What Does the Pituitary Gland Do?
Your brain does an unthinkable number of things every day to keep your body going. The mind is so well-wired, even something like hormone production is done without a conscious thought on your part. A small part of your brain, called the pituitary gland, works hard to account for hormones throughout your body every minute of every day.
What Is the Pituitary Gland?
The pituitary gland is an endocrine gland, which means that its function is to produce hormones. It has been called the “master gland” because it helps generate hormone production and secretion all over the body.
The pituitary gland is like an orchestra conductor, stimulating other glands into hormone production, or producing its own to keep the body’s hormones in a harmonious equilibrium. When one of the glands is “out of tune,” the pituitary gland prompts them back to their proper balance.
How Does the Pituitary Gland Function?
Don’t let the size of the pituitary gland fool you. The pituitary gland is about 1/3 of an inch in diameter (for reference, consider it the size of a pea) and located behind the nose at the base of the brain beneath the hypothalamus. Given the location, it makes sense that the pituitary gland is controlled by the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is the communication hub for the pituitary gland. The brain sends signals from the hypothalamus using hormones. The hormones travel by bloodstream and nerves to the pituitary gland.
The function of the hypothalamus in this relationship is to provide a statistical report of hormone levels in the body. These reports from the brain stimulate hormone production and release of other hormones from the pituitary gland when necessary.
What Does the Pituitary Gland Do?
The pituitary gland makes and stores hormones as well as monitors hormone production of other glands. It controls several of the hormone glands in the body, including thyroid, adrenal glands, ovaries, and testicles.
Some hormones from the pituitary gland send messages to other endocrine glands to alter their production levels of hormones – increasing supply if levels are too low and decreasing if levels are too high.
Pituitary Gland Hormones and Their Functions
The pituitary gland secretes hormones from the front and back of the gland (anterior and posterior, respectively). Hormones are chemicals that pass along messages to each other through the bloodstream.
The pituitary stimulates hormones such as (these are just some of the hormones under the direction of the pituitary gland, not a comprehensive list):
- Prolactin (PRL): which prompts breast milk production after childbirth.
- Growth Hormone (GH): stimulates growth in children and helps maintain muscle and bone mass in adults.
- Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH): help control the production of estrogen and testosterone as well as sperm and egg release.
- Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH): incites production of cortisol (a stress hormone) from the adrenal glands which helps to maintain blood pressure, and blood glucose levels.
- Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): thyroid hormones regulate the body’s metabolism, energy balance, growth, and function of the nervous system.
- Antidiuretic hormone (ADH): regulates water balance in the body.
Symptoms of Pituitary Hormone Deficiency
If your pituitary produces an insufficient amount of one or more hormones, the result is a rare disorder called hypopituitarism. Low production of hormones can affect many of the body’s everyday functions.
Symptoms of hypopituitarism range on a spectrum from mild to severe depending on where the deficiency is. These symptoms can include:
- Cold intolerance
- Growth impairment (in children)
- Decreased muscle mass and osteoporosis (in adults)
- Hot flashes
- Inability to produce breast milk (for nursing mothers)
- Weight loss
- Decreased libido
- Drop in blood pressure
Pituitary Tumor Causes and Symptoms
Adenoma, the development of a benign tumor, is the most common problem with the pituitary gland. Pituitary tumors such as these are not typically a genetic disease, and there are different types (depending on which hormones get affected as a result of the tumor).
Sometimes symptoms of these tumors take years to onset, and sometimes symptoms don’t occur at all. The tumor can press on the pituitary gland and cause damage to the pituitary tissue and affect hormone production (in excess or not enough).
Symptoms of adenomas can include a headache, vision loss or disturbance (due to compression of the optic nerve), anxiety, rapid/irregular heartbeat, high blood sugar levels, easy bruising, changes in menstrual periods, trouble with temperature regulation, and more.
Pituitary Gland Disorders Treatment
Treatment for pituitary gland disorders depends on which glands/hormones are affected. Be sure to seek advice and guidance from your doctor before adding additional hormones to your body. Deficiencies in growth hormone and testosterone can be treated with daily injections under the skin.
To boost estrogen and progesterone, a topical patch or pills can improve the hormone shortage. Daily pills can also fill in the gaps when the adrenocorticotropic hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and antidiuretic hormone are in short supply. The antidiuretic hormone can also be treated with a nasal spray.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment available to supplement the deficit of prolactin.
The Pituitary Gland and You
Your pituitary gland does the best it can to ensure all of your hormone levels are in a healthy range. With all the glands it oversees, it’s no wonder this tiny part of your brain is called “the master gland.”