The Human Body

Components of the Endocrine System

The primary glands that make up the human endocrine system are the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, pineal body, and reproductive glands—the ovary and testis. The pancreas, an organ often associated with the digestive system, is also considered part of the endocrine system. In addition, some nonendocrine organs are known to actively secrete hormones. These include the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, thymus, skin, and placenta. Almost all body cells can either produce or convert hormones, and some secrete hormones. For example, glucagon, a hormone that raises glucose levels in the blood when the body needs extra energy, is made in the pancreas but also in the wall of the gastrointestinal tract. However, it is the endocrine glands that are specialized for hormone production. They efficiently manufacture chemically complex hormones from simple chemical substances—for example, amino acids and carbohydrates—and they regulate their secretion more efficiently than any other tissues.

The hypothalamus, found deep within the brain, directly controls the pituitary gland. It is sometimes described as the coordinator of the endocrine system. When information reaching the brain indicates that changes are needed somewhere in the body, nerve cells in the hypothalamus secrete body chemicals that either stimulate or suppress hormone secretions from the pituitary gland. Acting as liaison between the brain and the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus is the primary link between the endocrine and nervous systems.

Located in a bony cavity just below the base of the brain is one of the endocrine system's most important members: the pituitary gland. Often described as the body’s master gland, the pituitary secretes several hormones that regulate the function of the other endocrine glands. Structurally, the pituitary gland is divided into two parts, the anterior and posterior lobes, each having separate functions. The anterior lobe regulates the activity of the thyroid and adrenal glands as well as the reproductive glands. It also regulates the body's growth and stimulates milk production in women who are breast-feeding. Hormones secreted by the anterior lobe include adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), thyrotropic hormone (TSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), growth hormone (GH), and prolactin. The anterior lobe also secretes endorphins, chemicals that act on the nervous system to reduce sensitivity to pain.

The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland contains the nerve endings (axons) from the hypothalamus, which stimulate or suppress hormone production. This lobe secretes antidiuretic hormones (ADH), which control water balance in the body, and oxytocin, which controls muscle contractions in the uterus.

The thyroid gland, located in the neck, secretes hormones in response to stimulation by TSH from the pituitary gland. The thyroid secretes hormones—for example, thyroxine and three-iodothyronine—that regulate growth and metabolism, and play a role in brain development during childhood.

The parathyroid glands are four small glands located at the four corners of the thyroid gland. The hormone they secrete, parathyroid hormone, regulates the level of calcium in the blood.

Located on top of the kidneys, the adrenal glands have two distinct parts. The outer part, called the adrenal cortex, produces a variety of hormones called corticosteroids, which include cortisol. These hormones regulate salt and water balance in the body, prepare the body for stress, regulate metabolism, interact with the immune system, and influence sexual function. The inner part, the adrenal medulla, produces catecholamines, such as epinephrine, also called adrenaline, which increase the blood pressure and heart rate during times of stress.

The reproductive components of the endocrine system, called the gonads, secrete sex hormones in response to stimulation from the pituitary gland. Located in the pelvis, the female gonads, the ovaries, produce eggs. They also secrete a number of female sex hormones, including estrogen and progesterone, which control development of the reproductive organs, stimulate the appearance of female secondary sex characteristics, and regulate menstruation and pregnancy.

Located in the scrotum, the male gonads, the testes, produce sperm and also secrete a number of male sex hormones, or androgens. The androgens, the most important of which is testosterone, regulate development of the reproductive organs, stimulate male secondary sex characteristics, and stimulate muscle growth.

The pancreas is positioned in the upper abdomen, just under the stomach. The major part of the pancreas, called the exocrine pancreas, functions as an exocrine gland, secreting digestive enzymes into the gastrointestinal tract. Distributed through the pancreas are clusters of endocrine cells that secrete insulin, glucagon, and somastatin. These hormones all participate in regulating energy and metabolism in the body.

The pineal body, also called the pineal gland, is located in the middle of the brain. It secretes melatonin, a hormone that may help regulate the wake-sleep cycle.