The endocrine system is a network of glands that produce and release hormones that help control many important body functions, especially the body's ability to change calories into energy that powers cells and organs. The endocrine system influences how your heart beats, how your bones and tissues grow, even your ability to make a baby. It plays a vital role in whether or not you develop diabetes, thyroid disease, growth disorders, sexual dysfunction and a host of other hormone-related disorders.
Glands of the endocrine system
Each gland of the endocrine system releases specific hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones travel through your blood to other cells and help control or coordinate many body processes.
Endocrine glands include:
- Adrenal glands. Two glands that sit on top of the kidneys that release the hormone cortisol.
- Hypothalamus. A part of the lower middle brain that tells the pituitary gland when to release hormones.
- Ovaries. The female reproductive organs that release eggs and produce sex hormones.
- Islet cells in the pancreas. Cells in the pancreas control the release of the hormones insulin and glucagon.
- Parathyroid. Four tiny glands in the neck that play a role in bone development.
- Pineal gland. A gland found near the centre of the brain that may be linked to sleep patterns.
- Pituitary gland. A gland found at the base of brain behind the sinuses. It is often called the "master gland" because it influences many other glands, especially the thyroid. Problems with the pituitary gland can affect bone growth, a woman's menstrual cycles and the release of breast milk.
- Testes. The male reproductive glands that produce sperm and sex hormones.
- Thymus. A gland in the upper chest that helps develop the body's immune system early in life.
- Thyroid. A butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck that controls metabolism.
Even the slightest hiccup with the function of one or more of these glands can throw off the delicate balance of hormones in your body and lead to an endocrine disorder, or endocrine disease.
Causes of endocrine disorders
Endocrine disorders are typically grouped into two categories:
- Endocrine disease that results when a gland produces too much or too little of an endocrine hormone, called a hormone imbalance.
- Endocrine disease due to the development of lesions (such as nodules or tumours) in the endocrine system, which may or may not affect hormone levels.
The endocrine's feedback system helps control the balance of hormones in the bloodstream. If your body has too much or too little of a certain hormone, the feedback system signals the appropriate gland or glands to correct the problem. A hormone imbalance may occur if this feedback system has trouble keeping the right level of hormones in the bloodstream, or if your body doesn't clear them out of the bloodstream properly.