The body’s metabolic functions are set in motion by a series of electrical and chemical reactions that keep its systems running smoothly. In order for us to have a good quality of life, each body system must work efficiently and harmoniously with the other systems. Therefore, it is critical that there be a communication network for this to occur. We have already touched upon one of the communication systems, the nervous system, now here is an overview of the endocrine system.
The endocrine system (ES) and the nervous system (NS) are intrinsically connected, regulating all the body’s activities. The NS uses electrical conduction along nerves to communicate, whereas the ES uses chemical messengers, via the bloodstream, to signal for a physical reaction to occur.
The ES uses two types of glands to deliver its chemical messages as hormones: the endocrine and exocrine glands.
- Exocrine glands secrete hormones or other substances into body cavities and onto the body surface using ducts
- Endocrine glands are ductless and secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream
Hormones are made up of amino acids or lipids and act as messengers that reach its target cell. Practically every cell has the ability to secrete and receive a hormone or hormone-like chemical, to elicit the desired changes needed to create balance.
The communication between the nervous system and the endocrine system happens between the hypothalamus, located in the brain, and the pituitary gland. This relationship is called the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, and is key to how we deal with any kind of stress. The autonomic nervous system recognizes a stressor and commands the release of hormones from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland, in order to stimulate or inhibit the secretion of regulatory hormones. This series of events creates a cascade of reactions in the body, depending upon the stressor.
The hypothalamus is a powerhouse, with many diverse functions. In addition to working with the pituitary gland to release and stimulate many hormones, the hypothalamus is a relay center for autonomic functions associated with digestion and plays a role in the alerting system, body temperature control, our sleep, our sense of pleasure and other emotional behavior, and hunger and satiety.
The pituitary gland is known as the “master gland” because of its regulatory affect on the other endocrine glands that control many metabolic activities. The pituitary gland lies below hypothalamus and sits in the center of the sphenoid bone on the sella turcica (Turkish Saddle). The sphenoid bone is the floor of the cranium, and connects with all the bones of the skull, with the exception of the mandible.
Another close connection between the NS and the ES are the messenger substances, the neurotransmitters and hormones. These two chemicals are the same, except that neurotransmitters are chemicals released at the end of the nerve’s axon, and hormones, as previously mentioned, are released from glands.
Hormones can either stimulate or inhibit a reaction. The endocrine system’s hormones can have a long-lasting effect on the body, from hours to weeks. Excessive and sustained stress and anxiety can affect the NS, keeping the body’s natural balance from correcting itself, potentially creating future problems. Some of the diseases of the ES are the result of hyper-secretion (hormone excess), hypo-secretion (hormone deficiency), or tumors (malignant or benign).
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs have been shown to have a regulating effect on the nervous system, and so by extension, the endocrine system. It is recommended to get a yearly physical that includes blood tests of hormone levels. Early detection can manage and in some cases eradicate a problem, using western medicine protocols in conjunction with acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
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