Cushing Syndrome

What is Cushing Syndrome?

Cushing syndrome occurs when the body is exposed to high levels of cortisol for long periods of time. Most commonly, it stems from corticosteroid use and is often seen in transplant patients taking medications to prevent organ rejection. Corticosteroids are also prescribed to those with inflammatory diseases. However, the condition also occurs when the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. This can happen in relation to athletic training, alcoholism, malnutrition, high stress levels, or any tumor growth or abnormality.

Though less common, there are a couple of other conditions that have been linked to Cushing syndrome. The pituitary gland may grow a tumor, making it produce too much adrenocorticotropic hormone. Ectopic ACTH syndrome causes tumors to form on the pancreas, thymus gland, lungs, and/or thyroid, which can also trigger the condition.

What are the Symptoms of Cushing Syndrome?

There are several symptoms that may appear when Cushing’s is present, including:

  • Weight gain or obesity
  • Purple stretch marks
  • Acne
  • Fatty deposits
  • Slow-healing skin injuries
  • Thinning skin
  • Easy bruising
  • Intolerance to glucose
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Increased urination and thirst
  • High blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Bone loss or onset of osteoporosis
  • Excessive sweating
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Anxiety
  • Hair loss
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Flushing
  • Excessive hunger
  • Frequent infections

Women might also notice irregular or absent menstruation as well as extra body and facial hair. Men may experience sexual issues such as decreased fertility, erectile dysfunction, and low libido. Though less often seen in children, those who are affected are usually obese and develop physically at a slower rate than their peers.

Cushing Syndrome Causes

Increased levels of the cortisol hormone cause Cushing syndrome. This hormone is responsible for regulating stress levels, controlling the skin’s inflammatory responses, and balancing the effects of insulin, among others.

Although beneficial to the body, high levels of the hormone pose medical challenges to the body. Here are some reasons why the body may produce excess amounts of cortisol.

  • High emotional stress, depression, and panic disorders can prompt the adrenal glands to release excess cortisol.
  • Malnutrition affects insulin in the body.
  • Alcoholism also interferes with the body’s blood sugar levels, the effects of which the hormone tries to regulate.
  • High stress levels, including stress caused by acute illnesses, body injuries, pregnancy, especially in the last two months, as well as surgery.
  • Pituitary tumors. Some of these tumors release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which encourages adrenal glands to release excess cortisol.
  • Athletic training. Such activities cause insulin fluctuations in the body which might cause excess cortisol production which tries to regulate insulin effects.

How is Cushing Syndrome Treated?

Treatment depends on where the source of the condition is to be found. If Cushing syndrome is linked to steroid use, then a doctor will likely recommend that the patient decrease the frequency or dosage of the drug. In the event of gland problems or tumor growth, surgery can resolve the issue.

Cushing Syndrome Prevention

There are no known ways of preventing Cushing syndrome. Being aware of the symptoms seems to be the most critical component to identify the condition and begin treatment as soon as possible. However, doctors provide the following pieces of advice to manage the predisposing factors for people without the syndrome and those in the treatment phase.

  • Sensible eating is advised which should include whole foods with a lot of vitamin D and calcium.
  • Monitor and maintain proper mental health and see a doctor once there are visible signs of depression.
  • Engage in exercises that activate the brain and improve its functionality. Such activities include math problems, crosswords, and Scrabble, among others.
  • Soothe any existing body pains while taking good care of it. This includes eating and exercising within your body’s limits.
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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 12, 2017