The Human Body

How the Endocrine System Works

Hormones from the endocrine organs are secreted directly into the bloodstream, where special proteins usually bind to them, helping to keep the hormones intact as they travel throughout the body. The proteins also act as a reservoir, allowing only a small fraction of the hormone circulating in the blood to affect the target tissue. Specialized proteins in the target tissue, called receptors, bind with the hormones in the bloodstream, inducing chemical changes in response to the body’s needs. Typically, only minute concentrations of a hormone are needed to achieve the desired effect.

Too much or too little hormone can be harmful to the body, so hormone levels are regulated by a feedback mechanism. Feedback works something like a household thermostat. When the heat in a house falls, the thermostat responds by switching the furnace on, and when the temperature is too warm, the thermostat switches the furnace off. Usually, the change that a hormone produces also serves to regulate that hormone's secretion. For example, parathyroid hormone causes the body to increase the level of calcium in the blood. As calcium levels rise, the secretion of parathyroid hormone then decreases. This feedback mechanism allows for tight control over hormone levels, which is essential for ideal body function. Other mechanisms may also influence feedback relationships. For example, if an individual becomes ill, the adrenal glands increase the secretions of certain hormones that help the body deal with the stress of illness. The adrenal glands work in concert with the pituitary gland and the brain to increase the body’s tolerance of these hormones in the blood, preventing the normal feedback mechanism from decreasing secretion levels until the illness is gone.

Long-term changes in hormone levels can influence the endocrine glands themselves. For example, if hormone secretion is chronically low, the increased stimulation by the feedback mechanism leads to growth of the gland. This can occur in the thyroid if a person's diet has insufficient iodine, which is essential for thyroid hormone production. Constant stimulation from the pituitary gland to produce the needed hormone causes the thyroid to grow, eventually producing a medical condition known as goiter.