Endocrinology is the branch of medicine that focuses on the endocrine system, the system comprised of glands that produce essential hormones. These hormones regulate a great many bodily processes, including metabolism, reproduction, sexual function, growth and development. The glands of the endocrine system are the thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes, adrenal, pituitary, and hypothalamus. Endocrinologists diagnose and treat glandular diseases and hormone imbalances.
Patients consult endocrinologists for a great many medical problems. Some of these disorders may be the result of other physical or psychological factors that have to be ruled out before the endocrine glands are determined to be causative.
Diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, a glandular organ. While the pancreas also serves as a digestive gland, endocrinologists are concerned with its hormone-producing function. In patients with diabetes, too much sugar remains in the blood due to either an insufficiency of insulin (Type 1 diabetes) or the body’s resistance to the effects of insulin (Type 2 diabetes). Both types of diabetes can severely harm the kidneys and the nervous system, leading to major complications, such as blindness or limb amputation.
The thyroid affects many of the body’s most important organs, including the brain, heart, kidneys, liver, and skin. Thyroid conditions can cause patients to experience a wide variety of problems, including wide fluctuations in energy levels, muscle strength, emotions, weight, menstrual cycles, hair loss, dry skin, intolerance to hot or cold environments. The symptoms vary depending on whether the gland is overactive (hyperthyroidism) or underactive (hypothyroidism). Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, benign or malignant thyroid tumors, enlarged or infected thyroid glands are all treated by endocrinologists.
The branch of endocrinology that treats infertility and other reproductive disorders is known as reproductive endocrinology. Infertility may have causes unrelated to hormone imbalance, such as anatomical abnormalities, but when the condition results from a hormonal imbalance it can often be treated by hormone replacement therapy. Other reproductive issues treated by endocrinologists include endometriosis, premenstrual syndrome, irregular menstruation, menopausal symptoms, polycystic ovary syndrome, and impotence.
Obesity may result from a number of genetic, physical and psychological causes, but in many severe cases, hormonal imbalances play a role in the problem. Endocrinologists are trained to diagnose and treat disorders of the adrenal, ovarian, pituitary, and thyroid glands that can contribute to obesity. Endocrinologists also diagnose other factors, such as insulin resistance, that can make obesity more likely to develop.
The pituitary, called the master gland of the body, produces several hormones that regulate other endocrine glands. When the pituitary produces too much or too little of these hormones, the imbalance can lead to many health problems, including growth disorders, infertility, menstrual disorders, and Cushing’s syndrome. Pituitary disorders may often be the result of tumors on the gland itself.
Certain hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, have a significant affect on bone health. These hormones, produced by the ovaries and adrenal glands, can become unbalanced for a variety of reasons, including thyroid dysfunction. These imbalances can cause osteoporosis and other bone disorders.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can be the result of an excess of aldosterone, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Frequently the overproduction of this hormone is the result of growths on the adrenal glands that require surgical removal.
Lipid disorders involve an abnormal level of body fats that can result in high levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides in the blood. Lipid disorders can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, circulatory problems, and stroke. Lipid disorders may be the result of genetic predisposition, hypothyroidism, long-term steroid use, or metabolic abnormalities.
Endocrinologists have a broad and detailed knowledge of biochemistry and must keep constantly informed about current scientific research. As endocrinology advances, new and better methods to treat endocrine disorders continue to be developed.