Endocrine and Hormonal Disorders

  • Home
  • Endocrine and Hormonal Disorders

Endocrine and Hormonal Disorders 

Your endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate your body’s growth, metabolism, and sexual development and function. The hormones are released into the bloodstream and transported to tissues and organs throughout your body. The following are the various components of the endocrine system: 

  • Adrenal glands- Divided into 2 regions; secrete hormones that influence the body’s metabolism, blood chemicals, and body characteristics, as well as influence the part of the nervous system that is involved in the response and defense against stress.
  • Hypothalamus- Activates and controls the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary body functions, the hormonal system, and many body functions, such as regulating sleep and stimulating appetite. 
  • Ovaries and testicles -Secrete hormones that influence female and male characteristics, respectively. 
  • Pancreas -Secretes a hormone (insulin) that controls the use of glucose by the body. 
  • Parathyroid glands- Secrete a hormone that maintains the calcium level in the blood. 
  • Pineal body- Involved with daily biological cycles. 
  • Pituitary gland -Produces a number of different hormones that influence various other endocrine glands. 
  • Thymus gland- Plays a role in the body’s immune system. 
  • Thyroid gland – Produces hormones that regulate the body’s basal metabolic rate, bone growth, and the body’s metabolism. 

The endocrine system is like a symphony with several glands working both alone and together to orchestrate bodily functions. Each endocrine gland–thyroid, pancreas, pineal, thymus, ovaries, testes, adrenals, parathyroid–produces and secretes hormones. These chemical messengers are like music to your body, exciting or inhibiting various tissues regarding metabolism, growth and reproduction. 

The conductor of the endocrine system is the anterior pituitary gland, nestled at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus sends special hormones called releasing factors to the pituitary instructing it how to manage the other endocrine glands. Then with its own set of directive hormones, the anterior pituitary guides your body’s glands. The anterior pituitary also releases prolactin, a breast feeding hormone, and growth hormone. 

The posterior pituitary, a neighbor but unrelated to the anterior pituitary, is responsible for two hormones: antidiuretic hormone and oxytocin. ADH helps you maintain arterial blood pressure during, for example, blood loss by resorbing water from your kidneys. Oxytocin contracts the uterus during childbirth and causes milk letdown during breast feeding. 

Each endocrine gland plays a distinct role in your body, but these actions overlap and therefore affect one another too. When one gland is overly or under-active, other glands feel the effect. The same goes for you. When part of your endocrine system is sick, you most likely are too. Fatigue is one symptom that many endocrine disorders have in common. If you feel very tired or can’t seem to shake your fatigue, see your doctor. Once you’ve discovered the source of your fatigue–whether it’s endocrine related or not–there are many natural remedies you can try under the guidance of a professional.

Endocrine Function 

The main function of endocrine glands is to secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream. Hormones are chemical substances that affect the activity of another part of the body (target site). In essence, hormones serve as messengers, controlling and coordinating activities throughout the body. Upon reaching a target site, hormones bind to receptors, much like a key fits into a lock. Once the hormone locks into its receptor, it transmits a message that causes the target site to take a specific action. Hormone receptors may be within the nucleus or on the surface of the cell. 

Ultimately, hormones control the function of entire organs, affecting such diverse processes as growth and development, reproduction, and sexual characteristics. Hormones also influence the way the body uses and stores energy and control the volume of fluid and the levels of salts and sugar in the blood. Very small amounts of hormones can trigger very large responses in the body. 

Although hormones circulate throughout the body, each type of hormone influences only certain organs and tissues. Some hormones affect only one or two organs, whereas others have influence throughout the body. For example, thyroid-stimulating hormone, produced in the pituitary gland, affects only the thyroid gland. In contrast, thyroid hormone, produced in the thyroid gland, affects cells throughout the body and is involved in such important functions as regulating growth of cells, controlling the heart rate, and affecting the speed at which calories are burned. Insulin, secreted by the islet cells of the pancreas, affects the metabolism of glucose, protein, and fat throughout the body. 

Most hormones are proteins. Others are steroids, which are fatty substances derived from cholesterol. 

