Endocrine glands are glands of the endocrine system that secrete their products, hormones, directly into the blood rather than through a duct. The major glands of the endocrine system include the pineal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, hypothalamus and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are neuroendocrine organs. Local chemical messengers, not generally considered part of the endocrine system, include autocrines, which act on the cells that secrete them, and paracrines, which act on a different cell type nearby.
The ability of a target cell to respond to a hormone depends on the presence of receptors, within the cell or on its plasma membrane, to which the hormone can bind.
Hormone receptors are dynamic structures. Changes in number and sensitivity of hormone receptors may occur in response to high or low levels of stimulating hormones.
Blood levels of hormones reflect a balance between secretion and degradation/excretion. The liver and kidneys are the major organs that degrade hormones; breakdown products are excreted in urine and feces.
Hormone half-life and duration of activity are limited and vary from hormone to hormone.
Interaction of hormones at target cells
Permissiveness is the situation in which a hormone cannot exert its full effects without the presence of another hormone.
Synergism occurs when two or more hormones produce the same effects in a target cell and their results are amplified.
Antagonism occurs when a hormone opposes or reverses the effect of another hormone.
Control of hormone release
The endocrine glands belong to the body's control system. The hormones which they produce help to regulate the functions of cells and tissues throughout the body. Endocrine organs are activated to release their hormones by humoral, neural or hormonal stimuli. Negative feedback is important in regulating hormone levels in the blood.
The nervous system, acting through hypothalamic controls, can in certain cases override or modulate hormonal effects.
Major endocrine organs
Pituitary gland (hypophysis)
The pituitary gland hangs from the base of the brain by a stalk and is enclosed by bone. It consists of a hormone-producing glandular portion (anterior pituitary) and a neural portion (posterior pituitary), which is an extension of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates the hormonal output of the anterior pituitary and synthesizes two hormones that it exports to the posterior pituitary for storage and later release.
Four of the six anterior pituitary hormones are tropic hormones that regulate the function of other endocrine organs. Most anterior pituitary hormones exhibit a diurnal rhythm of release, which is subject to modification by stimuli influencing the hypothalamus.
Somatotropic hormone or Growth hormone (GH) is an anabolic hormone that stimulates growth of all body tissues but especially skeletal muscle and bone. It may act directly, or indirectly via insulin-like growth factors (IGFs). GH mobilizes fats, stimulates protein synthesis, and inhibits glucose uptake and metabolism. Secretion is regulated by growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH) and growth hormone inhibiting hormone (GHIH), or somatostatin. Hypersecretion causes gigantism in children and acromegaly in adults; hyposecretion in children causes pituitary dwarfism.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) promotes normal development and activity of the thyroid gland. Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) stimulates its release; negative feedback of thyroid hormone inhibits it.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulates the adrenal cortex to release corticosteroids. ACTH release is triggered by corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and inhibited by rising glucocorticoid levels.
The gonadotropins—follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) regulate the functions of the gonads in both sexes. FSH stimulates sex cell production; LH stimulates gonadal hormone production. Gonadotropin levels rise in response to gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Negative feedback of gonadal hormones inhibits gonadotropin release.
The neurohypophysis stores and releases two hypothalamic hormones:
- Oxytocin stimulates powerful uterine contractions, which trigger labor and delivery of an infant, and milk ejection in nursing women. Its release is mediated reflexively by the hypothalamus and represents a positive feedback mechanism.
- Antidiuretic hormone (ADH) stimulates the kidney tubules to reabsorb and conserve water, resulting in small volumes of highly concentrated urine and decreased plasma osmolarity. ADH is released in response to high solute concentrations in the blood and inhibited by low solute concentrations in the blood. Hyposecretion results in diabetes insipidus.
The thyroid gland is located in the anterior throat. Thyroid follicles store colloid containing thyroglobulin, a glycoprotein from which thyroid hormone is derived.
Secretion of thyroid hormone, prompted by TSH, requires reuptake of the stored colloid by the follicle cells and splitting of the hormones from the colloid for release. Rising levels of thyroid hormone feed back to inhibit the pituitary and hypothalamus.
Most T4 is converted to T3 (the more active form) in the target tissues. These hormones act by turning on gene and protein synthesis.
Calcitonin, produced by the parafollicular cells of the thyroid gland in response to rising blood calcium levels, depresses blood calcium levels by inhibiting bone matrix resorption and enhancing calcium deposit in bone.
The parathyroid glands, located on the dorsal (back) aspect of the thyroid gland, secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH), which causes an increase in blood calcium levels by targeting bone, the intestine, and the kidneys. PTH is the antagonist of calcitonin. PTH release is triggered by falling blood calcium levels and is inhibited by rising blood calcium levels.
The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys in humans and in front of the kidneys in other animals. The adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands) are endocrine glands that produce a variety of hormones including adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol.
The pancreas, located in the abdomen close to the stomach, is both an exocrine and an endocrine gland. The alpha and beta cells are the endocrine cells in the pancreatic islets that release insulin and glucagon and smaller amounts of other hormones into the blood.
The pancreas contains two kinds of tissue, both of them glandular; one kind functions as an exocrine organ and the other as an endocrine organ. The pancreas is located in the abdominal cavity, close to the stomach and the duodenum.
Glucagon is released by alpha (α) cells when the blood glucose level is low, and this stimulates the liver to release glucose into the blood.
Insulin is released by beta (β) cells when blood levels of glucose (and amino acids) are rising. It increases the rate of glucose uptake and metabolism by most body cells. Hyposecretion of insulin results in diabetes mellitus; cardinal signs are polyuria, polydipsia, and polyphagia.
Somatostatin is released by Delta cells and act as an Inhibitor of GH, Insulin and Glucagon.
The ovaries of the female, located in the pelvic cavity, release two main hormones. Secretion of estrogens by the ovarian follicles begins at puberty under the influence of FSH. Estrogens stimulate maturation of the female reproductive system and development of the secondary sexual characteristics. Progesterone is released in response to high blood levels of LH. It works with estrogens in establishing the menstrual cycle.
The testes of the male begin to produce testosterone at puberty in response to LH. Testosterone promotes maturation of the male reproductive organs, development of secondary sex characteristics, and production of sperm by the testes.
The pineal gland is located in the diencephalon. Its primary hormone is melatonin, which influences daily rhythms and may have an antigonadotropic effect in humans. It influences the melanotropes and melanocytes located in the skin.
Other hormone-producing structures
Many body organs not normally considered endocrine organs contain isolated cell clusters that secrete hormones. Examples include the heart (atrial natriuretic peptide); gastrointestinal tract organs (gastrin, secretin, and others); the placenta (hormones of pregnancy—estrogen, progesterone, and others); the kidneys (erythropoietin and renin); the thymus; skin (cholecalciferol); and adipose tissue (leptin and resistin).
Developmental aspects of the endocrine systems
Endocrine glands derive from all three germ layers. Those derived from mesoderm produce steroidal hormones; the others produce the amino acid–based hormones.
The natural decrease in function of the female’s ovaries during late middle age results in menopause. The efficiency of all endocrine glands seems to decrease gradually as aging occurs. This leads to a generalized increase in the incidence of diabetes mellitus and a lower metabolic rate.