Did you know that the human body produces more than 50 different hormones? That includes insulin, melatonin, estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, and endorphins, to name a few.
All those hormones, in turn, come from the endocrine system. It consists of several glands, one of which is the pituitary gland.
All vertebrates, including humans, have pituitary glands. And if not for this organ, kids won’t be able to grow taller, while adults may become frail.
But what exactly is the pituitary gland, and what are its functions? What essential hormones does it produce, and what problems can affect it?
We’ll answer all those questions and more in this guide to the human pituitary gland, so keep reading.
What Are Pituitary Glands?
Pituitary glands are organs found at the base of the brains of vertebrates. Each vertebrate only has one pituitary gland, but it consists of two primary sections. There’s the front lobe (anterior pituitary) and the back lobe (posterior pituitary).
Your pituitary gland is tiny, roughly the size of a pea. It sits just below the hypothalamus, encased in a chamber called the sella turcica.
A band of nerves and blood vessels connects the pituitary gland to the hypothalamus. This connecting structure is what you call the pituitary stalk.
What Does Your Pituitary Gland Do?
One of the primary roles of your pituitary gland is to produce hormones. However, it also plays a role in the hormone regulation of other endocrine glands. For instance, it triggers these other organs to release their hormones.
What Hormones Does Your Pituitary Gland Produce?
There are six hormones your pituitary gland is in charge of making. The production of these chemicals takes place through the anterior lobe. In addition, the front lobe is responsible for their release.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Also known as somatotropin, HGH promotes growth in almost all tissues and organs in the body. For example, it allows children to grow taller. That’s because it triggers their bone and cartilage to grow in size.
That height-increasing function then stops once a child’s bones have fused completely. After that, however, HGH takes on a new role: to help normalize the body structure. This task is permanent; somatotropin performs it throughout a person’s life.
In adults, HGH also helps keep the bones healthy. For instance, it stimulates the liver to produce a protein that makes cartilage cells. That’s vital to bone growth, regeneration, and repair.
Another role of HGH is to maintain muscle health. It can do so by helping speed up the tissue healing process after an injury. That also aids in the building of muscle mass.
What’s more, HGH affects your metabolism by boosting your body’s use of fat. Likewise, it helps regulate your blood sugar, keeping it within a normal range.
Luteinizing Hormone (LH)
LH triggers changes in the sex organs, specifically the ovaries and the testes. For instance, in women, it promotes ovulation, the process in which the ovary releases a mature egg. In men, this hormone stimulates testosterone production.
Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH)
Also known as corticotrophin, ACTH impacts your body’s response to stress. It triggers the adrenal glands to make cortisol, the stress hormone.
Although it sounds terrible, cortisol is vital to the fight-or-flight response. If not for this hormone, your body may be unable to deal with a threat by either facing it or running away to safety. Thus, it’s an essential hormone that can make a difference in a life-or-death situation.
Cortisol also helps regulate metabolism, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Moreover, health experts say that it has potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
As its name suggests, TSH triggers the thyroid to make its hormones.
The thyroid, in turn, is an endocrine gland found in your neck. Its primary function is to produce hormones that regulate metabolism. Additionally, it makes chemicals that affect your energy levels and nervous system.
Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
FSH, like LH, is a pituitary hormone concerned with the sex organs. In women, FSH triggers the ovaries to make ovarian follicles, tiny sacs filled with fluids. Each of these fluid-filled sacs contains an immature egg.
FSH also tells the ovaries to make estrogen. This hormone promotes, develops, and maintains female sex characteristics.
In men, FSH works with the testes’ Sertoli cells. These cells are necessary for sperm production.
Prolactin is a hormone that affects the growth and size of the breasts. It also causes the female breasts to produce milk during pregnancy and after birth. In men, it plays a role in their sexual functions and fertility.
What About the Posterior Pituitary?
The back lobe of the pituitary gland doesn’t make any hormones. Instead, it stores and releases two hormones that the hypothalamus produces. These include the antidiuretic hormone and oxytocin.
Antidiuretic Hormone (ADH)
Also called vasopressin, ADH regulates your body’s water balance. For starters, it controls the amount of water in your tissues and organs. In doing so, it also manages the concentration of urine your kidneys excrete.
ADH also aids in controlling blood pressure by acting on the blood vessels and kidneys. Moreover, it plays a role in regulating your body’s sodium levels.
In women, oxytocin plays a role during childbirth by telling the uterus to contract. As a result, it helps progress the labor process, as contractions help push the baby out. In addition, this hormone helps breast milk to flow.
In men, oxytocin affects ejaculation by making the vas deferens contract. That contraction then enables the sperm and semen to move forward for ejection.
Furthermore, oxytocin plays a role in the testes’ production of testosterone.
What Disorders Affect the Pituitary Gland?
The most common disorder of the pituitary gland is a pituitary adenoma or tumor. Rarer conditions include hypopituitarism, hyperpituitarism, and empty sella syndrome. Fortunately, most problems affecting this gland are treatable.
Some estimates say there will be over 13,000 cases of pituitary adenomas in the U.S. in 2022. The good news is that most are benign, meaning they’re not cancerous.
However, benign pituitary tumors can still interfere with the gland’s normal functions. For example, they can make the pituitary gland produce too little or too much of a hormone.
