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The “master gland”

What is the pituitary gland and what's it do?

It helps to understand the pituitary gland is The “master gland”: The pituitary gland is tiny about the size of a pea. Its at the base of the brain, roughly behind the bridge of your nose. It’s often called the “master gland” because it produces several hormones and controls other glands, such as the thyroid gland and the adrenal glands.

What does the pineal gland do?

The pineal gland is best known for the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which is released into the blood and possibly also into the brain fluid, known as cerebrospinal fluid. Pineal melatonin is a hormone that regulates the body's daily (circadian) clock and so melatonin is commonly used in human research to understand the body's biological time. There is a rhythm to the biology of the pineal gland and melatonin is secreted according to the amount of day light a person is exposed to. It varies with changes in day length and this is why the pineal gland is sometimes referred to as both an endocrine clock and an endocrine calendar.

What can go wrong with the pineal gland?

Its not unusual to see pineal cysts on MRI scans. These are benign and they say not harmful. However, on rare occasions, tumours of the pineal gland are found. There are some extremely rare reports of precocious puberty

(early puberty) in individuals with pineal gland cysts or tumours. It is not clear whether these changes in puberty are caused by melatonin or some other hormone, such as human chorionic gonadotrophin, which is reported to be released by some pineal tumours. Otherwise, there are no known diseases associated with over or underactivity of the pineal gland. 

Pituitary disorders occur and cause havoc when the pituitary gland makes too much or too little of a particular hormone. Most often, these disorders are caused by a pituitary tumor.

Most pituitary tumors are noncancerous (benign). But when a tumor grows on or near the pituitary gland, the tumor can:

  • Change hormone production, leading to symptoms such as weight gain, stunted or excessive growth, high blood pressure, low sex drive or mood changes.

  • Press against the pituitary gland, optic nerves or brain tissue, causing vision problems or headaches.

Part of the endocrine system: The pituitary gland is part of the endocrine system, the body’s hormone system. Hormones are natural chemicals, circulated mostly in the bloodstream, that guide everything from growth to fertility.

Anatomy: The pituitary has two parts, an anterior lobe and a posterior lobe. Each lobe releases different hormones. The pituitary gland is attached to the bottom of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that connects the nervous system and endocrine system. The hypothalamus releases hormones, and it signals the pituitary gland to release hormones.

Some Pituitary Gland Disorders

  • Pituitary disorders can cause a range of debilitating symptoms. They can also be challenging to diagnose. They share these traits:

  • The pituitary gland may raise or lower one or more hormones. A hormone imbalance can cause physical or mood changes. At the same time, pituitary disorders often develop very slowly. It may take a long time until you notice symptoms and often no-one links it to this small but all so powerful gland. Symptoms of pituitary disorders are similar to those of many other diseases. So many people are misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed.

  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone: ACTH causes the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This hormone helps your body regulate blood pressure, respond to infections, control sugar, fat and protein and more.

  • Follicle-stimulating hormone: FSH affects reproduction, helping to release eggs in women and to make sperm in men.

  • Growth hormone: GH controls growth in childhood and adolescence. In adults, it maintains body structure and energy production (metabolism).

  • Luteinizing hormone: LH, along with FSH, helps with reproduction. 

  • Prolactin: This hormone is involved in breast milk production (lactation).

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone: TSH controls the amount of hormones produced by the thyroid gland. These hormones affect metabolism and growth.

  • Antidiuretic hormone: ADH helps your kidneys manage the amount of water in your body.

  • Oxytocin: This hormone helps control reproductive system functions, including birth and lactation.

Who's likely to get pituitary disorders?

Pituitary disorders can affect people of any age or sex.

Inherited disorders: If you have a family history of certain genetic conditions, you have a higher chance of developing a pituitary disorder. Genetic conditions include:Multiple endocrine neoplasia, type I (MEN I)Familialisolated pituitary adenoma (FIPA)

Rare disorders: Many pituitary disorders are uncommon. At the same time, estimates for the number of people with acromegaly or Cushing disease/syndrome may be too low.

Craniopharyngiomas, noncancerous pituitary tumors, affect one or two people per million each year.

What causes pituitary disorders?Noncancerous pituitary tumors are the main cause of pituitary disorders. Tumors often cause your body to make too much or too little of a hormone, leading to a disorder such as acromegaly. Other common causes of pituitary disorders include: Head injury Bleeding in or near the pituitary gland Some medications and cancer treatments.

Types of pituitary disorders Doctors classify each pituitary tumor based on whether it produces hormones.

Secretory tumors, also called functioning adenomas, affect hormone production. Some people produce too much of a hormone, called hypersecretion. Others experience hyposecretion, or not having enough of a hormone.

Nonsecretory tumors, also called nonfunctioning adenomas, do not affect hormone production. However, when they grow too large, they can press on the pituitary gland and other brain structures, causing headaches and vision problems.

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