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Everything you need to know about Cushing’s Syndrome

We all know how important hormones are for your health, so when they’re out of whack they can wreak havoc on your body.

When you take medication, the hope is that it makes your problem go away. And, with the guidance of clever doctors or other medical professionals, that’s usually what happens. 

The prescription is written, then taken to the chemist, and ideally, the condition is either managed, prevented, or cured. 

However, sometimes it’s not that simple, and taking medication for one thing can impact the body in other ways – either through an interaction with another medicine, an underlying disease, or just as a side effect. 

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For people who take Glucocorticoid medication, for the management of auto-immune diseases, inflammation, or asthma, the intended result is that the conditions are managed. But sometimes, people can develop a rare illness as a result of these steroid hormones, which can throw things out of whack. 

For some, that results in a form of extreme and hard-feeling “weight gain” around their upper torso, which can result in the patient looking pregnant. It’s called Cushing’s syndrome, is caused by the body making too much cortisol – or from taking medications like Glucocorticoid which mimic the effect of cortisol. 

It’s hard to diagnose because other illnesses have similar symptoms, but in the rare case you do have Cushing’s, it can have distressing knock-on effects to your health. 

We asked GP Dr Kavita Jade to share the key things everyone should know about Cushing’s disease, including symptoms, why it happens, and how to cure it. 

What is Cushing’s Syndrome? 

“Cushing’s Syndrome is caused by an overproduction of the hormone cortisol,” says Jade. “It leads to a range of symptoms.” 

So first, what is cortisol? “Cortisol is our primary stress hormone, along with adrenaline and an activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System or fight or flight system,” founder of Body Clinic Sydney, Nigel Morgan tells Body+Soul. “Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidney in response to a signal from the brain when we perceive something to be stressful.  

“Evolutionarily, the stress response is what kept us alive, it allowed us to survive starvation, extreme weather, and physical threats. However, it doesn’t matter what the type of stress we experience is, we activate the same system of cortisol release into the bloodstream as the defence.” 

Cushing’s syndrome happens when the body has too much of the hormone cortisol for a long time, writes the Mayo Clinic

“This can result from the body making too much cortisol, or from taking medicines called glucocorticoids, which affect the body the same way as cortisol.” The same goes for corticosteroids, says Jade. 

She also notes that there’s another cause of Cushing’s syndrome, which is “due to a pituitary or adrenal tumour”, which can similarly stimulate cortisol production. 

What are the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome? 

Most of the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome come from the high level of cortisol itself, which can make it hard to identify. 

Common symptoms include

  • A fatty hump between the shoulders, commonly and insensitively called a “buffalo hump” 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Progressive weight gain
  • Skin thinning 
  • Facial flushing 
  • Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin 
  • Weight gain in the face, referred to as “moon face” 
  • Hair loss 
  • Slow wound healing 
  • Acne

Symptoms for men and women can often differ. Women should look out for

  • Thick, dark hair on the face and body, a condition is called hirsutism
  • Periods that are irregular or that stop

Symptoms men with Cushing syndrome may experience

  • Lower sex drive
  • Reduced fertility
  • Problems getting an erection

Why can Cushing’s syndrome make you look pregnant? 

“Cushing’s syndrome can cause an individual to appear pregnant due to accumulation of abdominal fat secondary to the raised cortisol levels,” says Jade. “This causes Central obesity and leads to a rounded, protruding abdomen which can appear pregnant.” 

While this often passes as ‘normal’ weight gain, this fat depository is discernible by its firmness, more similar to a bloated or pregnant abdomen, than one with a larger fat layer. 

How to cure Cushing’s Syndrome

You can recover from Cushing’s syndrome, by “addressing the underlying causes,” says Jade. 

Depending on your individual circumstances, that could either involve “tumour resection or ceasing corticosteroid medication.” 

“The sooner treatment starts, the better the chances for recovery,” writes the Mayo Clinic. 

Read one woman’s personal experience with Cushing’s syndrome, here.

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