The endocrine system is a group of glands that produce hormones which regulate most of the body’s metabolic activity needed to sustain life. The endocrinal glands are differentiated from exocrine glands by the absence of ducts. As such, the hormones secreted by them are passed directly into the bloodstream instead of being sent through ducts to a targeted organ. For example, the salivary glands secrete saliva directly into the mouth to be passed on to the stomach through the alimentary canal to aid digestion. The thyroid, being an endocrinal gland, secretes hormones that reach every cell in the body through the blood.
Hormonal levels in the body are maintained through an intricate feedback mechanism that can be equated with the thermostat in a refrigerator or in your house cooling system. The high or low levels are picked up by the hypothalamus, located in the basal part of the brain, to control the endocrine system. It signals the release or inhibition of the hormones.
Just as the inadequacy or excess of thyroid hormones is prone to lead to thyroid conditions, too much or too less of other endocrinal hormones also cause various diseases. Diseases of the endocrine system are grouped under two main headings:
- Production disorders: Hypo functioning mean less production and hyper functioning means over production. Sometimes there may be a production of abnormal hormones where one enzyme is missing in the hormone.
- Sensitivity of tissues to hormones: The inability of an organ or gland to respond to information or instructions transferred by hormones.
Endocrine diseases may be caused by an injury, tuberculosis, radiation therapy or chemotherapy to treat diseases like hyperthyroidism, a thyroid condition of excess production of thyroid hormones.
Endocrine disease may also be associated with an autoimmune condition. Autoimmunity is a state where the immune system fails to differentiate between the body’s normal constituents and disease-causing pathogens and starts attacking organs. Several cytokines are involved in the origination and development of endocrine diseases. Cytokines are protein molecules that serve as mediators of the immune system. These are secreted by cells of the immune system and exert numerous actions on endocrine functions.
Some of the common diseases of the endocrine system include the following:
- Diabetes mellitus – Type 1 is a production disorder where less insulin is produced. Type 2 is the inability of the body to respond to insulin.
- Thyroid problems – Basically production disorders and/or auto immune disease. Hashimoto’s disease and Graves’ disease are autoimmune diseases.
- Addison’s disease – Inhibited function of the adrenal glands.
- Cushing’s syndrome – Increased secretion of corticosteroids by the adrenal glands.
The diseases caused by an inefficient endocrine system can remain hidden for long and it requires an astute physician to understand that diseases that are difficult to explain require diagnostic tests for checking levels of various hormones.