Over-eating isn’t always to blame for people who struggle with extra weight. For some, the weight may come from health complications and disease.
Cushing’s syndrome is a health problem that affects 2-10 people per million. For those who are diagnosed, it is a serious issue for many of their organs and systems,and can cause weight gain.
Hypercortisolism is when levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are elevated for a long period of time, which is the cause of Cushing’s syndrome. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands and is responsible for many mechanisms in the body, including blood pressure regulation, maintaining cardiovascular function, response to stress and metabolism regulation for fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Because of the vast array of responsibilities, excess cortisol can produce many complications in Cushing’s syndrome.
Signs and symptoms include: weight gain in the stomach, face (moon face) and back (buffalo hump), red or purple stretch-marks, muscle weakness, depression and anxiety, acne, decreased libido, headaches and possible glucose intolerance (diabetes).
There are two types of Cushing’s syndrome: exogenous and endogenous. Exogenous is caused by use of oral corticosteroid medication, which is prescribed for asthma, arthritis, irritable bowel disease, lupus, and patients who have received transplant organs. Endogenous is caused by tumors on or near the adrenal glands, or primary adrenal gland disease, both of which can interfere with cortisol production.
Though Cushing’s syndrome is quite rare, it usually affects women more so than men, ages 20-50 years. To get tested, it is best to call your primary healthcare doctor first. Generally they will do a physical examination to assess the signs and symptoms, and then will perform urine, blood or saliva tests. If you are not on any medications that could affect your cortisol levels, they may decide to do imaging tests to screen for tumors as well.