The Pituitary: The Master Gland 

The pituitary is a pea-sized gland that is housed within a bony structure (sella turcica) at the base of the brain. The sella turcica protects the pituitary but allows very little room for expansion. 

The pituitary controls the function of most other endocrine glands and is therefore sometimes called the master gland. In turn, the pituitary is controlled in large part by the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that lies just above the pituitary. By detecting the levels of hormones produced by glands under the pituitary’s control (target glands), the hypothalamus or the pituitary can determine how much stimulation the target glands need. 

The pituitary has two distinct parts: the anterior (front) lobe, which accounts for 80% of the pituitary gland’s weight, and the posterior (back) lobe. The lobes are connected to the hypothalamus by a stalk that contains blood vessels and nerve cell projections (nerve fibers, or axons). 

The hypothalamus controls the anterior lobe by releasing hormones through the connecting blood vessels; it controls the posterior lobe through nerve impulses. 

The anterior lobe of the pituitary produces and releases (secretes) six main hormones: 

  • growth hormone, which regulates growth and physical development and has important effects on body shape by stimulating muscle formation and reducing fat tissue; 
  • thyroid-stimulating hormone, which stimulates the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones; 
  • corticotropin (also called adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH), which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and other hormones; 
  • follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone (the gonadotropins), which stimulate the testes to produce sperm, the ovaries to produce eggs, and the sex organs to produce sex hormones(testosterone and estrogen); and 
  • prolactin, which stimulates the mammary glands of the breast to produce milk. 

The anterior lobe also produces hormones that cause the skin to darken (melanocyte-stimulating hormone) and that inhibit pain sensations and help control the immune system (endorphins). 

The posterior lobe of the pituitary produces only two hormones: antidiuretic hormone and oxytocin. 

  • Antidiuretic hormone (also called vasopressin) regulates the amount of water excreted by the kidneys and is therefore important in maintaining water balance in the body 
  • Oxytocin causes the uterus to contract during childbirth and immediately after delivery to prevent excessive bleeding. Oxytocin also stimulates contractions of the milk ducts in the breast, which moves milk to the nipple (the let-down) in lactating women. 

The hormones produced by the pituitary are not all produced  continuously. Most are released in bursts every 1 to 3 hours, with alternating periods of activity and inactivity. Some of the hormones, such as corticotropin, which controls the adrenal glands; growth hormone, which controls growth; and prolactin, which controls milk production, follow a circadian rhythm: 

The levels rise and fall predictably during the day, usually peaking just before awakening and dropping to their lowest levels just before sleep. The levels of other hormones vary according to other factors. ‘For example, in women, the levels of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which control reproductive functions, vary during the menstrual cycle. 

The pituitary gland can malfunction in several ways, usually as a result of developing a noncancerous tumor (adenoma). The tumor may overproduce one or more pituitary hormones; it may press on the normal pituitary cells, causing underproduction of one or more pituitary hormones; or it may cause enlargement of the pituitary gland, with or without disturbing hormone production. Sometimes there is overproduction of one hormone by a pituitary tumor and underproduction of another at the same time due to pressure. Too little or too much of a pituitary hormone results in a wide variety of symptoms. 

Pineal Gland 

Although part of the endocrine system, the pineal gland isn’t a gland per se. This neuroendocrine body translates nerve messages into hormonal output–namely melatonin. This pineal hormone peaks in your body around midnight. Babies are born with scarce amounts of melatonin, perhaps accounting for their erratic sleeping habits. Levels, however, rise with age, top out in childhood and then slowly decline with years. 

The pineal gland and melatonin are thought to keep your biological clock ticking. External cues like temperature and light, as well as endogenous messages such as emotions guide the pineal gland. In this way sleep, mood, immunity, seasonal rhythms, menstruation and even aging are regulated. 


Synthetic versions of melatonin have recently been touted as nature’s new wonder cure for fatigue, insomnia, depression, jet lag, cancer and old age. Although supplemental melatonin doesn’t seem to have toxic effects, it shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. There’s too much we don’t know about this hormone yet. We don’t know its long-term repercussions and whether it exerts subtle, and as yet, unmeasured effects. Because melatonin governs biological rhythms, will overuse or ill-directed use adversely affect you? 

