The endocrine glands secrete hormones that have a wide variety of actions in the human body. It is essentially the body’s regulating mechanism and can affect almost every process in the body. This is discussed further under the Human Endocrine System.

General Endocrine Signs and Symptoms

When the endocrine glands or its hormones malfunction, a number of signs and symptoms may arise. A disease of a specific endocrine gland or dysfunction of one or more of its hormones may cause very specific signs and symptoms. Below is a list of generalized clinical features associated with endocrine disorders. Other non-endocrine disorders may also have to be considered as a possible cause of these signs and symptoms.

Weight Gain

  • This is primarily associated with the thyroid gland which secretes the thyroid hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic rate. A drop in metabolic rate as a result of hypothyroidism may contribute to weight gain.
  • Ovarian disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may also contribute to weight gain as the imbalance in estrogen and progesterone contributes to fat accumulation especially in areas like the breast, lower abdomen, buttocks and upper thigh.
  • Cushing’s syndrome is a result of any condition that causes an excess of glucorticoids.  Cushing’s syndrome may arise from an excess in exogenous corticosteroids (corticosteroid drugs) or endogenous corticosteroids (natural corticosteroids). The latter may be due to a disease of the adrenal gland itself or related to regulation of the adrenal gland by the hormone adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) secreted by the pituitary gland. Fat distribution is pronounced in the abdomen, back of the neck and back, where it may cause what is known as a buffalo hump. A round, moon face is another feature.

Weight Loss

  • Hyperthyroidism is a result of increased production and circulation of the thyroid hormones from the thyroid gland.
  • Diabetes mellitus, commonly referred to as sugar diabetes,  is when the pancreas produces little or no insulin or the body’s cells do not respond to insulin (insulin resistance).
  • Adrenal insufficiency is when the production and/or secretion of the mineralocorticoids and/or glucocorticoids is decreased. This is seen in conditions like Addison’s disease.

Physical Characteristics

  • Short stature (height and build) may be due to a deficiency in growth hormone secreted from the pituitary gland. Growth hormone regulates the growth of cells and tissues and triggers the synthesis of proteins.
  • Alterations in facial structure may be due to diabetes mellitus, PCOS, Cushing’s syndrome or acromegaly (excess growth hormone).

Sexual/Reproductive Disorders

Fertility

In both men and women, dysfunction with the gonads (ovaries in women, testes in men), pituitary dysfunction FSH/LH), thyroid dysfunction and diabetes mellitus are some of the more common endocrine disorders that affect fertility. However, a dysfunction of almost any endocrine gland or its hormone can impact on fertility.

Women

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) discussed above affects menstruation.
  • Thyroid dysfunction (hypo- or hyperthyroidism) as discussed above affects menstruation.
  • Hyperprolactinemia is an excess of  prolactin secreted by the anterior pituitary and other tissues and affects menstruation. Prolactin is always being produced and secreted in the body but this can be increased (TRH and GnRh) or decreased (PIF) by the hypothalamus.
  • Hypogonadism when the ovaries in women secrete less estrogen and/or progesterone in menopause or premature ovarian failure may affect menstruation.
  • Delayed puberty or primary amenorrhea may be due to hypothyroidism (thyroid hormones), hypopituitarism (affecting FSH/LH), or hypogonadism (estrogen, progesterone).
  • Hirsutism (abnormal facial hair in women) may due to Cushing’s syndrome.

Men

  • Delayed puberty may be due to hypogonadism (testes) and hypopituitarism (pituitary gland).
  • Erectile dysfunction may be due to hypogonadism (testes) or diabetes mellitus (insulin).

Related Articles

  1. Endocrine Glands and Hormones

Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on October 26, 2010