made (synthetic) glucocorticoid medicine. Afterward, your blood is drawn so that the cortisol level in your blood can be measured.
There are two different types of dexamethasone suppression tests: low dose and high dose. Each type can either be done in an overnight (common) or standard (3-day) method (rare). There are different processes that may be used for either test. Examples of these are described below.
Low-dose overnight — You will get 1 milligram (mg) of dexamethasone at 11 p.m., and a health care provider will draw your blood the next morning at 8 a.m. for a cortisol measurement.
High-dose overnight — The provider will measure your cortisol on the morning of the test. Then you will receive 8 mg of dexamethasone at 11 p.m. Your blood is drawn the next morning at 8 a.m. for a cortisol measurement.
Standard low-dose — Urine is collected over 3 days (stored in 24-hour collection containers) to measure cortisol. On day 2, you will get a low dose (0.5 mg) of dexamethasone by mouth every 6 hours for 48 hours.
Standard high-dose — Urine is collected over 3 days (stored in 24-hour collection containers) for measurement of cortisol. On day 2, you will receive a high dose (2 mg) of dexamethasone by mouth every 6 hours for 48 hours.
Read and follow the instructions carefully. The most common cause of an abnormal test result is when instructions are not followed.
How to Prepare for the Test
The provider may tell you to stop taking certain medicines that can affect the test, including:
Medicines that contain corticosteroids, such as hydrocortisone, prednisone
Oral birth control (contraceptives)
Water pills (diuretics)
How the Test will Feel
When the needle is inserted to draw blood, some people feel moderate pain. Others feel only a prick or stinging. Afterward, there may be some throbbing or slight bruising. This soon goes away.
Why the Test is Performed
This test is done when the provider suspects that your body is producing too much cortisol. It is done to help diagnose Cushing syndrome and identify the cause.
The low-dose test can help tell whether your body is producing too much ACTH. The high-dose test can help determine whether the problem is in the pituitary gland (Cushing disease) or from a different site in the body (ectopic).
Dexamethasone is a man-made (synthetic) steroid that binds to the same receptor as cortisol. Dexamethasone reduces ACTH release in normal people. Therefore, taking dexamethasone should reduce ACTH level and lead to a decreased cortisol level.
If your pituitary gland produces too much ACTH, you will have an abnormal response to the low-dose test. But you can have a normal response to the high-dose test.
Cortisol level should decrease after you receive dexamethasone.
Overnight — 8 a.m. plasma cortisol lower than 1.8 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 50 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L)
Standard — Urinary free cortisol on day 3 lower than 10 micrograms per day (mcg/day) or 280 nmol/L
Overnight — greater than 50% reduction in plasma cortisol
Standard — greater than 90% reduction in urinary free cortisol
Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Some labs use different measurements or may test different specimens. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.
What Abnormal Results Mean
An abnormal response to the low-dose test may mean that you have abnormal release of cortisol (Cushing syndrome). This could be due to:
The high-dose test can help tell a pituitary cause (Cushing disease) from other causes. An ACTH blood test may also help identify the cause of high cortisol.
Abnormal results vary based on the condition causing the problem.
Cushing syndrome caused by an adrenal tumor:
Low-dose test — no decrease in blood cortisol
ACTH level — low
In most cases, the high-dose test is not needed
Ectopic Cushing syndrome:
Low-dose test — no decrease in blood cortisol
ACTH level — high
High-dose test — no decrease in blood cortisol
Cushing syndrome caused by a pituitary tumor (Cushing disease)
Low-dose test — no decrease in blood cortisol
High-dose test — expected decrease in blood cortisol
False test results can occur due to many reasons, including different medicines, obesity, depression, and stress. False results are more common in women than men.
Most often, the dexamethasone level in the blood is measured in the morning along with the cortisol level. For the test result to be considered accurate, the dexamethasone level should be higher than 200 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) or 4.5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). Dexamethasone levels that are lower can cause a false-positive test result.
There is little risk involved with having your blood taken. Veins and arteries vary in size from one patient to another, and from one side of the body to the other. Taking blood from some people may be more difficult than from others.