Melatonin is probably safe for insomnia and jet lag. If you decide to take melatonin, don’t take it during the day–this will only aggravate your fatigue and sleeping problems. Instead take melatonin one hour before sleep. Better yet, preserve your own melatonin reserves by sleeping in a dark room, not turning lights on if you get up in the middle of the night and don’t take ibuprofen late at night.

Thyroid and Parathyroids

Your windpipe is straddled by the two lobes of your thyroid gland. Using two hormones, triiodothyronine and thyroxine, your thyroid regulates various enzymes that dominate energy metabolism. Calcitonin, a blood calcium lowering hormone, is also released by the thyroid. Thyrotrophin from the anterior pituitary keeps thyroid hormones in check. 

Snuggled in the thyroid’s under belly are four tiny parathyroid glands that emit parathormone. PTH acts on your gut, bones and kidneys to control phosphate and calcium metabolism. Without this regulation, bone and nerves suffer. Too little PTH and a convulsive, twitching condition called tetany ensues. Too much PTH leads to high blood calcium and eventually a bone softening disease called osteitis fibrosa cystica. 

When thyroid hormones are deficient, hypothyroidism manifests. Because energy control is pivotal to thyroid function, hypothyroidism is a condition of reduced energy–you feel tired and cold, become constipated, have less appetite but gain weight, feel sleepy. Even your thoughts are sluggish. 


Squeezed behind your breast bone and just below the thyroid is an irregularly shaped member of both the endocrine and immune systems–the thymus. Relatively large in childhood, the thymus grows until the teen years, then shrinks with age. Fat replaces active lymphatic tissue. 

Thymosin, thymopoeitin and serum thymic factor–thymus hormones–oversee several immune operations. Before and shortly after birth, a baby’s thymus gland preprocesses T-lymphocytes, the white blood cells in charge of cellular immunity. This type of immunity, the kind not controlled by antibodies, shields your body from yeast, fungi, parasites, viruses, cancer and allergies. Thymopoeitein also activates circulating T-cells. 

Because the thymus shrivels with age, its importance has been downplayed. Stress, pollution, chronic illness, radiation and AIDS also diminish thymus function. However, low thymic hormone levels are associated with depressed immunity and elevated infection susceptibility. A cardinal symptom of infection is fatigue. 

Adrenal Glands 

Perched atop each kidney is a triangular shaped adrenal gland. The adrenals are divided into two distinct parts somewhat like a peach. The outer fleshy fruit of a peach is like the cortex or outer region of the adrenal, while the pit resembles the smaller inner medulla of the adrenal gland. All adrenal hormones are ruled by adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary.

The adrenal cortex produces and secretes three kinds of steroid hormones. The first type, called mineralocorticoids, includes aldosterone which maintains normal blood pressure by balancing sodium, potassium and fluid levels. Secondly, the adrenal cortex makes small amounts of sex hormones, namely testosterone and estrogen. 

The glucocorticoids, cortisol and corticosterone, regulate blood pressure, support normal muscle function, promote protein breakdown, distribute body fat and increase blood sugar as needed. This hormone class is most noted for its anti-inflammatory properties, hence the popularity of artificial cortisone as a medication. 

You may also have heard about DHEA, short for dehydroepiandrosterone. This steroid hormone, also from the adrenals, has been familiar to scientists for years but its purpose was hazy. Researchers used to think DHEA acted as a reservoir for your body to produce other hormones, like estrogen and testosterone. It’s becoming apparent that DHEA has it own role. Its functions  affect your heart, body weight, nervous system, immunity, bones and other systems.  

The adrenal medulla acts more like a member of the nervous system. In fact it’s derived from the same primitive tissue as the ganglion cells of the sympathetic nervous system. The medulla’s hormones, epinephrine (also called adrenalin) and norepinephrine, are also controlled by the sympathetic nervous system during fear or stress. Your body reacts to these hormones with a “flight or fight” response: pounding heart, dilated pupils and high blood pressure.

