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. (See also Endocrine Glands.)
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.
To control endocrine functions, the secretion of each hormone must be regulated within precise limits. The body is normally able to sense whether more or less of a given hormone is needed.
Many endocrine glands are controlled by the interplay of hormonal signals between the hypothalamus, located in the brain, and the pituitary gland, which sits at the base of the brain. This interplay is referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary axis. The hypothalamus secretes several hormones that control the pituitary gland.
The pituitary gland, sometimes called the master gland, in turn controls the functions of many other endocrine glands. The pituitary controls the rate at which it secretes hormones through a feedback loop in which the blood levels of other endocrine hormones signal the pituitary to slow down or speed up. So, for example, the pituitary gland senses when blood levels of thyroid hormone are low and releases thyroid stimulating hormone, which tells the thyroid gland to make more hormones. If the level gets too high, the pituitary senses that and decreases the amount of thyroid stimulating hormone, which then decreases the amount of thyroid hormone produced. This back-and-forth adjustment (feedback) keeps hormone levels in proper balance.
Many other factors can control endocrine function. For example, a baby sucking on its mother's nipple stimulates her pituitary gland to secrete prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that stimulate breast milk production and flow. Rising blood sugar levels stimulate the islet cells of the pancreas to produce insulin. Part of the nervous system stimulates the adrenal gland to produce epinephrine.