A Brief Primer on the Endocrine System
By Kathy Hubbard
“Oh, you’re being so hormonal.” Yeah, that’s a statement that can rankle anyone’s bad mood. But actually, it might be a compliment. The series of glands that produce and secrete hormones, called the endocrine system, controls many different body functions. So, the fact that you slept last night is because you were “hormonal.” Hormones regulate respiration, metabolism, reproduction, sensory perception, movement, sexual development, and growth.
“Hormones are produced by glands and sent into the bloodstream to the various tissues in the body. They send signals to those tissues to tell them what they are supposed to do. When the glands do not produce the right amount of hormones, diseases develop that can affect many aspects of life,” The Hormone Health Network of the Endocrine Society says.
The primary hormone-producing glands are the hypothalamus and the pituitary. The hypothalamus gland is responsible for body temperature, hunger, moods, and the release of hormones from other glands. It also controls thirst, sleep and sex drive. The pituitary gland controls other glands and makes the hormones that trigger growth.
The parathyroid gland controls the amount of calcium in the body. The pancreas produces insulin, which helps keep blood sugar under control. The thyroid produces hormones associated with calorie burning and heart rate while the adrenal glands produce the hormones that control sex drive and cortisol, the stress hormone. Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is produced by the pineal gland.
In women, the ovaries secrete the three female sex hormones: estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. Yes, women’s bodies make testosterone but not as much as men’s bodies whose testes produce testosterone and sperm.
“Everyone’s body changes, some natural and some not, that can affect the way the endocrine system works,” HHN says. “Some of the factors that affect endocrine organs include puberty, aging, pregnancy, the environment, genetics and certain diseases and medications, including naturopathic medicine, herbal supplements, and prescription medicines such as opioids or steroids.”
The endocrine system is one of your body’s primary communicators. “To ensure that everything runs smoothly (that is, your body functions as it should), certain processes must work properly,” Endocrineweb.com says. “The endocrine glands must release the correct amount of hormones.”
It also needs a healthy blood supply to transport the hormones, and there must be enough receptors at the target tissue. Then, those targets must be able to respond appropriately to the hormonal signal.
“Endocrine diseases are common and happen even when one step in the process doesn’t work as it should,” Endocrineweb says.
An article in Healthline compares hormonal imbalance to baking a cake. Too little or too much of an ingredient will affect the result. “While some hormone levels fluctuate throughout your lifetime and may just be the result of natural aging, other changes occur when your endocrine glands get the recipe wrong.”
The following symptoms are common hormonal imbalance conditions that affect both men and women: weight gain or unexplained weight loss, fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold or heat, constipation or more frequent bowel movements, dry skin, puffy face, increased or decreased heart rate, muscle weakness, and frequent urination.
Also, muscle aches, tenderness, and stiffness; pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints; thinning hair or fine, brittle hair; increased hunger; depression; decreased sex drive; infertility; nervousness, anxiety or irritability; blurred vision and sweating; a fatty hump between the shoulders, and purple or pink stretch marks.
The most common endocrine disease in the United States is diabetes. Other disorders include osteoporosis, thyroid cancer, Addison’s disease, Cushing’s disease, Grave’s disease, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
As you might suspect, the symptoms of an endocrine disorder vary widely depending on which gland is involved. However, WebMD says that “most people with endocrine disease complain of fatigue and weakness.”
Your primary care provider will most likely order blood and urine tests to check your hormone levels. Then, perhaps some diagnostic imaging tests will be utilized to help “locate or pinpoint a nodule or tumor,” WebMD says.
“Treatment of endocrine disorders can be complicated, as a change in one hormone level can throw off another,” they explain.
Medications have proven effective in controlling many endocrine disorders. I urge you to see your healthcare provider before taking over-the-counter supplements. Stay tuned; next week, we’ll delve into hormone issues specific to men, women, and children.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.