Guide To Understanding The Pituitary Gland

The pituitary gland is a structure located at the base of the brain, which dictates and manages the functions of the majority of other endocrine glands throughout the body. The pituitary gland has been coined as the master gland because of its management abilities. The pituitary gland is protected and housed by the sella turcica or bony structure that does not leave much room for any expansion. The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that sits just above the pituitary gland, is what controls its function. The hypothalamus works similar to a meter or monitor to detect abnormalities the levels of the hormones the pituitary gland produces. The hypothalamus is physically connected to the pituitary gland by a strong bundle of nerve projections and blood vessels. The hypothalamus communicates with the pituitary gland by sending hormones into connecting blood vessels, and through nerve impulses that bridge the structures together.

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Structure And Anatomy

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The pituitary gland is shaped like an oval and measures approximately one centimeter in diameter. It typically weighs around half a gram and contains two major parts. The first part is a large region referred to as the anterior lobe, and the second, smaller part, is called the posterior lobe. The anterior lobe of the pituitary gland contains several types of cells that produce different hormones responsible for regulating other glands throughout the body. The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland contains cells that do not actually produce hormones, but store hormones after they have been produced in the hypothalamus until they are ready to be released. The pituitary gland is located in a lower chamber of the brain referred to as the sella turcica. The optic chiasm and optic nerves are located just above the pituitary gland, and the cavernous sinus is located on both sides of the pituitary gland. The blood vessels that carry blood to the brain or the carotid arteries run through the cavernous sinus, as well as the nerves that control facial sensation and eye movements.

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Function Of The Pituitary Gland

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Without the pituitary gland, the body would be unable to grow properly, reproduce, and perform numerous other critical functions. The pituitary gland has two primary functions associated with the two different components it comprises. The anterior lobe or frontal lobe of the pituitary gland is responsible for producing several types of hormones, including growth hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, luteinizing hormone, endorphins, thyroid-stimulating hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, prolactin, enkephalins, and bet-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. The frontal lobe of the pituitary takes up around eighty percent of its total weight. The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland is responsible for holding onto vasopressin and oxytocin produced by the hypothalamus until they are needed. The pituitary gland mainly influences the actions of the adrenal gland, ovaries, testicles, and thyroid gland. Although the actions of the pituitary gland control these other glands, the hypothalamus is what sends hormones to the pituitary gland that tells it what to do and when to do it.

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Hormones It Produces

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The different hormones produced by the pituitary gland serve a range of functions in the body. Thyroid-stimulating hormone stimulates the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism. Follicle-stimulating hormone controls the secretion of estrogen and egg cell growth in females and the production of sperm cells in males. Growth hormone manages physical development in the body, primarily the growth of the muscles and bones. Adrenocorticotropic hormone tells the adrenal glands to make hormones such as cortisol when an individual becomes stressed. Luteinizing hormone is associated with the proper production of testosterone in males and estrogen in females. Prolactin causes a female who is breastfeeding to produce breastmilk. Endorphins have properties that can help relieve pain and are associated with the pleasure centers in the brain. Enkephalins are in the same family as endorphins and perform similar functions. Beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone promotes skin pigmentation when an individual is exposed to ultraviolet radiation.

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Pituitary Gland Conditions

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Because the pituitary gland influences so many systems and processes in the body, a problem with the gland can produce a wide range of medical conditions. The majority of pituitary gland conditions are attributed to growths or tumors in the pituitary gland. Hypopituitarism is a condition where the pituitary gland does not produce enough of one or more of the hormones it is responsible for. This malfunction results in adverse effects in regards to the systems under the direction of the affected hormones. Acromegaly is a condition where the pituitary gland produces an excess amount of growth hormone, leading to problems like larger than normal hands and feet. Diabetes insipidus occurs when vasopressin release becomes abnormal, resulting in large quantities of diluted urine being excreted from the body. Cushing’s disease is a condition that occurs as a result of the pituitary gland producing too much adrenocorticotropic hormone, resulting in easy bruising, weakness, and high blood pressure. Hyperprolactinemia is a condition of the pituitary gland where too much prolactin is released into circulation, producing symptoms like decreased sex drive and infertility.

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Keeping The Pituitary Gland Healthy

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There is no way to actually prevent the development of tumors in the pituitary gland that produce the aforementioned conditions. However, there are ways to keep the pituitary gland healthy and working at an optimal level. An individual who consumes a balanced and healthy diet will be able to produce growth hormone and others better. A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can help keep the pituitary gland healthy because it provides critical fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Avoiding refined sugars can help stop the process of a developing metabolic disorder that interferes with hormones produced by the pituitary gland. Reducing sodium intake can help improve blood flow to the pituitary gland by lowering an individual’s blood pressure. Individuals ensuring they meet their daily requirement of iodine can help keep the pituitary gland healthy by supporting the thyroid gland in the production of thyroid hormone. Controlling and adequately coping with chronic stress can stop the pituitary gland from producing too much cortisol, which may cause problems like insomnia, anxiety, depression, and weight gain.

