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5 Functional Medicine Lab Tests That Can Help Individualize Care for Addison’s Disease Patients

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5 Functional Medicine Lab Tests That Can Help Individualize Care for Addison’s Disease Patients

Addison's disease, affecting 1 in 100,000 individuals in the U.S., is an infrequent yet extremely troubling diagnosis for those affected. While the common symptoms include longstanding fatigue and darkening of the skin, it carries the potential for severe complications such as a lifethreatening condition known as adrenal crisis. As the United States continues to struggle with chronic health conditions, integrative medicine can offer a more comprehensive approach to management. 

This article will discuss the potential complications associated with Addison’s disease and will discuss functional medicine labs that practitioners can run to individualize treatment options for patients with this condition. 


What is Addison's Disease?

Addison's disease, also referred to as primary adrenal insufficiency, is a chronic and potentially life-threatening condition that arises when the adrenal glands don't produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. As part of your endocrine system, your adrenal glands, positioned atop each kidney, play a significant role in maintaining key physiological functions. Cortisol helps your body cope with stress, including illness, injury, or surgery and assists in regulating your blood pressure, heart function, immune system, and blood glucose levels. Aldosterone, on the other hand, controls the sodium and potassium balance in your blood, influencing the amount of fluid your kidneys remove, which in turn affects blood volume and blood pressure. It's worth noting that Addison's disease can affect anyone regardless of age, but it's most common in those between 30 to 50 years old. Individuals with autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome or other autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, Graves' disease, or myasthenia gravis are at a higher risk for developing this condition. When an autoimmune process triggers a deficiency in cortisol and aldosterone, resulting in bilateral adrenal cortex destruction, it's referred to as Addison's disease, which presents itself in varying degrees of severity depending on the rate and extent of adrenal function involvement (1,7).

Symptoms of Addison's Disease

Addison's disease often manifests as a series of progressively intensifying symptoms. The most frequently observed is a persistent sense of fatigue. Other physical changes may include developing darkened skin patches, particularly around scars, skin creases, and on gums. A range of additional symptoms can occur, including abdominal discomfort, a loss of appetite leading to unintended weight loss, discomfort in muscles and joints, and dehydration. Other symptoms may encompass changes in mood, a specific craving for salty foods, and episodes of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar levels. The variety and intensity of these symptoms can significantly vary among individuals (1).

Potential Complications Associated With Addison's Disease

Addison's disease progressively damages the adrenal glands over time and can lead to a number of potential complications. An Addisonian crisis or acute adrenal failure is one of the most significant and life-threatening complications. This can occur suddenly in response to situations of extreme stress or following an injury or severe illness. Symptoms of an Addisonian crisis are severe and may include extreme weakness, sudden intense pain in the lower back, belly, or legs, mental changes such as restlessness and confusion, severe vomiting and diarrhea potentially leading to dehydration, low blood pressure, and even loss of consciousness. It's important to seek immediate medical attention if these symptoms occur, as an Addisonian crisis is a medical emergency that can result in fatality if left untreated (1).

In addition to acute Addisonian crisis, long-term management of Addison's disease may be complicated by other conditions related to deficiencies in cortisol and aldosterone. These hormone deficiencies can lead to hyponatremia (low sodium levels), hyperkalemia (high potassium levels), and hypoglycemia (low blood glucose levels). Notably, hyponatremia results from the dual influence of both cortisol and aldosterone deficiency. Aldosterone deficiency leads to the loss of sodium, while cortisol deficiency results in an increase in the antidiuretic hormone, triggering increased water absorption and causing a drop in sodium levels. Hyperkalemia, on the other hand, results from low aldosterone levels, causing potassium retention. This particular condition can help distinguish primary adrenal insufficiency from secondary, as hyperkalemia does not occur in the latter. Meanwhile, hypoglycemia is multifactorial, with causes including decreased food intake and a lack of glucocorticoids, which are important for gluconeogenesis (2).

Another potential complication associated with Addison's disease is an autoimmune condition. The presence of antibodies against 21-hydroxylase, an enzyme essential for cortisol synthesis, may be detected in some individuals, indicating an autoimmune-mediated destruction of the adrenal glands. Thus, the diagnosis of Addison's disease may necessitate checking for other organ-specific autoimmune conditions (2).

