Linda Crampton is a writer and former teacher with a first-class honors degree in biology. She writes about the scientific basis of disease.
What Is Aldosterone?
Aldosterone is a hormone made by our adrenal glands. When it's released into the bloodstream, it increases the sodium level in the blood and decreases the potassium level. These changes cause blood volume and blood pressure to increase.
The amount of aldosterone that enters the blood changes as internal conditions in the body change. The hormone adjusts blood volume and blood pressure as necessary to help our body function properly.
Hyperaldosteronism is a disorder in which too much aldosterone is made. The excess hormone causes the blood pressure to increase beyond a healthy level. In hypoaldosteronism, not enough aldosterone is made, which results in a blood pressure that is too low.
The Adrenal Glands and the Kidneys
There are two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney. The right adrenal gland (from the owner's point of view) has a triangular shape. The left one is shaped like a half-moon. The outer layer of the adrenal gland is called the cortex and the inner layer is called the medulla. Each layer secretes different chemicals, as shown in the illustration above. Aldosterone is made by the adrenal cortex.
Sodium Ion Reabsorption
Sodium ions are filtered out of the blood and into the kidney tubules (nephrons). If the ions stay in the nephrons, they are transported to the urinary bladder and released from the body in urine. Some sodium ions are reabsorbed into the blood vessels around the nephrons and don't reach the urinary bladder, however. One function of aldosterone is to increase sodium ion reabsorption from the nephrons.
Whenever sodium ions are reabsorbed into the bloodstream, the reabsorption of water molecules follows. The water increases the volume of the blood, which in turn increases blood pressure. Therefore, aldosterone indirectly increases both blood volume and blood pressure.
Potassium Ion Excretion
Aldosterone also regulates the concentration of potassium ions in the blood. As sodium ions are reabsorbed into the blood vessels around the nephron, potassium ions are transported in the opposite direction—from the blood vessels into the nephron—and are then excreted in the urine. Aldosterone increases this transport and excretion of potassium ions.
Hyperaldosteronism is an abnormally high level of aldosterone in the body. It can arise due to a problem within the adrenal glands (primary hyperaldosteronism) or to a problem which originates outside the adrenal glands (secondary hyperaldosteronism).
Primary hyperaldosteronism is also called Conn's syndrome. It's often caused by a tumor in one of the adrenal glands. The tumor is usually an adenoma and is benign, meaning that it stays in one place and is non-cancerous. Sometimes the term Conn's syndrome is reserved for primary hyperaldosteronism produced by an adenoma. Rarely, the condition is caused by a cancerous tumor in an adrenal gland.
Primary hyperaldosteronism may also develop due to idiopathic adrenal hyperplasia. “Hyperplasia” means increased cell production, which causes enlargement of an organ or gland, and “idiopathic” means that there is no known cause for the change. Generally both the adrenal glands undergo hyperplasia.
It was once thought that Conn's syndrome was a rare disorder. Now doctors are beginning to think that it is more common than previously believed and is responsible for some cases of hypertension (high blood pressure). The condition is most common in adults than children. There is a rare inherited form of the disorder called familial hyperaldosteronism which may appear in childhood, however.
Secondary hyperaldosteronism is caused by a factor outside the adrenal glands that stimulates the production of aldosterone.
One possible cause of secondary hyperaldosteronism is an increase in renin due to a kidney disorder. Renin is an enzyme that is made by the kidneys. The enzyme is released into the bloodstream when there is low blood pressure caused by low blood volume. It's also released when the concentration of sodium ions in the nephrons is too high and the concentration in the blood is too low.
Renin triggers a series of reactions that stimulate aldosterone release. The aldosterone returns conditions to normal by stimulating sodium ion reabsorption into the body and increasing blood volume (and therefore blood pressure). If too much renin is produced, the level of aldosterone will increase, too.
Secondary hyperaldosteronism may also develop as part of some other diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver and congestive heart failure.
Possible Symptoms of Hyperaldosteronism
People with too much aldosterone in their bodies often develop high blood pressure. This disorder may cause no additional symptoms. It may produce problems such as headaches, vision problems, and an irregular heartbeat, however.
Some patients with hyperaldosteronism develop symptoms of a potassium deficiency. A low potassium level is known as hypokalemia. A mild case of hypokalemia may cause no symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they may include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, and cramps. The patient may also experience an irregular heartbeat. If the disorder lasts for a long time, there may be excessive urine production.