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Brain Tumors Vs Pituitary Tumors

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The pituitary gland is physically located in what many would consider the brain, but it is not medically considered to be part of the central nervous system. Once again, the pituitary gland is a small mass of glandular tissue attached to the brain tissues by a thin stalk that sits just behind the bridge of the nose. Because the pituitary gland is not made up of nervous tissue, a tumor that develops in it is not medically considered a brain tumor. The majority of diagnosed brain tumors are malignant and have formed from nervous tissue in the brain. The majority of pituitary gland tumors are benign and have formed out of glandular tissue. Brain tumors usually do not interfere with any hormones, where most pituitary tumors produce an excessive amount of one or more of the hormones the pituitary gland would normally produce. A pituitary gland tumor is more likely to cause symptoms related to hormone imbalances, and a brain tumor is more likely to cause symptoms associated with the compression of other brain structures and tissues.

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Symptoms Of Pituitary Gland Problems

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Symptoms of a problem in their pituitary gland are highly dependent on what the problem is. Generalized symptoms include vision problems, loss of libido, pale complexion, coarsening of facial features, excessive sweating, carpal tunnel syndrome, oily skin, headaches, unexplained weight gain, dizziness, nausea, muscle wasting, enlarged hands, enlarged feet, and moon face. Symptoms of a pituitary gland problem that occur in children specifically include loss of vision, excessive frequency of urine passing, weight gain, early puberty, late puberty, milk secretion, poor growth, excessive drinking, and tiredness. Acromegaly is known to cause symptoms such as mood swings, speech changes, increased shoe size, joint pain, and facial pain. Cushing’s disease produces symptoms such as a fatty hump at the top of the spine, bone density loss, dark purple stretch marks, extreme hairiness, darkening of the skin, depression, and rounded face. Hypopituitarism causes symptoms like exhaustion, constipation, poor sleep patterns, low blood pressure, poor muscle tone, poor body temperature control, and slowed thought processes.

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Causes Of Pituitary Gland Issues

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Pituitary gland issues may arise when individuals experience an injury to their head, brain trauma, or due to the development of a pituitary tumor. A type of pituitary gland tumor referred to as a pituitary adenoma is the most common cause of pituitary gland disorders. Over ninety-nine percent of pituitary adenomas are benign, and most of these are non-functional. This means the majority of tumors that develop in the pituitary gland are not cancerous and do not produce excessive amounts of hormones. However, non-functional pituitary gland tumors have the potential to grow to a large size and cause pituitary gland compression. When the pituitary gland becomes compressed, it is not able to produce hormones as well as it could otherwise. Large benign non-functional pituitary tumors can also cause pituitary symptoms when it causes the compression of the optic nerve.

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Diagnosing Pituitary Gland Conditions

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Most pituitary gland conditions are tipped off by a basic pituitary hormone function tests performed by an individual’s primary doctor when they suspect a problem with the gland. A simple blood test can detect levels of thyroid hormone, estrogen, growth hormone, cortisol, prolactin, and testosterone in the body. A specialized endocrine doctor may test an individual’s blood for hormone levels of prolactin, insulin growth factor-1, luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, ACTH, thyroid-stimulating hormone, free thyroxine, and cortisol. Imaging tests may be utilized to detect abnormal growths and tumors that may develop in the pituitary gland and produce symptoms. CT scans and MRI scans can pick up cancerous and non-cancerous tumors that have formed in or around the pituitary gland. Another test that may be used to diagnose diabetes insipidus, a common pituitary condition, is a water deprivation test, where a patient’s urine osmolality is tested in the condition of no water consumption.

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Treating Pituitary Gland Issues

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An individual suspected of having problems with their pituitary gland is most often referred to an endocrinologist. An endocrinologist can perform multiple diagnostic tests to make or rule out a diagnosis of a pituitary gland condition. If the pituitary gland is not producing enough of the hormones it should be, they will need to take hormone replacement medications as their treatment. If the pituitary gland is producing too much of one or more of the hormones it is responsible for, an individual may need to take medications to reduce the production of said hormones in the body. When a tumor develops in the pituitary gland, surgery is the most common form of treatment used to remove the abnormal mass. In some cases, radiation therapy is used in conjunction with other methods.