How Cushing's Syndrome Can Contribute to Weight Gain

Physical characteristics of individuals with Cushing’s Syndrome were first noted in 1932 by American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing. Cushing noted abnormal obesity of the face and trunk in various patients. Cushing also noted that a link existed between a specific type of pituitary tumor and abnormal obesity. The pituitary gland is a small gland at the bottom of the brain that controls hormones that affect metabolism, growth, and maturation.

How Cushing’s Syndrome Works

In patients with Cushing’s Syndrome, the adrenal cortex, which secretes corticosterone and sex hormones, produces too much cortisol. Cortisol is crucial to protein and carbohydrate metabolism. When the adrenal cortex produces too much cortisol, this overproduction may result in adrenal tumors or excess production of Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is the major pituitary hormone regulating adrenal function.

Cushing’s Syndrome and Weight Gain

Symptoms of Cushing’s Syndrome, such as sudden weight gain, are caused by excess cortisol. The excess cortisol in the body does not increase protein and carbohydrate metabolism. It slows or nearly disables metabolism function, which can cause weight gain (fat accumulation) in the buttocks, abdomen, cheeks, neck, or upper back. This rare disease also causes loss of muscle mass. This means some areas of the body, such as the arms and legs, will remain thin.

Controlling Weight Gain Resulting from Cushing’s Syndrome

Weight gain resulting from Cushing’s Syndrome cannot be controlled with diet and exercise. The only way to manage excess weight associated with the disease is to see your doctor for an official diagnosis. Your doctor will collect a saliva or urine sample. Based on the levels of cortisol found in the sample, the physician can determine whether you have the condition and the exact cause of it.

After diagnosis, your doctor will create a treatment program based on the cause of excess cortisol production (i.e., pituitary tumors, ACTH, etc.). Depending on the cause, treatment may include oral medications such as decadron (dexamethasone), a synthetic andrenocortical steroid or radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or surgical removal of pituitary tumors.

Although uncommon, some conditions may be so severe that the adrenal glands must be either partially or completely removed. Once the adrenal glands have been removed, the patient must be treated with cortisol, daily. Even after the disease has been cured, a host of other problems may occur as a direct result of the changes that occurred in the body during the development of the disease. Cushing’s Syndrome can cause osteoporosis, diabetes, and kidney, heart, and blood vessel conditions.

When to See Your Doctor

Unevenly distributed, sudden weight gain is not the only symptom of Cushing’s Syndrome. If sudden weight gain is accompanied by any of the symptoms listed below, or if it is your only symptom, please see your doctor immediately.

·Easy bruising
·Facial plethora (flushed face)
·Glucose intolerance or diabetes mellitus
·Hirsutism (excess hair in odd places such as the face for women)
·Hyperlipidemia (elevated lipids (cholesterol) in the blood stream)
·Menstrual disorders
·Proximal muscle weakness
·Recurrent opportunistic or bacterial infections


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