The endocrine system is a network of glands and organs that control hormone production and drive several of the body’s most important functions, from reproductive and sexual function to growth, development, and metabolism. Endocrine disorders — including diabetes, thyroid disease, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) — occur when this system does not work as it should. Here’s what to know about these conditions.
What is the endocrine system?
The endocrine system controls hormone production and regulates important biological processes. It is primarily composed of glands, which are tissues that produce and release hormones. Endocrine glands include:
The pineal gland, which is located in your brain and produces melatonin
The pituitary gland, which is located at the base of your brain
The thyroid gland, a small butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat that produces hormones related to your metabolism
The parathyroid glands, which are located behind the thyroid and control calcium levels
The adrenal glands, which are located on top of the kidneys and produce hormones related to metabolism, blood pressure, and stress response
The endocrine system also includes:
The hypothalamus, a structure inside of your brain that produces hormones related to mood
The pancreas, an organ located at the back of your abdomen that produces the hormones insulin and glucagon, which help you maintain healthy blood sugar levels
Ovaries, which produce the hormones involved in menstruation and pregnancy
Testicles, which produce sperm and sex hormones such as testosterone
Although they are more commonly associated with other functions, the stomach, small intestine, kidneys, liver, heart, and placenta also play a role in hormone release.
What are endocrine disorders?
Hormonal imbalances account for the majority of endocrine diseases. There are also conditions that directly affect the endocrine glands and organs, such as benign and cancerous tumors and lesions. These are some of the most common.
Diabetes, the most common endocrine disorder, affects the pancreas and is characterized by issues with insulin production. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce any insulin, while type 2 diabetes involves insulin resistance.
This type of endocrine disorder occurs when the adrenal gland doesn’t produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Addison’s disease is a common form of adrenal insufficiency.
Cushing’s disease is characterized by overproduction of cortisol.
Growth hormone problems
Overproduction of growth hormone may cause abnormally fast growth during childhood. Conversely, underproduction of this hormone can slow or stop typical growth and development.
One of two main types of thyroid imbalances, hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone, accelerating the metabolism beyond normal.
The other type of thyroid imbalance occurs when an underactive thyroid leads to lower-than-normal levels of thyroid hormone.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
This health condition affects women of reproductive age and has three defining features: high levels of male hormones, irregular menstrual cycles, and the development of cysts in the ovaries.
Some endocrine disorders develop when glands release sex hormones prematurely.
Diagnosing an endocrine disorder
A specialist called an endocrinologist is trained in the treatment of these diseases and can diagnose an endocrine disorder.
It can be challenging to identify an endocrine disorder, as symptoms often develop gradually and may resemble those of other endocrine disorders or health conditions. The diagnosis process often involves multiple tests to rule out other potential diagnoses. Sometimes people learn of a reproductive hormonal issue after struggling to conceive naturally.
Treatment for endocrine disorders
Treatment for these conditions is varied, but most share the common goal of balancing your hormone levels.
If the issue is underproduction of a hormone, as in diabetes and hypothyroidism, treatment often consists of supplementing the body’s natural hormones.
For conditions characterized by overproduction of a hormone, it may be necessary to remove part or all of the affected gland. After surgery, supplemental hormones can help restore balanced levels of the hormone produced by the removed gland.
While some endocrine disorders like type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented, practicing a generally healthy lifestyle can support proper endocrine system function. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and avoiding smoking and heavy alcohol consumption.
Additionally, some products contain endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that can affect the endocrine system. It may be difficult to limit all contact with these chemicals, but doing research and making informed decisions as a consumer can help reduce your exposure.
There are endocrine-related conditions that can run in families, most notably diabetes and thyroid disease. If you have a family history of these conditions, speak with your provider to learn more about your potential risk and screening options.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.