Endocrine Glands

Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland is composed of two lobes which are located on either side of the trachea. Both the lobes are interconnected with a thin flap of connective tissue called isthmus. The thyroid gland is composed of follicles and stromal tissues. Each thyroid follicle is composed of follicular cells, enclosing a cavity.

These follicular cells synthesise two hormones, tetraiodothyronine or thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Iodine is essential for the normal rate of hormone synthesis in the thyroid. Deficiency of iodine in our diet results in hypothyroidism and enlargement of the thyroid gland, commonly called goitre. Hypothyroidism during pregnancy causes defective development and maturation of the growing baby leading to stunted growth (cretinism), mental retardation, low intelligence quotient, abnormal skin, deaf-mutism, etc. In adult women, hypothyroidism may cause menstrual cycle to become irregular. Due to cancer of the thyroid gland or due to development of nodules of the thyroid glands, the rate of synthesis and secretion of the thyroid hormones is increased to abnormal high levels leading to a condition called hyperthyroidism which adversely affects the body physiology.

Thyroid hormones play an important role in the regulation of the basal metabolic rate. These hormones also support the process of red blood cell formation. Thyroid hormones control the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Maintenance of water and electrolyte balance is also influenced by thyroid hormones. Thyroid gland also secretes a protein hormone called thyrocalcitonin (TCT) which regulates the blood calcium levels.

Parathyroid Gland

In humans, four parathyroid glands are present on the back side of the thyroid gland, one pair each in the two lobes of the thyroid gland. The parathyroid glands secrete a peptide hormone called parathyroid hormone (PTH). The secretion of PTH is regulated by the circulating levels of calcium ions.

Parathyroid hormone (PTH) increases the Ca2+ levels in the blood. PTH acts on bones and stimulates the process of bone resorption (dissolution/ demineralisation). PTH also stimulates reabsorption of Ca2+ by the renal tubules and increases Ca2+ absorption from the digested food. It is, thus, clear that PTH is a hypercalcemic hormone, i.e., it increases the blood Ca2+ levels. Along with TCT, it plays a significant role in calcium balance in the body.


The thymus gland is a lobular structure located on the dorsal side of the heart and the aorta. The thymus plays a major role in the development of the immune system. This gland secretes the peptide hormones called thymosins. Thymosins play a major role in the differentiation of T-lymphocytes, which provide cell-mediated immunity. In addition, thymosins also promote production of antibodies to provide humoral immunity. Thymus is degenerated in old individuals resulting in a decreased production of thymosins. As a result, the immune responses of old persons become weak.

Adrenal Gland

Our body has one pair of adrenal glands, one at the anterior part of each kidney. The gland is composed of two types of tissues. The centrally located tissue is called the adrenal medulla, and outside this lies the adrenal cortex.

The adrenal medulla secretes two hormones called adrenaline or epinephrine and noradrenaline or norepinephrine. These are commonly called as catecholamines. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are rapidly secreted in response to stress of any kind and during emergency situations and are called emergency hormones or hormones of Fight or Flight. These hormones increase alertness, pupilary dilation, piloerection (raising of hairs), sweating etc. Both the hormones increase the heart beat, the strength of heart contraction and the rate of respiration. Catecholamines also stimulate the breakdown of glycogen resulting in an increased concentration of glucose in blood. In addition, they also stimulate the breakdown of lipids and proteins.

The adrenal cortex can be divided into three layers, called zona reticularis (inner layer), zona fasciculata (middle layer) and zona glomerulosa (outer layer). The adrenal cortex secretes many hormones, commonly called as corticoids. The corticoids, which are involved in carbohydrate metabolism are called glucocorticoids. In our body, cortisol is the main glucocorticoid. Corticoids, which regulate the balance of water and electrolytes in our body are called mineralocorticoids. Aldosterone is the main mineralocorticoid in our body.


Pancreas is a composite gland which acts as both exocrine and endocrine gland. The endocrine pancreas consists of ‘Islets of Langerhans’. There are about 1 to 2 million Islets of Langerhans in a normal human pancreas representing only 1 to 2 per cent of the pancreatic tissue. The two main types of cells in the Islet of Langerhans are called α-cells and β-cells. The α -cells secrete a hormone called glucagon, while the β-cells secrete insulin.

Glucagon is a peptide hormone, and plays an important role in maintaining the normal blood glucose levels. Glucagon acts mainly on the liver cells (hepatocytes) and stimulates glycogenolysis resulting in an increased blood sugar (hyperglycemia). In addition, this hormone stimulates the process of gluconeogenesis which also contributes to hyperglycemia. Glucagon reduces the cellular glucose uptake and utilisation. Thus, glucagon is a hyperglycemic hormone.

Insulin is a peptide hormone, which plays a major role in the regulation of glucose homeostasis. Insulin acts mainly on hepatocytes and adipocytes (cells of adipose tissue), and enhances cellular glucose uptake and utilisation. As a result, there is a rapid movement of glucose from blood to hepatocytes and adipocytes resulting in decreased blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia). Insulin also stimulates conversion of glucose to glycogen (glycogenesis) in the target cells. The glucose homeostasis in blood is thus maintained jointly by the two – insulin and glucagons.

Prolonged hyperglycemia leads to a complex disorder called diabetes mellitus which is associated with loss of glucose through urine and formation of harmful compounds known as ketone bodies. Diabetic patients are successfully treated with insulin therapy.

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