Current Standard Medical Interventions For Addison's Disease Management

The primary treatment for Addison's disease involves hormone replacement therapy using synthetic substitutes to replenish the missing cortisol and aldosterone in the body. Hydrocortisone is used to replace cortisol, and fludrocortisone for aldosterone. The dosages vary among individuals, and these may be increased during stressful situations such as infection, trauma, or surgery to prevent an adrenal crisis (1).

For acute cases presenting with an adrenal crisis, immediate interventions include fluid resuscitation, dextrose administration to correct hypoglycemia and hormone correction. Initial hormonal treatment includes the administration of hydrocortisone, and during the acute phase, additional mineralocorticoids such as fludrocortisone are unnecessary due to the mineralocorticoid activity of hydrocortisone. Patients should also be carefully monitored to ensure timely treatment of hypoglycemia (2).

How is Addison’s Disease Diagnosed?

Addison's disease can be a challenging condition to diagnose, primarily because its symptoms often develop gradually and resemble those of various other conditions. Dark skin patches, as well as blood tests showing decreased sodium or increased potassium levels, often signal healthcare providers to consider this disease. To confirm a suspected diagnosis additional tests are typically ordered. These tests may include an ACTH stimulation test, which gauges the response of the adrenal glands to artificial ACTH, and an insulin-induced hypoglycemia test, which assesses the functioning of the pituitary gland by monitoring blood sugar levels before and after an insulin injection. A CT scan can also be used for visualizing the adrenal glands or pituitary gland, which can shed light on whether the immune system has inflicted any damage or if there's an infection (1). 

In regards to laboratory results, lowered levels of cortisol and aldosterone, along with elevated ACTH and renin levels, signal adrenal insufficiency. Furthermore, abnormalities like hyponatremia (low sodium), hyperkalemia (high potassium), and hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), as well as the presence of 21-hydroxylase antibodies, reinforce the likelihood of Addison's disease (1,2).  

Functional Medicine Labs to Test That Can Help Individualize Care for Addison’s Disease Patients

Functional medicine labs offer a variety of tests that can help diagnose and tailor treatment to patients, allowing providers to optimize management strategies.

ACTH Testing

This test helps to diagnose Addison's disease as it assesses how well the adrenal glands respond to ACTH, a hormone responsible for stimulating the production of cortisol, which is typically impaired in those with the disease (1,2). 

21-Hydroxylase and Autoimmune Testing

Since Addison's disease is often autoimmune in origin, testing for the presence of 21-hydroxylase antibodies can suggest that the condition is due to an autoimmune process. If Addison’s disease is diagnosed first, testing for autoimmune conditions may still be indicated since autoimmune conditions often play a role in the development of the disease (1,2). 

Comprehensive Metabolic Panel 

As Addison's disease can affect electrolyte balance (particularly sodium and potassium) and glucose levels, this test can help monitor these levels and other metabolic markers, guiding ongoing management (1,2).

Aldosterone Testing

This test measures the level of aldosterone, a hormone that regulates salt and water balance in the body. In Addison's disease, aldosterone production is typically low, which can lead to symptoms such as salt cravings, dehydration, and low blood pressure. Monitoring aldosterone levels can help guide treatment, particularly with regard to managing electrolyte balance and blood pressure (1,2).

Hormone Testing

The DUTCH Complete test gives a comprehensive view of adrenal function by examining cortisol and its metabolites. 

Exploring Integrative Approaches For Addison's Disease Management

Integrative approaches for Addison's disease management can yield considerable benefits, including improving the overall quality of life and correcting underlying health imbalances. Combining traditional treatments with complementary strategies like diet changes, mindfulness exercises, and supplementation allows for more effective disease management and overall improved health outcomes.