Other risks associated with having blood drawn are slight, but may include:
Fainting or feeling lightheaded
Multiple punctures to locate veins
Hematoma (blood accumulating under the skin)
Infection (a slight risk any time the skin is broken)
DST; ACTH suppression test; Cortisol suppression test
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ. Dexamethasone suppression test – diagnostic. In: Chernecky CC, Berger BJ, eds. Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures. 6th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:437-438.
Guber HA, Oprea M, Russell YX. Evaluation of endocrine function. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry’s Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 24th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2022:chap 25.
Newell-Price JDC, Auchus RJ. The adrenal cortex. In: Melmed S, Auchus RJ, Goldfine AB, Koenig RJ, Rosen CJ, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 14th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 15.
Review Date 5/13/2021
Updated by: Brent Wisse, MD, Board Certified in Metabolism/Endocrinology, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
This Reading Room is a collaboration between MedPage Today® and:
For adrenal insufficiency (AI), reducing false positives means more than reducing resource utilization. Treatments like glucocorticoid replacement therapy can cause serious harm in people who do not actually have AI.
Research published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society makes multiple findings that report authors say could help bring down false positive rates for AI. This retrospective study ultimately analyzed 6,531 medical records from the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in the United Kingdom.
Sirazum Choudhury, MBBS, an endocrinologist-researcher with the trust, served as a co-author of the report. He discussed the study with MedPage Today. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
This study ultimately addressed two related but distinct questions. What was the first?
Choudhury: Initially the path we were following had to do with when cortisol levels are tested.
Cortisol levels follow a diurnal pattern; levels are highest in the morning and then decline to almost nothing overnight. This means we ought to be measuring the level in the morning. But there are logistical issues to doing so. In many hospitals, we end up taking measurements of cortisol in the afternoon. That creates a dilemma, because if it comes back low, there’s an issue as to what we ought to do with the result.
Here at Imperial, we call out results of <100 nmol/L among those taken in the afternoon. Patients and doctors then have to deal with these abnormal results, when in fact they may not actually be abnormal. We may be investigating individuals who should really not be investigated.
So the first aim of our study was to try and ascertain whether we could bring that down to a lower level and in doing so stop erroneously capturing people who are actually fine.
What was the second aim of the study?
Choudhury: As we went through tens of thousands of data sets, we realized we could answer more than that one simple question. So the next part of the study became: if an individual is identified as suspicious for AI, what’s the best way to prove this diagnosis?
We do this with different tests like short Synacthen Tests (SST), all with different cutoff points. Obviously, we want to get the testing right, because if you falsely label a person as having AI, the upshot is that treatments will interfere with their cortisol access and they will not do well. Simply put, we would be shortening their life.
So, our second goal was to look at all the SSTs we’ve done at the center and track them to see whether we could do better with the benchmarks.
What did you find?
Choudhury: When you look at the data, you see that you can bring those benchmarks down and potentially create a more accurate test.
First, we can be quite sure that a patient who is tested in the afternoon and whose cortisol level is >234 does not have AI. If their level is <53.5 then further investigation is needed
There were similar findings for SSTs, which in our case were processed using a platform made by Abbott. For this platform, we concluded that the existing cut-offs should be dropped down to 367 at 30 minutes or 419 at about 60 minutes.
Did anything surprise you about the study or its findings?
Choudhury: If you look at the literature, the number of individuals who fail at 30 minutes but pass at 60 minutes is around 5%. But I was very surprised to see that our number at Imperial was about 20%.
This is a key issue because, as I mentioned, if individuals are wrongly labelled adrenally insufficient, you’re shortening their life. It’s scary to think about the number of people who might have been given steroids and treated for AI when they didn’t have the condition.
What do you see as the next steps?
Choudhury: I see centers unifying their cutoffs for SST results and making sure we’re all consistent in the way we treat these results.
From a research perspective, on the testing we’re obviously talking about one specific platform with Abbott, so research needs to be done on SST analyzers from other manufacturers to work out what their specific cutoffs should be.
Read the study here and expert commentary on the clinical implications here.
The study authors did not disclose any relevant relationship with industry.
