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Cushing's disease was first described by a neurosurgeon named Dr Harvey Cushing in 1932

At normal levels, cortisol performs vital tasks in the body, including:

  • Helping maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function
  • Reducing the immune system's inflammatory response
  • Affecting glucose storage and metabolism
  • Regulating the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
  • Helping the body respond to stress

A benign tumor is called an adenoma; and unlike a cancerous (malignant) tumor, it stays in its original location and will not spread through the blood or lymphatic systems

A closer look at Cushing's disease and hypercortisolism

Cushing's disease is a rare hormone disorder

Cushing's disease is a specific form of Cushing's syndrome. It occurs when a benign (noncancerous) tumor on the pituitary gland, just below the brain, produces excessive amounts of a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels through your blood to your adrenal glands (located on your kidneys) and signals them to produce an excessive amount of an important steroid hormone called cortisol.

When a person's level of cortisol is too high (called hypercortisolism) for too long, it can lead to many different symptoms. At a normal level, cortisol supports many bodily processes, such as metabolism and your ability to fight infection. For people with Cushing's disease, hypercortisolism can lead to many different health problems that are described in the section of called Understanding the long-term effects of Cushing's disease.

How a pituitary tumor causes Cushing's disease

Tumor grows on the pituitary gland and produces excessive amounts of ACTH

ACTH travels through the blood to the adrenal glands, above the kidneys

Adrenal glands release excessive amounts of cortisol, which travels throughout the body

The level of cortisol builds up over time to cause the signs and symptoms of Cushing's disease (physical, emotional, cognitive)

Learn the difference between Cushing's disease and Cushing's syndrome >