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Understanding the way your glands work

Endocrinology is a medical specialty – some might say a sub-specialty of internal medicine – which deals with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the glands, specifically the endocrine glands and tissues that produce hormones. These hormones control many basic bodily functions. The metabolism of food, sex and reproductive systems, how blood sugar levels are maintained, blood pressure, the balance of salt in the body, body heat, energy levels and bone growth all depend on the endocrine system.

Problems within the endocrine system can result in numerous disorders, including diabetes, obesity, thyroid disorders, osteoporosis and hormone malfunction. Many patients also suffer from other serious conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and circulatory problems. These often call for exacting and sophisticated medical techniques and careful monitoring by specialists from different fields.

If you’ve been referred to your primary care provider to an endocrinologist, chances are there is a problem with the way your body’s endocrine system functions due to hormonal imbalance. This may seem a bit scary initially but rest assured that our qualified Via Christi endocrinologists understand your concerns and are committed to providing you with the best available care options.

What is an endocrinologist?

Endocrinologists are specialists trained to diagnose and treat hormone imbalances and problems by helping to restore the system’s normal balance of hormones. An endocrinologist is an expert in treating frequently complex conditions which involved several different systems within the human body. They are a critical team player is treating many conditions including: 

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid diseases
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Over- or underproduction of hormones
  • Menopause
  • Osteoporosis
  • Hypertension
  • Cholesterol (lipid) disorders
  • Infertility
  • Lack of growth (short stature)
  • Cancers of the endocrine glands

What is the endocrine system?

The human endocrine system consists of a number of glands. These glands produce and secrete hormones which control the body's metabolism, growth, sexual development and function. When the hormones leave the glands they enter the bloodstream and are transported to organs and tissues in every part of the body.

Endocrine glands include:

  • Adrenal glands: Two glands that sit on top of the kidneys that release the hormone cortisol. These glands produce aldosterone which affects kidney function. The adrenal glands also produce adrenaline (epinephrine), which are hormones that are released in response to stress, and androgens – male sex hormones that promote the development of male characteristics. Testosterone is the major androgen.
  • Hypothalamus: A part of the lower middle brain that tells the pituitary gland when to release hormones that control involuntary body functions such as appetite, sleep and body temperature.
  • Ovaries: The female reproductive organs that release eggs and produce sex hormones, including estrogens and progestins, and secrete inhibin, which is involved in the feedback control of pituitary follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) production. 
  • Cells in the pancreas: These control the release of the hormones insulin and glucagon. The pancreas itself is both a gland and a digestive organ. It produces insulin, which plays a key role in carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body; somatostatin, which regulates endocrine and nervous function and inhibits the secretion of several hormones such as gastrin, insulin and growth hormone; glucagon, a peptide hormone which raises blood glucose levels when they fall too low; and pancreatic polypeptide, which helps control the secretion of substances made by the pancreas. 
  • Parathyroid: Four tiny glands in the neck that play a role in bone development. They produce parathyroid hormone, which regulates calcium and phosphorous in the blood, blood clotting and neuromuscular excitation.
  • Pineal gland: A gland found near the center of the brain that secretes melatonin, and is 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, as well as growth and several body functions. Problems with the pituitary gland can affect bone growth, a woman's menstrual cycles, and the release of breast milk.
  • Testes: The male reproductive glands that produce androgens, mainly testosterone, that control sexual development, puberty, facial hair, sexual behavior, libido, erectile function and the formation of sperm.
  • Thymus: A gland in the upper chest that assists in developing the body's immune system early in life.
  • Thyroid: A butterfly-shaped gland located just below the Adam’s apple in the front of the neck that controls metabolism. it produces hormones that play a key role in regulating blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate and how the body reacts to other hormones.