A Guide to Understanding Your Hormones - The Nerdy Stuff

Ashley Sheffer
June 22, 2020

Functions of the Endocrine System

Ever feel out of control? You’re not alone. Nearly half of Americans suffer from hormonal imbalances at least one or more times in their life. It’s easy to blame the side effects of the chemical imbalances on our external experience, when the secret is to take a step back and gain understanding around how our body’s endocrine system works and influences everything.

The endocrine system (along with the nervous system) is made up of glands. There are seven primary glands we are going to focus on in the article.

They are the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroids, adrenals, pineal body, and the reproductive organs (ovaries and testes).

These glands produce and secrete hormones in our bloodstream. Hormones are fancy little chemicals in the body that regulate the activity of your cells and organs.

The key functions of this system is:

  • To regulate the body’s growth/metabolic functions of the body.
  • To regulate the body’s sexual development and long term function
  • To regulate the rate of chemical reactions in various cells.
  • To influence the ability of substances to transport themselves through cell membranes.

The Three Groups

Your hormones are secreted from the glands of the endocrine system, and are specific in that each hormone causes a response.

Hormones can be grouped into three main types:

  1. amines, these are simple molecules
  2. proteins and peptides which are made from chains of amino acids
  3. steroids which are derived from cholesterol.

How our glands work with our hormones

Glands discharge hormones directly into the bloodstream. They have built in feedback mechanisms that maintain a proper balance of hormones, and prevent excess hormone secretion. Low concentrations of a hormone will often trigger the gland to secrete. Once the concentrations of the hormone in the blood rise this may cause the gland to stop secreting, until once again hormone concentrations fall. This feedback mechanism causes a cycle of hormone secretions.

Our Liver and Kidneys

Once hormones have served their function on their target organs/tissues they are destroyed. They are either destroyed by the liver or the actual tissues of the target organs. They are then removed by the kidneys. This is one of the more fascinating aspects to understanding how our organs work with our hormones.

So to Recap this process:

1. Gland produces and secretes hormone into blood stream

2. Hormone serves its function on target organ/tissue

3. Hormone is destroyed by either the liver or the actual organ issue.

4. Kidneys then remove the hormone from the body.

The Pituitary Gland

Often referred to as the "master gland”. The pituitary gland has control over all of the other glands of the endocrine system. Talk about mind over matter! Despite its importance the pituitary gland is no larger than a small pea. The Pituitary gland is made up of two separate glands: the Anterior lobe and the Posterior lobe.

The Anterior Lobe of the pituitary plays the 'master' role secreting six major hormones that affect most of the body, including the other Endocrine glands:

  • ACTH (Adrenocorticotrophic hormone) stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete its hormones.
  • hGH (Human growth hormone) responsible for the growth of long bones, muscles and viscera.
  • TSH (Thyroid stimulating hormone) influences the structure of the thyroid and causes it to secrete thyroid hormone.
  • FSH (Follicle stimulating hormone) stimulates female egg production or male sperm production.
  • PRL (Prolactin) in females causes the corpus luteum the area around the mature follicle to produce two important hormones: Estrogen and Progesterone. During pregnancy PRL is also responsible for the development of the glandular tissues of the breast which produce milk.
  • LH (Luteinzing hormone) works in conjunction with FSH in females to cause ovulation and prepares the uterus for pregnancy, in males the testes to secrete testosterone.

The Posterior Lobe of the Pituitary Gland (or neurophpophysis) stores and releases hormones secreted by the hypothalamus section of the brain including:

  • ADH (Antidiuretic hormone) stimulates the smooth muscles, blood vessels and the intestine. ADH increases the kidney's permeability to water allowing the body to re-absorb water that would otherwise escape in urine.
  • OT (Oxytocin) stimulates the smooth muscles of the uterus during pregnancy, causing it to contract during labour. It also stimulates the lacteals (milk ducts) in the breast.

The Thyroid gland

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped gland located at the base of the throat. The Thyroid itself secretes three main hormones:

  • Thyroxine contains iodine which is essential for the body's normal growth, and metabolism. Thyroxine helps control body size, regulating not only the growth of tissues but also the differentiation or specialisation of tissues.
  • Triiodothyronine has similar functions to thyroxine.
  • Calcitonin causes a decrease in the concentration of calcium in the blood. Calcitonin works with secretions from the parathyroid glands to maintain the balance of calcium necessary for the body to function.

The Parathyroids

There are four Parathyroid glands which are small and rounded, arranged in two pairs usually located above and below the thyroid. Each Parathyroid is small, yellow and smooth, sometimes they imbed themselves in the thyroid itself.

Parathyroid hormone increases the blood concentrations of calcium and phosphorous, working to balance the Calcitonin which is secreted by the thyroid to maintain the body's balance of calcium.

The Pancreas

The pancreas is a long, narrow, lobed gland located behind the stomach. The Pancreas has two types of cells: exocrine and endocrine cells. The exocrine cells secrete Pancreatic juices which are an important part in the digestive system. The endocrine cells are arranged in clusters throughout the Pancreas. There are three types of endocrine cells; alpha cells which secrete glucagon, beta cells which secrete insulin, and delta cells which inhibit the secretion on glucagon and insulin:

  • Glucagon increases the blood glucose level by stimulating the liver causing convert Glycogen into Glucose (sugar).
  • Insulin increases the cells permeability to glucose, which the cells use for energy. By promoting the utilisation of glucose by the tissue cells, insulin causes a decrease in the concentration of glucose in the blood. Insulin also promotes the storage of glycogen in the liver.

The Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands resemble small caps perched on top of each kidney. The Adrenal is actually a combination of two glands the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla.

The adrenal cortex is essential for life, as opposed to the adrenal medulla which is important but not indispensable. The anterior pituitary controls the adrenal cortex by secreting the hormone ACTH. All of the secretions of the adrenal cortex are known as steroids, many of which can now be manufactured synthetically. The adrenal cortex is made up of three layers associated with three classes of hormones:

  • Mineralocorticoids are produced by the outer layer of the adrenal cortex, the most important of which is aldosterone. Aldosterone promotes the retention of sodium (Na+) and the excretion of potassium (K+). This helps to maintain both the electrolyte and water content of the body.
  • Glucocorticoids are produced by the middle cortex. These affect almost every cell in the body regulating the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Cortisone is one such glucocorticoid.
  • Gonadal hormones are produced by the inner cortex, there are roughly even amounts of two types of hormones secreted: Androgen (male) and Estrogen (female). Now you know that the adrenal gland is not the only gland to secrete sex hormones, so does the pituitary gland.

The Adrenal Medulla is the inner part of the adrenal gland. The hormones secreted effect the structures in the body that are under the control of the sympathetic nervous system, aiding the body to deal with stressful situations such as fright, attack or pursuit. They are both associated with an increased heart beat, higher blood pressure, and higher blood glucose levels, thus preparing the body for quick action.

  • Adrenalin (or epinephrine) affects both alpha and beta receptors in the nervous system.
  • Noradrenalin (Norepinephrine) affects only the alpha receptors of the nervous system.

Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss

Gaining a bit of a deeper understanding around how our body’s endocrine system works to influence everything can help us gain more confidence in understanding our own body’s process to restore balance on a deeper level.

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