Endocrine System: Facts, Functions and Diseases

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The endocrine system is a complex network of glands and organs. It uses hormones to control and coordinate your body’s metabolism, energy level, reproduction, growth and development, and response to injury, stress, and mood.
The following are integral parts of the endocrine system. Hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is located at the base of the brain, near the optic chiasm where the optic nerves behind each eye cross and meet.
The hypothalamus secretes hormones that stimulate or suppress the release of hormones in the pituitary gland, in addition to controlling water balance, sleep, temperature, appetite, and blood pressure.

Pineal body. The pineal body is located below the corpus callosum, in the middle of the brain. It produces the hormone melatonin, which helps the body know when it’s time to sleep.

Pituitary. The pituitary gland is located below the brain. Usually no larger than a pea, the gland controls many functions of the other endocrine glands.

Thyroid and parathyroid. The thyroid gland and parathyroid glands are located in front of the neck, below the larynx (voice box). The thyroid plays an important role in the body’s metabolism. The parathyroid glands play an important role in the regulation of the body’s calcium balance.

Thymus. The thymus is located in the upper part of the chest and produces white blood cells that fight infections and destroy abnormal cells.

Adrenal gland. An adrenal gland is located on top of each kidney. Like many glands, the adrenal glands work hand-in-hand with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The adrenal glands make and release corticosteroid hormones and epinephrine that maintain blood pressure and regulate metabolism.

Pancreas. The pancreas is located across the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. The pancreas plays a role in digestion, as well as hormone production. Hormones produced by the pancreas include insulin and glucagon, which regulate levels of blood sugar.

Ovary. A woman’s ovaries are located on both sides of the uterus, below the opening of the fallopian tubes (tubes that extend from the uterus to the ovaries). In addition to containing the egg cells necessary for reproduction, the ovaries also produce estrogen and progesterone.

Testis. A man’s testes are located in a pouch that hangs suspended outside the male body. The testes produce testosterone and sperm.

 Functions of Endocrine system

The endocrine system is made up of the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries (in females) and testicles (in males), according to the Mayo Clinic.

The word endocrine derives from the Greek words “endo,” meaning within, and “crinis,” meaning to secrete, according to Health Mentor Online. In general, a gland selects and removes materials from the blood, processes them and secretes the finished chemical product for use somewhere in the body. The endocrine system affects almost every organ and cell in the body, according to the Merck Manual.

The thyroid also secretes a range of hormones that affect the whole body. “Thyroid hormones impact a host of vital body functions, including heart rate, skin maintenance, growth, temperature regulation, fertility and digestion,” said Dr. Jerome M. Hershman, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and author of the thyroid sections of the Merck Manual.

Diseases of the endocrine system

Hormone levels that are too high or too low indicate a problem with the endocrine system. Hormone diseases also occur if your body does not respond to hormones in the appropriate ways. Stress, infection and changes in the blood’s fluid and electrolyte balance can also influence hormone levels, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The most common endocrine disease in the United States is diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose, a simple sugar. This is due to the lack of insulin or, if the body is producing insulin, because the body is not working effectively, according to Dr. Jennifer Loh, chief of the department of endocrinology for Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii.

Diabetes can be linked to obesity, diet and family history, according to Dr. Alyson Myers of North Shore-LIJ Health System. “To diagnose diabetes, we do an oral glucose tolerance test with fasting.”

It is also important to understand the patient’s health history as well as the family history, Myers noted. Infections and medications such as blood thinners can also cause adrenal deficiencies.

Diabetes is treated with pills or insulin injections. Managing other endocrine disorders typically involves stabilizing hormone levels with medication or, if a tumor is causing an overproduction of a hormone, by removing the tumor. Treating endocrine disorders takes a very careful and personalized approach, Myers said, as adjusting the levels of one hormone can impact the balance of other hormones.

Hormone imbalances can have a significant impact on the reproductive system, particularly in women, Loh explained.

Another disorder, hypothyroidism, a parathyroid disease, occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone to meet the body’s needs. Loh noted that insufficient thyroid hormone can cause many of the body’s functions to slow or shut down completely. It has an easy treatment, though. “Parathyroid disease is a curable cause of kidney stones,” said Dr. Melanie Goldfarb, an endocrine surgeon and director of the Endocrine Tumor Program at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and an assistant professor of surgery at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica. The damaged part of the gland is removed surgically.

Thyroid cancer begins in the thyroid gland and starts when the cells in the thyroid begin to change, grow uncontrollably and eventually form a tumor, according to Loh. Tumors — both benign and cancerous — can also disrupt the functions of the endocrine system, Myers explained. Between the years of 1975 and 2013, the cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed yearly have more than tripled, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). “While overdiagnosis may be an important component to this observed epidemic, it clearly does not explain the whole story,” said Dr. Julie Sosa, one of the authors of the new study and the chief of endocrine surgery at Duke University in North Carolina. The American Cancer Society predicts that there will be about 53,990 new cases of thyroid cancer in 2018 and around 2,060 deaths from thyroid cancer.

Hypoglycemia, also called low blood glucose or low blood sugar, occurs when blood glucose drops below normal levels. This typically happens as a result of treatment for diabetes when too much insulin is taken. While Loh noted that the condition can occur in people not undergoing treatment for diabetes, such an occurrence is fairly rare.

What is an endocrinologist?

After completing four years of medical school, people who want to be endocrinologists then spend three or four years in an internship and residency program. These specialty programs cover internal medicine, pediatrics, or obstetrics and gynecology, according to the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Endocrinologists-in-training then spend two or three more years learning how to diagnose and treat hormone conditions. Overall, an endocrinologist’s training will take more than 10 years after the undergraduate degree. They are certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Endocrinologists typically specialize in one or two areas of endocrinology, such as diabetes or infertility. These specialists treat patients with fertility issues and also assess and treat patients with health concerns surrounding menstruation and menopause, Loh noted.

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