Addison's Disease, also known as adrenal insufficiency, is the point where you have lost most of the function of your adrenal glands. Though reaching this point is extremely rare, living at a high stress level is sadly taken as "normal" in our modern society which is why many of us suffer from adrenal exhaustion.
There are several physical conditions which can severely damage the adrenal glands. Few people will ever reach the point where their adrenal glands no longer function, but these possibilities should be discussed with your doctor and the required tests given, so that they can be eliminated as causes for your adrenal problems. About 70% of the time when adrenal glands are destroyed, it is because the immune system has attacked and destroyed at least 90% of the adrenal glands. Also, infections such as tuberculosis, HIV, or fungal infections can damage the adrenal glands, so that there is little function left. Direct blows to the adrenal glands (lower back) which cause hemorrhage can cause the adrenal glands to be come so damaged that they lose the ability to produce adrenal hormones. Adrenal tumors also can cause severe adrenal gland damage. If you have problems with other glands in your endocrine system it will affect the adrenal glands. If the pituitary gland is not sending out it's hormonal messages to the adrenal glands (Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency), the adrenal glands will not function well. Some of these conditions can be treated and some may not. Your doctor can help to determine what can be done, or if your adrenal glands have been too severely damaged.
As I've said, such physical damage of our adrenal glands is rare. For most of us who suffer low adrenal symptoms, we are simply experiencing the effects of over-stress.
What happens to many of us is like what happens to people who become diabetics. We have all heard that eating excessive sugar can cause the insulin glands (part of the endocrine system) to become exhausted from the constant need to produce huge amounts of insulin to handle the high level of sugar in the blood stream. We are counseled to avoid eating lots of sweets to avoid stressing our insulin glands, having them shut down, and making us diabetic.
Excessive stress can similarly weaken the adrenal glands. Both physical and emotional stress, can cause the adrenal glands to produce huge amounts of adrenaline (from the inner part), and cortisol and aldosterone (from the outer part - the adrenal cortex). These hormones regulate your metabolism and blood pressure which helps your body deal with stress. With enough constant stress, your adrenal glands can become so exhausted due to all the over production of adrenal hormones, that they can no longer produce enough adrenal hormones. When this happens, you lose your ability to physically and emotionally deal with stress.
It takes a lot of constant stress over a long period of time, or a long series of traumatic events to reach a point where your adrenal glands are not functioning. Few people will ever reach that point, but many are somewhere along the road to adrenal exhaustion. It is comforting to know that if your adrenal glands are not producing enough cortisone because you have been over-stressed, then when the stress is gone, you should heal.
I managed to get to a point where my adrenal glands were no longer producing any detectable level of cortisone, because I was under a great deal of stress over a very long time, and I had inherited a weak endocrine system, and heart problems. Being a very sensitive person, I was exhausted by negative relationships and the negativeness around me, by excessive demands on my time and energies, by allergies, chemical sensitivities, spinal injuries, mold exposure, chronic lung irritation, and chronic low oxygen levels. Over the years I experienced lower and lower adrenal function, until I finally was unable to produce the necessary adrenal hormones. As I worked to eliminate or minimize my stresses, my adrenal glands began to heal until I finally reached a point where my body was producing enough cortisone on its own, and I no longer needed to take replacement cortisone.
People in war situations can reach this point of adrenal exhaustion. It is called Combat stress, combat and operational stress, or combat and operational stress reaction. The old name for it is battle fatigue. These people stare into space, have slow reaction times, can't think, make decisions, remember, or focus. They are anxious, worry, and are nervous and depressed. They may also have trouble with headaches, eating, digestion, and sleeping. If this sounds very familiar to you, like it did to me, you may be over-stressed and may be exhausting your adrenal glands.
I see many people heading down the path I took to adrenal exhaustion. People write in to me reciting a long list of traumas they have experienced in a few short years such as; being in car accidents, losing their job, going through a divorce, caring for a chronically ill parent, death of family members, trouble with their children, being unemployed, and starting a new job. They wonder why they don't feel well and want to know what magic medicine they can take to feel like they used to feel.
The truth is that no amount of cortisone will allow us to live constantly at a high stress level, anymore than we can keep taking more and more insulin to enable us to keep stuffing ourselves with sugar. There are consequences of our actions. Over time, excessive stress will destroy our health. The bottom line is that we have to change our environment, our relationships, our diet, our commitments, our exercise level, and our attitudes. Healing is possible, but it has a price -- change.