Licorice and Hyperaldosteronism-Like Symptoms
Licorice doesn’t cause hyperaldosteronism, but it can produce similar effects. True licorice contains a sweet substance called glycyrrhizin, which affects the body in a similar way to aldosterone. It raises the level of sodium ions in the blood, increases blood volume, and increases blood pressure. It also lowers the level of potassium ions in the blood.
Licorice is obtained from the roots of the licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Most “licorice” bought in candy stores actually contains very little or no real licorice root and is flavored with other substances, such as anise oil. This is safe to eat as far as changing blood pressure is concerned. However, herbal teas containing licorice, real licorice candies, and other products containing licorice root should be used with caution.
A doctor will likely have a variety of treatments to offer someone with hyperaldosteronism. An adrenal gland tumor may be surgically removed. Drugs may be given to block the action of excess aldosterone. Potassium supplements may be prescribed for temporary use before the aldosterone level returns to normal. The treatment of other disorders that are producing the hyperaldosteronism may also return the hormone to a normal level.
The hormones released by the adrenal cortex belong to three classes of steroid chemicals: the mineralocorticoids (such as aldosterone), the glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) and the androgens (a group of hormones that produce male characteristics).
A low blood level of aldosterone is known as hypoaldosteronism. The condition on its own is often considered to be a rare disease. It may appear as part of another condition, however. Aldosterone deficiency is most often accompanied by a deficiency of other hormones made by the adrenal cortex in a condition called primary adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s disease. In this disorder, the adrenal cortex fails to produce enough of one or more of its hormones. Primary adrenal insufficiency develops due to damage to the adrenal cortex.
There are other possible causes of hypoaldosteronism. Kidney damage may lead to decreased renin production, which may then result in decreased production of aldosterone. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and certain diuretics have been found to lower the aldosterone level in the blood of some people. Diabetics are more likely to develop hypoaldosteronism than non-diabetics.
Hypoaldosteronism may also be caused by some autoimmune diseases. Our immune system normally attacks bacteria, viruses, and other agents that can cause disease. In an autoimmune condition, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. If these tissues are directly or indirectly involved in aldosterone production, a problem may develop.
Aldosterone Action in Detail
Possible Symptoms of Hypoaldosteronism
Possible signs of hypoaldosteronism include a high blood potassium level (hyperkalemia), low blood sodium level, and low blood pressure. Each of these conditions can produce its own set of symptoms, some of which are listed below. (As in hyperaldosteronism, the symptoms may be caused by other disorders. A doctor should be consulted if the symptoms are present.)
- Hyperkalemia can cause an irregular heartbeat or a slow heart rate, muscle fatigue, and weakness.
- A low concentration of sodium ions in the blood is known as hyponatremia. Symptoms can include fatigue, confusion, muscle twitches, weakness, nausea, and a headache
- Very low blood pressure can cause symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting (technically known as syncope), blurred vision, nausea, and cold, pale skin.
Possible Treatments for Hypoaldosteronism
Possible treatments for hypoaldosteronism include dealing with the health problems that are interfering with aldosterone production, replacing medications that are lowering the blood level of the hormone, and the use of mineralocorticoid medications to replace the missing aldosterone.
Aldosterone is a very useful molecule, but it can cause big problems when it is in excess or at an inadequate level. Fortunately, doctors have ways to help most people with these problems.
- Primary hyperaldosteronism information from the Mayo Clinic
- Hyperaldosteronism chapter from the consumer edition of the Merck Manual (a leading medical textbook)
- Facts about hypoaldosteronism from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- Adrenal Insufficiency and Addison's Disease from the NIH
- Information about licorice in respect to health from WebMD
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 21, 2011:
Thank you for the comment and vote, RTalloni!
RTalloni on March 21, 2011:
Interesting info to keep in mind. This is a great reference for anyone in need. Voted up.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 15, 2011:
Thank you for your comment, A.A. Zavala.
Hello, crystolite. It's nice to meet you. Thanks for commenting.
Emma from Houston TX on March 15, 2011:
Great teaching in here that is very very useful,thanks for impacting some knowledge in me.
Augustine A Zavala from Texas on March 15, 2011:
I had no idea about the licorice connection to the adrenals. Thank you for sharing.