Nutritional Support For Addison's Disease Management

Managing Addison's disease and adrenal health necessitates a focus on proper nutrition and maintaining a well-balanced diet, with particular emphasis on certain essential nutrients. For individuals with Addison's who exhibit low aldosterone levels, a high-sodium diet is often recommended, as aldosterone regulates blood pressure by adjusting sodium and potassium levels. Thus, foods high in sodium, such as poultry, eggs, and burgers, can be beneficial. Contrary to typical dietary advice, those with primary adrenal insufficiency should not avoid salt but rather consume table salt over “low salt” products, since many salt alternatives contain potassium rather than sodium. Increasing salt intake can help prevent an adrenal crisis characterized by low blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, and faintness, symptoms similar to severe salt depletion. Furthermore, those taking high doses of corticosteroids, which are linked to osteoporosis, may need to ensure adequate dietary calcium and vitamin D intake or even consider calcium supplements to maintain bone health. Therefore, nutritional adjustments focused on sodium and bone-supportive nutrients are vital in managing Addison's disease effectively.

Supplements and Herbs Support For Addison's Disease Management

In managing Addison's disease, several supplements and herbs can be supportive. Ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb, plays a crucial role in maintaining normal energy levels and hormone balance, including the regulation of cortisol levels. Similarly, licorice root also contributes to enhancing cortisol availability. Another useful herb is Rhodiola rosea, known for its potential to reduce stress and fatigue, as well as to boost mental performance. Additionally, individuals with Addison's disease, particularly those on corticosteroid therapy, may need to safeguard their bone health by ensuring adequate intake of dietary calcium and vitamin D (23,24,25,26). 

Complementary Therapies For Addison's Disease Management

Complementary therapies can play a role in managing Addison's disease by mechanisms like reducing stress, which is important because stress can further strain the adrenal glands. Practices such as mindfulness, yoga, and meditation can help individuals better cope with their disease and reduce anxiety. Modalities like acupuncture, for instance, may help alleviate stress and promote better hormonal balance, while chiropractic care can assist in improving nervous system functioning and reducing stress. 

Stress Management and Mind-Body Techniques For Addison's Disease Management

Addison's disease disrupts the body’s cortisol levels, which dysregulates the stress response. Persistent high stress, which disrupts the ideal fluctuation of cortisol levels throughout the day, may lead to complications in those with Addison's. In this context, the effectiveness of mind-body therapies that work towards invoking the body's relaxation response, thereby mitigating the impact of stress on the adrenal glands. Techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises have demonstrated the potential to improve both physical and psychological stress measures. Incorporating such relaxation techniques into daily routines can therefore be a good choice for people with Addison's disease in order to reduce stress levels (1). 

Lifestyle Modifications and Exercise For Addison's Disease Management

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and partaking in regular exercise is important for adrenal health, as physical activity prompts the release of cortisol and fludrocortisone-like hormones in people with healthy adrenals. For people with Addison's disease, the challenge lies in tailoring exercise routines to match these normal hormone-release patterns, which might require some trial and error and, possibly, modifications to medication for intense exercises. An essential strategy in managing fatigue and improving health includes sensible post-exercise practices like consuming a small amount of glucose after strenuous workouts to help maintain energy stores and muscle balance. Also, understanding one's individual limits during exercise and making necessary medication adjustments, particularly during high-intensity workouts or competitions, can be beneficial in managing the disease.

Collaborative Approach and Patient Education For Addison's Disease Management

In managing Addison's disease, the importance of open communication and collaboration between healthcare providers and patients can form the foundation needed to create an effective treatment plan. It is equally important to empower patients with knowledge about integrative approaches and their potential benefits in order to get them involved in their care. Patients are therefore encouraged to seek guidance from qualified healthcare professionals experienced in integrative medicine to ensure safe and beneficial treatment regimens.



An Addison's disease diagnosis can upend one's life, but it's not the end of the road - there's real potential for effective management here. The key is full engagement with your health to avoid serious complications like an Addisonian crisis. That's where functional medicine comes in - it's not a one-note treatment; it's a full-scale, all-angles approach.

Functional medicine doesn't just throw medication at you and call it a day. It brings in lab tests, complementary therapies, and diet modifications, aiming to address your needs, not just the disease. This is what makes it an effective method for treating Addison's - by looking at the entire individual, therefore, enhancing the likelihood of reducing symptoms and improving quality of life.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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