While your adrenals save you during crises, continual demands on this glands tire you out. Age, stress and even coffee compromises your adrenal glands. Several years ago, Sanford Bolton, PhD from St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York found that habitual coffee drinkers had diminished adrenal function (The Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry, vol 13, number 1). 


Hiding behind the stomach is the long slender pancreas. Its acini, rosette-looking cells, make and pour 2 1/2 pints of digestive enzyme-containing juice each day–amylase for starch, lipase for fat and protease for protein–into the small intestine. 

The Islets of Langerhans rule the pancreas’s better known hormones, insulin and glucagon. These opposing hormones work together keeping your blood sugar in check. Glucagon works together with epinephrine, growth hormone and glucocorticoids to stop your blood glucose from dipping too low by promoting glycogen breakdown. Insulin controls high blood sugar by enhancing the uptake and utilization of glucose by your muscles and body fat. 

Diabetes mellitus is the worse case scenario of a pancreas gone wrong. In this disease, the seventh most common cause of death in the United States, insulin is ineffective or absent causing very high blood sugar. Resulting signs and symptoms include glucose in the urine, extreme thirst and hunger, frequent urination, weight loss and fatigue. A blood glucose test can confirm or dismiss a diabetes diagnosis.

Like all body parts, the pancreas requires its share of vitamins and minerals to function properly. At the 1994 American Diabetes Association Meeting, information was presented on the value of various nutrients. Magnesium deficiency in common in diabetes. Production of free radicals, the molecules that damage healthy tissue, increases in diabetes. Antioxidant nutrients like vitamin E and C, and beta-carotene dampen free radical harm (Diabetes Care, 1994, vol 17). 


Two testes, housed in a man’s scrotum, produce sperm and testosterone. Without this male sex hormone, men wouldn’t have deep voices, beards or be muscular. Testosterone, also responsible for sex organ development, is produced in the testes under the direction of gonadotrophins from the anterior pituitary. Testosterone also enhances libido in both sexes. 

One of the most common problems to strike older men is benign prostatic hypertrophy or BPH. Testosterone naturally declines with age, while other hormones like prolactin, estradiol, luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone all increase. The net result is a boost in dihydrotestosterone, a powerful male hormone, that causes prostate enlargement. 

An enlarged prostate presses down on a man’s urinary tract causing frequent and hesitant urination. Urine may dribble out rather than flow in a steady, strong stream. Nighttime wakings to urinate disrupt sleep and create fatigue. Luckily natural remedies are very successful at treating BPH. Cutting out coffee and drinking more water are first steps. Supplemental doses of certain vitamins, minerals and herbs can be quite effective for various prostate conditions, your practitioner can assess which ones are right for you.


On the female side, two ovaries, linked to the uterus via fallopian tubes, produce a woman’s eggs as well as estrogen and progesterone. These female hormones endow a women with her feminine traits: large breasts and hips, soft skin and a menstrual cycle. During pregnancy, the placenta also produces progesterone, taking over from the ovaries. This arrangement allows pregnancy to proceed normally, as well as prepare a woman’s breasts for nursing her baby. 

One of the most common endocrine-related problems that plague women is premenstrual syndrome. Half of premenopausal women complain of fatigue, tender breasts, depression, irritability, food cravings and any number of the 150 symptoms association with this syndrome one to two weeks before their periods. 

Like most endocrine disorders, PMS involves the disruption of more than just one hormone. True, estrogen tends to be higher in women with PMS, especially during the second half of her menstrual cycle. However, progesterone is also lower than usual, FSH overshoots on some days, aldosterone increases prior to menses and hypothyroidism is more common in women suffering from PMS. Because of the complexity and individuality of this condition, therapies vary from woman to woman. 

Overall, when it comes to any type of endocrine or hormonal disorder it’s more important to focus on the root cause and what are the underlying mechanisms that are causing disease rather than just treating it symptomatically.  Each person is encouraged to seek out a qualified healthcare practitioner in order to assess exactly which nutrients, herbs, homeopathics and natural remedies; in which combination; in what proportion are right for the particular individual and are intended at treating the root cause rather than just a symptom.