Type 1 Diabetes and Addison’s Disease: What’s the Connection?

June 03,2021 |
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There are hundreds of different kinds of autoimmune disorders that can affect people in different ways. In these instances, your body begins to attack healthy tissues, much like it would attack viruses or bacteria. While some autoimmune disorders are mild, others can severely affect how certain body parts function. Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common types of autoimmune disease in the United States. It leads to serious disruptions to everyday life and can be life-threatening if not properly managed. Not only do you need to take insulin daily to regulate your blood sugar levels, but you’re also at a higher risk for developing other autoimmune diseases like Addison’s disease. Here, we’ll discuss the connection between type 1 diabetes and Addison’s disease.

Understanding Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that affects your pancreas. Your immune system targets the cells that produce insulin and destroys them, thinking that they’re foreign invaders. This means that to properly digest food and regulate blood glucose levels, you need to monitor blood sugar and take insulin when needed. Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment and care. Unfortunately, doctors aren’t sure what causes type 1 diabetes, although genetics seem to play a large role in the development.

Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

Luckily, type 1 diabetes is manageable as long as it’s properly diagnosed and treated. To make sure that you reduce your chances for developing ongoing complications, keep an eye out for any type 1 diabetes symptoms. While these usually peak during early childhood, type 1 diabetes can occur at any age. See your doctor if you or your child experience:

  • Increased urination
  • Feeling dehydrated
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis

Untreated type 1 diabetes can lead to kidney damage, nerve damage, eye damage, heart and blood vessel disease, skin and mouth conditions, pregnancy complications, and more. See your doctor as soon as possible to reduce your likelihood of further damage.

The Difference Between Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes

While type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder, type 2 diabetes is not. Instead, type 2 diabetes is caused by an overall insulin resistance paired with inadequate insulin production. This is often linked to genetics and lifestyle choices. Type 2 diabetes is much more common and can be prevented with healthy lifestyle changes. However, both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes require ongoing care and administration of insulin.

What is Addison’s Disease?

Your adrenal glands work tirelessly to produce several critical hormones that help your body function properly. They’re located on top of the kidneys and help to regulate your body’s fight-or-flight system in addition to a number of other functions. Although rare, Addison’s disease is a condition that occurs when the adrenal cortex is damaged. This damage reduces your adrenal gland’s ability to regulate hormone production, specifically cortisol and aldosterone. Your body therefore does not produce the amount of these hormones necessary for proper functioning. Cortisol is the stress hormone while aldosterone helps your body regulate sodium and potassium. The adrenal cortex is also responsible for sex hormones. Addison’s disease is commonly referred to as primary adrenal insufficiency and is considered an autoimmune disease.

Causes of Addison’s Disease

Addison’s disease is caused by an autoimmune response, meaning that your body’s immune system begins to attack its own organs and tissues. In this case, the adrenal glands are targeted. Addison’s disease can also occur from injury to the adrenal glands, infection, cancer, internal bleeding, surgical removal of adrenal glands, genetic defects, and amyloidosis. You’re at higher risk for developing Addison’s disease if you currently have cancer, take anticoagulants, experience chronic infections, or have other autoimmune diseases—such as type 1 diabetes.

How Common is Addison’s Disease?

Addison’s disease is rare. It affects only 1 in 100,000 people and is most likely to develop between the ages of 30 and 50. It is uncommon for people in the general population to experience Addison’s disease and more commonly appears in those with other autoimmune disorders.

Symptoms of Addison’s Disease

Since your hormones are responsible for so many crucial aspects of regulation, the symptoms of Addison’s disease can affect several functions. They include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Salt cravings
  • Mouth sores
  • Fainting
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Darkening of skin color
  • Low blood sugar
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Lack of energy
  • Problems sleeping

Untreated Addison’s disease can lead to a more severe condition called Addisonian crisis, which is a life-threatening medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know begins to experience a mental status change such as confusion, fear, delirium, visual or auditory hallucinations, high fever, loss of consciousness, or a sudden pain in the lower back, belly, or legs. When untreated, this can be fatal.

Diagnosing Addison’s Disease

To diagnose Addison’s disease, medical history is often compared to symptoms. A physical examination is also performed, and you may need to undergo blood tests to determine potassium and sodium levels. Imaging tests and an ACTH stimulation test to check hormone levels are commonly performed for the most accurate diagnosis.

The Difference Between Addison’s Disease and Secondary Adrenal Insufficiency

There are two types of adrenal insufficiencies that can occur: Addison’s disease (or primary adrenal insufficiency) and secondary adrenal insufficiency. The difference is that while Addison’s disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the adrenal glands, secondary adrenal insufficiency affects the pituitary gland. In this disease, the pituitary gland does not produce enough adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), which in turn damages the adrenal glands themselves.

Treating Addison’s Disease

When properly diagnosed, treating Addison’s disease is simple but requires ongoing medication. Your doctor will likely prescribe hormones to replace the insufficiencies of your adrenal glands. Depending on the hormone deficiencies you’re experiencing, you will likely take hydrocortisone, fludrocortisone acetate, or other combinations that help to regulate your adrenal glands. If your prescribed glucocorticoids, it’s very important that you do not miss a dose. This medication will be taken for the rest of your life.

It’s also important that you learn to manage your stress levels, as heightened periods of stress affect how your body responds to medication. However, with hormone therapy and ongoing medication, people living with Addison’s disease can lead a perfectly healthy, normal life. As a precaution, always carry extra medication and consider having a cortisol shot on you for emergencies.

What is the Connection Between Type 1 Diabetes and Addison’s Disease?

Since type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, it increases the risk that your body will begin to attack other healthy cells. This means that other autoimmune problems like Addison’s disease can develop, but it does not mean that they are caused by diabetes itself. However, the risk of developing Addison’s disease is about 10 times higher in people living with type 1 diabetes, therefore it’s important to be aware of early warning signs and symptoms to avoid dangerous complications. Unfortunately, having both type 1 diabetes and Addison’s disease can increase your risk of premature death substantially. When both autoimmune diseases are present, it’s called Schmidt syndrome or autoimmune polyglandular syndrome type II (APS II).

To avoid potential problems and help improve longevity, properly managing your type 1 diabetes is essential. If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, make sure that you’re regularly checking your blood glucose levels and making healthy lifestyle choices. By eating a diet rich in nutrients, getting plenty of exercise, and taking your insulin properly, you’ll greatly reduce your risk of complications. If you have both type 1 diabetes and Addison’s disease, make sure that you’re treating both correctly. Talk to your doctor to determine the best management plan and if you have any concerns, discuss them as they occur. To help you live a healthy life, Byram Healthcare has a range of diabetes management products, including our Caring Touch at Home™ Program.