The function of endocrine glands is to secrete hormones. These hormones, in turn, are responsible for a multitude of processes in the body including growth, metabolism, sexual and reproductive processes and mood regulation. There are a number of very sensitive feedback mechanisms that allow the function of the endocrine glands.
The endocrine system consists of numerous organs throughout the body. In the brain, they include the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and pineal gland. The thyroid gland and parathyroid gland are situated in the neck, and the adrenal gland and pancreas in the abdomen. The reproductive organs – ovaries in women and testicles in men – are also part of the endocrine system.
Each of these organs secretes specific hormones which act on very specific parts of the body. Some hormones act indirectly, to stimulate the release of other hormones in a cascade-like process. For example, the hypothalamus secretes somastatin which causes the pituitary gland to stop releasing growth hormone. Other hormones act directly, such as growth hormone, which stimulates bone and tissue growth.
The pituitary gland is often referred to as the most important endocrine gland in the body. This is because it secretes a number of hormones that stimulate secretion in other glands. They include adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), which stimulates release of hormones from the adrenal gland and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) which, as its name suggests, stimulates the thyroid. Dysfunction of the pituitary gland may have a flow-down effect on other systems.
Abnormal function of endocrine glands can result in numerous clinical conditions, depending on which gland is not functioning properly, and to what degree. A problem with the pancreas, for example, which secretes insulin and glucagon, may result in diabetes. Abnormal function of endocrine glands involved in reproduction may result in infertility in both the male and female.
Thyroid dysfunction is a commonly found clinical condition. Too much thyroid, or hyperthyroidism can cause weight loss, anxiety and raised heart rate. Treatment may involve removal of the thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone levels may cause sluggishness, tiredness, weight gain and slowed heart rate. It is normally successfully treated with oral thyroid replacement medication.
In most cases, function of endocrine glands is easy to measure, should a problem be suspected. An endocrinologist, or doctor specializing in endocrine disorders, will do tests to measure the levels of hormones and treatment can be determined, if necessary. In some cases, supplemental hormones may be prescribed when abnormal function of endocrine glands is diagnosed.