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Endocrine Disorders

By John E. Morley, MB, BCh, Gammert Professor of Gerontology, Director, Division of Geriatric Medicine and Director, Division of Endocrinology, St. Louis University Medical Center

(See also Endocrine Glands.)

The endocrine system consists of a group of glands and organs that regulate and control various body functions by producing and secreting hormones. Hormones are chemical substances that affect the activity of another part of the body. In essence, hormones serve as messengers, controlling and coordinating activities throughout the body.

Endocrine disorders involve either .

  • Too much hormone secretion

  • Too little hormone secretion

Disorders may result from a problem in the gland itself, or because the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (interplay of hormonal signals between the hypothalamus, and the pituitary gland) provides too much or too little stimulation. Depending on the type of cell they originate in, tumors can produce excess hormones or destroy normal glandular tissue, decreasing hormone production. Sometimes the body's immune system attacks an endocrine gland (an autoimmune disorder), decreasing hormone production.

Examples of endocrine disorders include

Doctors usually measure levels of hormones in the blood to tell how an endocrine gland is functioning. Sometimes blood levels alone do not give enough information about endocrine gland function, so doctors measure hormone levels after giving a stimulus (such as a sugar-containing drink, a drug, or a hormone that can trigger hormone release) or after having the patient take an action (such as fasting).

Endocrine disorders are often treated by replacing a hormone that is deficient. However, sometimes the cause of the disorder is treated. For example, a tumor involving an endocrine gland may be removed.