The endocrine system contains many different physical components that help to regulate everything from sexual function to our mood each day. The health and well-being of the endocrine system is essential to maintaining healthy body weight, growth and physical or emotions development. The endocrine system will greatly affect children and teenagers who are experiencing a high level of development, but different parts of this system will also play a role as we age as well as our function day to day.
What is the Endocrine System?
The endocrine system is unique because it includes glands and hormones instead of just organs. The glands are a group of cells that secrete chemicals that allow the body to create a product or finish a process somewhere else in the body. Hormones are chemicals that help to transfer information throughout the body, typically from one organ group to another so that the body has all the information it needs to monitor its function. There are up to 20 major hormones secreted by the gland in the endocrine system which are essential to different tasks throughout the body. Some consider the pancreas to be part of the endocrine system because it secretes hormones, but it is commonly associated with the digestive system due to its role in breaking down and maintaining a healthy level of glucose.
Given below are the major glands: hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal glands, thyroid, parathyroids, pineal body and reproductive glands (the ovaries and testes) that compose the human endocrine system.
Hypothalamus- The hypothalamus is located in the lower central area of the brain. This helps the rest of the endocrine system remain in contact with the nervous system by producing chemicals that will activate or suppress the actions of the pituitary gland to secret hormone. This allows the hypothalamus to translate messages from the nervous system and inform the body that it needs to perform a certain action.
Pituitary Gland- The pituitary gland is located just beneath the hypothalamus, and is often considered the most valuable part of the endocrines system. This gland controls many of the other glands in the endocrine system with the hormones it secretes. Emotions, changes of the season and many other signals can affect the amount of hormones the pituitary gland produces. As light patterns, feelings and others are sensed by the brain, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland which consists of the anterior lobe and the posterior lobe. The anterior lobe manages the action of adrenals, thyroid and the reproductive glands. It produces endorphins, growth hormones, thyrotopin, prolactin or corticotropin.
Endorphins reduce the feeling of pain, control the menstrual cycle and signal the use of the reproductive organs. Growth hormones determine how nutrients taken into the body will be used and stimulate bone growth. Thyrotropin stimulates the thyroid gland. Prolactin activates milk production in women's breasts. Corticotropin stimulates the adrenal glands.
The posterior lobe secretes antidiuretic hormone and oxytocin. The antidiuretic hormone controls the water level in the human body. The oxytocin helps to contract the uterus of a woman when having a baby.
Adrenal Glands- The adrenal glands are located at the tops of the kidneys. These contain two parts, the adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex produces corticosteroids which help to balance the levels of water and salt in the body. These can be altered based on sexual development, the function of the metabolism or signals from the immune system. The adrenal medulla produces catecholamines which are used to regulate the heart rate and blood pressure as a reaction to stress in the environment.
Thyroid- The thyroid is located in the front of the lower neck, and is often compared to a butterfly given its unique shape. This gland produces hormones that stimulate the metabolism, which controls how fast the body breaks down food and used this fuel to create energy. The more of this chemical is in the bloodstream, the faster your metabolism will function. If the thyroid becomes sluggish it can lead to weight gain and digestive disorders. The thyroid also controls brain and nervous system development in children.
Parathyroids- There are four parathyroids which are clustered together near the thyroid. These create the parathyroid hormone which works with calcitonin to control the level of calcium within the bones and in the blood.
Pineal Body- The pineal body is located in the middle of the brain. It creates the hormones called melatonin that are used to make you fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning based on the light levels the body perceives.
Reproductive Glands- In women, the reproductive glands consist of the ovaries, which are located in the pelvis. These are used to produce estrogen and progesterone which controls breast growth, the regulation of the menstrual cycle and to monitor pregnancy. The ovaries also contain the eggs used in reproduction. In men, the reproductive organs are the testes which are located in the scrotum. These secrete androgens such as testosterone that will help signal puberty, body and penis growth, deepening voice and the creation and maintenance of facial hair. Men and women each have levels of estrogen and testosterone that must be maintained for healthy development.
How does the Endocrine System Work?
When a gland in the endocrine system releases a hormone, it will travel through the bloodstream. These hormones are designed to interact with a specific part of the body, so when it arrives at this organ or tissue, a message will be sent to this area. Some hormones also bind with proteins that will control the amount of the hormone that will be allowed to enter a new area of the body so that the body is not overwhelmed with the signal being sent. Not only to the glands in the endocrine system help to create these hormones, they also contain mechanisms that help to regulate how much of the hormone is in the system at any given time. Signs from the body including calcium levels, the amount of material in the digestive tract, physical activities the body is taking part in and many other signals will allow the glands to turn on and off, increasing or decreasing hormone levels as necessary. Some hormone levels will also naturally increase and decrease as we age.
Diseases such as diabetes, an adrenal deficiency or abnormalities with puberty can cause the body to produce an incorrect amount of hormones. These conditions can affect the body as a whole, or will affect specific parts of the endocrine system such as the thyroid or the pancreas depending on the condition. If it appears as though your child is not developing properly, you cannot manage your hunger or you are experiencing fast and unexplained weight gain or growth, there may be a problem with the endocrine system. You will need to seek medical advice to determine how to treat these conditions.