DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My daughter is 37 and had been feeling very sick for a couple of months. One doctor put her in the hospital and ran tests, and then sent her home with no answer. She returned to the hospital, had more tests and was finally diagnosed with Addison's disease. Her skin had gotten dark. She was told she would be on steroids for the rest of her life. I've read about steroids and they really scare me, but if she's not treated, she could die. What can you tell me about this? - L.K.
ANSWER: The adrenal glands are small glands. They sit on top of the kidneys. Small as they are, they play a huge role in the body's health. The "steroids" they make are hormones that control inflammation and blood pressure, regulate the balance of sodium and potassium, and direct the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. They are not the muscle-building steroids you read about in the sports pages, although the glands do produce a small amount of male hormones in both men and women.
Without adrenal-gland hormones, people become extremely fatigued, lose their appetite and lose weight, develop low blood pressure and often complain of joint and back pain. Their sodium and potassium levels are out of whack. Their skin darkens. Previously, infections of the glands - TB being high on the list - were the chief cause of adrenal-gland failure. Today it's an assault on the gland by the immune system.
You don't have to fear your daughter's taking replacement hormones. She's getting the amount her body needs, not an excess. She won't have any side effects from treatment. Without treatment, her life is in danger.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853- 6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from www.rbmamall.com