The endocrine system is primarily composed of glands that produce chemical messengers called hormones. Glands of the endocrine system include the pituitary gland, the thyroid gland, the parathyroid glands, the thymus, and the adrenal glands.
Other glands are also included within the endocrine system since they contain endocrine tissue that secretes hormones. These include the pancreas, ovaries and testes.
The endocrine and nervous systems work very closely together. The brain continuously sends instructions to the endocrine system, and in return receives feedback from the endocrine glands. Because of this intimate relationship, the nervous and endocrine systems are referred to as the neuroendocrine system.
The hypothalamus is known as the master switchboard because it’s the part of the brain that controls the endocrine system. The pituitary gland, which hangs by a thin stalk from the hypothalamus, is called the master gland of the body because it regulates the activity of the endocrine glands.
The hypothalamus detects the rising level of the target organ’s hormones then sends either hormonal or electrical messages to the pituitary gland. In response, the pituitary gland releases hormones, which travel through the bloodstream to a target endocrine gland, instructing it to stop producing its hormones.
Here’s how the endocrine system keeps itself in check: eventually, the hypothalamus detects the rising level of the target organ’s hormones, and sends a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then stops releasing certain hormones, causing the target organ to stop producing its hormones.
The endocrine system constantly adjusts hormone levels so that the body can function normally. This process is called homeostasis.
Update Date 4/13/2013
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.