How does COVID-19 impact the adrenal gland?

This month marks a little over one year since the first surge of COVID-19 across the United States. April is also Adrenal Insufficiency Awareness month, a good time to review the data on how COVID-19 infection can impact the adrenal glands.

The adrenal glands make hormones to help regulate blood pressure and the ability to respond to stress. The hormones include steroids such as glucocorticoid (cortisol), mineralocorticoid (aldosterone), and forms of adrenaline known as catecholamines (norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine). The activity of the adrenal gland is controlled through its relationship with the pituitary gland (the master regulator of hormones in the body).

covid-19-test-swab
An example of a COVID-19 nasal swab test.

Some common adrenal diseases include the following:

COVID-19 was found in the adrenal and pituitary glands of some patients who succumbed to the illness, suggesting that these organs might be among the targets for infection.  One of the first highly effective therapies for COVID-19 infection was the use of IV steroid (dexamethasone) supplementation in hospitalized patients in patients requiring oxygen.

A focused search of COVID-19-related health literature shows 85 peer-reviewed papers that have been published in medical literature specifically on the adrenal gland and COVID-19. This literature focuses on three phases of COVID infection that may impact the adrenal gland: the acute active infection phase, the immediate post-infection phase, and the long-term recovery phase.

Medical research has identified that during the acute active infection, the adrenal system is one of the most heavily affected organ systems in the body in patients who have COVID-19 infection requiring hospitalization. In these cases, supplementation with the steroid dexamethasone serves as one of the most powerful lifesaving treatments.

Concern has also been raised regarding the period of time just after the acute infection phase – particularly, the development of adrenal insufficiency following cases of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Additionally, some professional societies recommend that for patients who have adrenal insufficiency and are on adrenal replacement therapy, they be monitored closely post-COVID-19 vaccine for the development of stress-induced adrenal insufficiency.

In mild-to-moderate COVID-19 cases, there does not seem to be an effect on adrenaline-related hormones (norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine). However, in cases of severe COVID-19 infection triggering the development of shock, patients will need supplementation with an infusion of catecholamines and a hormone called vasopressin to maintain their blood pressure.

Finally, some studies have addressed the concern of adrenal insufficiency during the long-term recovery phase. Dr Sara Bedrose, adrenal endocrine specialist at  Baylor College of Medicine, indicates that studies which included adrenal function in COVID survivors showed a large percentage of patients with suboptimal cortisol secretion during what is called ACTH stimulation testing.

Results indicated that most of those cases had central adrenal insufficiency. It was concluded that adrenal insufficiency might be among the long-term consequences of COVID-19 and it seemed to be secondary to pituitary gland inflammation (called hypophysitis) or due to direct hypothalamic damage. Long-term follow-up of COVID 19 survivors will be necessary to exclude a gradual and late-onset adrenal insufficiency.

Some patients who have COVID-19 will experience prolonged symptoms. To understand what is happening to them, patients may question whether or not they have a phenomenon called adrenal fatigue. This is a natural question to ask, especially after having such a severe health condition. A tremendous amount of resources are being developed to investigate the source and treatment of the symptoms, and this work has only just begun.

However, adrenal fatigue is not a real medical diagnosis. It’s a term to describe a group of signs and symptoms that arise due to underactive adrenal glands. Current scientific data indicate that adrenal fatigue is not in and of itself a medical disease – although a variety of over-the-counter supplements and compounded medications may be advocated for in treatment by alternative medicine/naturopathic practitioners.

My takeaway is that we have learned a great deal about the effects COVID-19 infection has on the adrenal glands. Long-term COVID-19 remains an area to be explored –  especially in regards to how it may affect the adrenal glands.

-By Dr. James Suliburk, associate professor of surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology and section chief of endocrine surgery for the Thyroid and Parathyroid Center at Baylor College of Medicine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *