(See also Endocrine Glands.)
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, a hormone binds to a receptor, 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 (glucose) 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 processing (metabolism) of glucose, protein, and fat throughout the body.
Most hormones are derived from proteins. Others are steroids, which are fatty substances derived from cholesterol.