Cortisol is a hormone which produced by the adrenal gland (cortex) to control blood sugar. The production of cortisol is triggered by the pituitary hormone ACTH. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid which stimulates an increase in blood glucose. Cortisol will also stimulate the release of amino acids from muscle tissue and fatty acids from adipose tissue. The amino acids are then converted in the liver to glucose (for use by the brain). The fatty acids can be used by skeletal muscles for energy (rather than glucose) thereby freeing up glucose for selective utilization by the brain. Cortisol levels are often measured to evaluate the function of the pituitary or adrenal glands. Some of the cortisol is metabolized by the liver to produce 17 hydroxycorticosteroids, which is then excreted in the urine.
The primary stress hormone. Cortisol is the major natural GLUCOCORTICOID (GC) in humans.
Synthetic cortisol, also known as hydrocortisone, is used as a drug mainly to fight allergies and inflammation.
The amount of cortisol present in the serum undergoes diurnal variation, with the highest levels present in the early morning, and lower levels in the evening, several hours after the onset of sleep. Information about the light/dark cycle is transmitted from the retina to the paired suprachiasmatic nuclei in the hypothalamus. Changed patterns of the serum cortisol levels have been observed in connection with abnormal ACTH levels, clinical depression, psychological stress, and such physiological stressors as hypoglycemia, illness, fever, trauma, surgery, fear, pain, physical exertion or extremes of temperature. There is also significant individual variation, although a given person tends to have consistent rhythms.
Cortisol also inhibits the secretion of corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), resulting in feedback inhibition of ACTH secretion. Some researchers believe that this normal feedback system may break down when animals are exposed to chronic stress.
In normal release, cortisol has widespread actions which help restore homeostasis after stress. It acts as a physiological antagonist to insulin by promoting gluconeogenesis, breakdown of lipids, and proteins, and mobilization of extrahepatic amino acids and ketone bodies. This leads to increased blood glucose concentrations, resulting in increased glycogen formation in the liver (Freeman, 2002). It also increases blood pressure. In addition, immune and inflammatory cells have their responses to stress attenuated by cortisol, and the hormone thus lowers the activity of the immune system. Bone formation is also lowered by cortisol.
These normal endogenous functions are the basis for the physiological consequences of chronic stress – prolonged cortisol secretion causes muscle wastage, hyperglycemia, and suppresses immune / inflammatory responses. The same consequences arise from long-term use of glucocorticoid drugs.
Also, long-term exposure to cortisol results in damage to cells in the hippocampus. This damage results in impaired learning. However, short-term exposure of cortisol helps to create memories; this is the proposed mechanism for storage of flash bulb memories.
As an oral or injectable drug, cortisol is also known as hydrocortisone. It is used as an immunosuppressive drug, given by injection in the treatment of severe allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis and angioedema, in place of prednisolone in patients who need steroid treatment but cannot take oral medication, and peri-operatively in patients on long-term steroid treatment to prevent an Addisonian crisis.
It is given by topical application for its anti-inflammatory effect in allergic rashes, eczema and certain other inflammatory conditions. It may also be injected into inflamed joints resulting from diseases such as gout.
Compared to prednisolone, hydrocortisone is about 1/4th the strength. Dexamethasone is about 40 times stronger than hydrocortisone. For side effects, see corticosteroid and prednisolone.
A certain amount of cortisol is necessary for life. Without cortisol even a small amount of stress will kill you. Addison’s disease is a disease which causes low cortisol levels, and which is treated by cortisol replacement therapy.
helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function;
helps slow the immune system’s inflammatory response;
helps balance the effects of insulin in breaking down sugar for energy; and
helps regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Cushing’s syndrome is a rare disorder that occurs when the body is exposed to too much cortisol.Cortisol is produced by the body and is also used in corticosteroid drugs. Cushing’s syndrome can occur either because cortisol is being overproduced by the body or from the use of drugs that contain cortisol (like prednisone ).
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) by the pituitary. One form of Cushing’s syndrome may be caused by an oversecretion of ACTH by the pituitary leading to an excess of cortisol.
Cortisol has several functions, including the regulation of inflammation and controlling how the body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Corticosteroids such as prednisone, which are often used to treat inflammatory conditions, mimic the effects of cortisol.