Endocrinology

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The endocrine system is a complex network of glands that secrete hormones, which control basic body functions such as metabolism, growth and sexual development. Endocrinology is the branch of medicine that deals with the various hormones and their actions and disorders in the body.

Even the slightest interruption with the function of one or more of the endocrine glands can throw off the delicate balance of hormones in your body and lead to an endocrine disorder. These disorders include but are not limited to diabetes, Addison’s disease and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

This section provides a comprehensive description of what endocrinology is, and what internal processes are controlled by the endocrine system. It also provides an overview of which glands are part of the endocrine system and what their functions are.

For those who would like more information about the types of endocrine conditions that can arise, there is a section that offers details the most common endocrine disorders and their causes. You can also learn more about the diagnosis and treatment of endocrine disorders here.

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The endocrine system is a complex network of glands that secrete chemicals called hormones to help your body function properly. Hormones are chemical signals that control basic body functions such as metabolism, growth and sexual development. Many of the hormones produced by the endocrine glands interact with each other to maintain balance. Too much or too little of a certain hormone can have effects throughout the body and cause various endocrine disorders. Endocrinology is the branch of medicine that deals with the various hormones and their actions and disorders in the body.

The endocrine system works to regulate certain internal processes. These glands secrete the hormones they produce directly into the bloodstream. This is different to exocrine glands, such as sweat and salivary glands, which secrete substances externally and internally via ducts. The endocrine system helps control the following processes and systems:

  • Growth and development
  • Homeostasis, which is the internal balance of body systems
  • Metabolism, which includes digestion, elimination, breathing, blood circulation and maintaining body temperature
  • Sexual function and reproduction
  • Mood
  • Response to stimuli (stress and/or injury)

The endocrine system completes its tasks through its network of glands, which consists of:

  • Adrenal glands: Two glands that sit on top of the kidneys that release the hormone cortisol.
  • Hypothalamus: A part of the lower middle brain that stimulates or suppresses the release of hormones in the pituitary gland.
  • Pancreas: Cells in the pancreas control the release of the hormones insulin and glucagon. These affect the body's absorption of glucose, the body's main source of energy.
  • Parathyroid: Four tiny glands in the neck that affect calcium levels and play a role in bone development.
  • Pineal gland: A gland found near the centre of the brain that produces melatonin and may be linked to sleep patterns.
  • Pituitary gland: A gland found at the base of brain behind the sinuses. It is often called the "master gland" because it influences many other glands, especially the thyroid. Problems with the pituitary gland can affect bone growth, a woman's menstrual cycles, and the release of breast milk.
  • Thymus: A gland in the upper chest that helps to develop the body's immune system early in life.
  • Thyroid: A butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck that controls metabolism and affects body heat and bone growth
  • Ovaries: Female reproductive organs that secrete estrogen and progesterone, which affect many aspects of the female body including menstrual cycles and pregnancy.
  • Testes: Male reproductive glands that secrete testosterone and produce sperm and sex hormones.
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Even the slightest interruption with the function of one or more of the endocrine glands can throw off the delicate balance of hormones in your body and lead to an endocrine disorder. The causes of increased or decreased levels of endocrine hormone may include:

  • A problem with the endocrine feedback system, a system responsible for keeping the level of hormones in the blood balanced
  • Disease, such as Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome
  • Environmental or nutritional factors, such as a lack of iodine in hypothyroidism, which can affect hormone production
  • Genetic factors, which may play a role in conditions such as diabetes
  • Infection
  • Injury to an endocrine gland
  • Tumor of an endocrine gland, which can interfere with the gland’s hormone production

In many cases, the exact cause of a particular endocrine disorder is not known. Often, hormones interact with each other, so symptoms of a particular endocrine disorder may be nonspecific. However, it is important to seek medical evaluation if you think you might have an endocrine disorder. An assessment of hormone levels may help to find and fix the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Types of endocrine disorders

There are many different types of endocrine disorders. Diabetes is among the most common endocrine disorders in the world. Other endocrine disorders include:

  • Addison’s disease: Addison’s disease is a type of adrenal insufficiency. It develops when your adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol. Symptoms include fatigue, stomach upset, dehydration, and skin changes.
  • Cushing's syndrome: This disorder is caused by prolonged exposure of the body's tissues to high levels of the hormone cortisol. According to the National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Information Service , Cushing's syndrome is relatively rare and most commonly affects adults aged 20 to 50.
  • Hyperthyroidism: Hyperthyroidism is a disorder that occurs when the thyroid gland makes more thyroid hormone than the body needs. This leads to weight loss, fast heart rate, sweating, and nervousness. The most common cause for an overactive thyroid is an autoimmune disorder called Grave's disease.
  • Hypothyroidism: In contrast to hyperthyroidism, this disorder occurs when the gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone, leading to fatigue, constipation, dry skin, and depression.
  • Hypopituitarism: The pituitary gland releases little or no hormones. It may be caused by a number of different diseases. Women with this condition may stop getting their periods.
  • Multiple endocrine neoplasia I and II (MEN I and MEN II): These rare, genetic conditions are passed down through families. They cause tumors of the parathyroid, adrenal, and thyroid glands, leading to overproduction of hormones.  
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Overproduction of androgens interfere with the development of eggs and their release from the female ovaries. Symptoms can include infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods, excess hair growth, acne and obesity.
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If there appears to be a problem with your endocrine system, your doctor may refer you to a specialist called an endocrinologist. An endocrinologist is specially trained in problems with the endocrine system.

Endocrine disorders often have widespread symptoms, affect multiple parts of the body, and can range in severity from mild to very severe. However, most people with endocrine disorders suffer from fatigue and weakness.

Blood and urine tests are often conducted to check your hormone levels and to help your doctors determine if you have an endocrine disorder. Imaging tests may be done to help locate or pinpoint a nodule or tumor.

Treatments depend on the specific disorder but often focus on adjusting hormone balance using synthetic hormones. Treatment of endocrine disorders can be complicated, as a change in one hormone level can throw off another. Your doctor or specialist may order routine blood work to check for problems or to determine if your medication or treatment plan needs to be adjusted.

 
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