Pituitary adenomas can also release excess hormones from the pituitary gland. These are what health experts refer to as secreting or functioning adenomas. The most common type is prolactinoma, which causes the release of too much prolactin.
By contrast, non-functioning adenomas don’t release any hormones. However, like functioning adenomas, they can also grow slowly.
Still, if adenomas become too big, they can place excess pressure on structures near them. That can lead to symptoms such as headaches and vision problems. Very rarely, they can bleed internally.
Pituitary tumors that cause problems are treatable, usually through surgery.
Hypopituitarism is when the pituitary gland doesn’t make enough hormones. In some cases, it doesn’t even produce any at all. Most often, though, it only lacks one hormone.
Hypopituitarism often results from damage to the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus.
An example of hypopituitarism is growth hormone deficiency. In this case, the pituitary gland doesn’t make and release enough HGH.
In kids, GH deficiency can lead to growth and development problems. It can also delay their puberty. Whereas in adults, the condition can cause metabolic problems.
It’s vital to note that non-pituitary hormones may contribute to GH deficiency. An example is the hormone ghrelin, which the stomach produces. According to experts, not only does it increase appetite, but it also stimulates the release of GH.
Therefore, if ghrelin levels are low, it may also affect GH levels. That’s also why researchers are looking into how exactly ghrelin can affect GH and vice versa.
Luckily, manufacturers continuously develop hormone-related compounds for research purposes. For example, researchers can find MK 677 for sale online, a substance that mimics ghrelin. With such products, experts can conduct further studies about the hormone.
Such studies may benefit people with hypopituitarism, as treatment often involves hormone replacement. Therapies also require continuous monitoring of hormone levels through blood tests.
Hyperpituitarism is the exact opposite of hyperpituitarism. Meaning it occurs when the pituitary gland makes hormones in excess. Most of the time, the culprit is a functioning pituitary adenoma.
Gigantism is one example of hyperpituitarism. Its symptoms are the reverse of growth hormone deficiency. Instead of stunted growth, it causes kids to grow so fast and become very tall.
Another example is acromegaly, similar to gigantism, except that it affects adults. It causes an abnormal enlargement of some body parts, such as the hands, feet, and even organs. Moreover, it can lead to metabolic problems.
Prolactinoma can also occur as a result of hyperpituitarism.
Luckily, while there’s no cure for hyperpituitarism, treatments are available for some conditions. For example, doctors often prescribe drugs to control hormone levels. These are usually effective for prolactinoma and acromegaly.
If medication isn’t enough, surgery may help shrink adenomas. People with acromegaly may also undergo surgical resection and resizing.
In some cases, radiation may be necessary for patients who can’t have surgery. Likewise, doctors may use them to remove tumor tissue left after surgery. It may also be an option for patients who’ve tried medicines to no avail.
Empty Sella Syndrome (ESS)
ESS is a condition wherein the pituitary gland shrinks or becomes flat. It can happen when the sella turcica that encases it develops problems.
Although considered rare, experts believe ESS affects up to 25% of the population. It’s also more common in women and appears to have a link with hypertension and obesity.
Many people with ESS may not even know they have it because they don’t have symptoms. Indeed, its discovery most often occurs during imaging tests for other conditions.
In people who develop symptoms, vision changes and frequent headaches are common. Some may also experience hormone imbalances.
ESS isn’t a cause of concern if it doesn’t result in other medical problems. If it does, however, medications can help control the excess hormones it may cause.
Who Should You See for Pituitary Issues?
If you believe you have a problem with your pituitary gland, you might want to see an endocrinologist. Endocrinologists are doctors specializing in hormone-related conditions. They can diagnose, treat, prescribe medications, and develop management plans for pituitary problems.
If your pituitary issue affects other brain structures, a neurosurgeon may also help. Neurosurgeons are specialists in brain and nerve health. They can assist in the treatment of conditions like adenomas.
How Are Pituitary Gland Problems Diagnosed?
Blood tests are the most frequently used diagnostic method for pituitary gland issues. After all, this gland releases the hormones it makes directly into the bloodstream.
A blood test can help your doctor determine if you have too little or too much of a pituitary hormone. Your physician may also order imaging tests like CT or MRI scans. Your healthcare provider can then analyze your pituitary gland for abnormalities.
Can You Keep Your Pituitary Gland Healthy?
Yes, you can, and one way to do so is to protect your head from physical trauma. That’s because traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can damage your pituitary gland. Moreover, TBIs are common in the U.S., affecting approximately 1.5 million Americans yearly.
You can prevent TBIs by wearing a helmet if you ride bicycles or motorcycles. Do the same when you play sports with a high head injury risk.
When driving, always strap on your seat belt. Be prudent and never use your phone or allow any distractions.
It also pays to eliminate slip, trip, and fall hazards at home, such as clutter. If you need to use a ladder, say, for home maintenance, set it up on a sturdy, level surface.
Take Care of Your Pituitary Gland
As you can see, human pituitary glands play many crucial roles, from growth to metabolism and even sex. That’s enough reason to take good care of this endocrine gland.
That’s also why you should never ignore cues hinting that you may have a pituitary problem. Instead, see an endocrinologist as soon as you notice signs and symptoms.
Did you find this article informative? We have many other health guides to share, so please feel free to browse more of our blog now!