Endocrinology & Metabolism | Anatomy and Physiology
Endocrinology and Metabolism
Communication is a process in which a sender transmits signals to one or more receivers to control and coordinate actions. In the human body, two major organ systems participate in the “long distance” communication: the nervous system and the endocrine system. Together, these two systems are primarily responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body.
Neural and Endocrine Signaling
The nervous system uses two types of intercellular communication—electrical and chemical signaling—either by the direct action of an electrical potential, or in the latter case, through the action of chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin or norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters act locally and rapidly. When an electrical signal in the form of an action potential arrives at the synaptic terminal, they diffuse across the synaptic cleft (the gap between a sending neuron and a receiving neuron or muscle cell). Once the neurotransmitters interact (bind) with receptors on the receiving (post-synaptic) cell, the receptor stimulation is transduced into a response such as continued electrical signaling or modification of cellular response. The target cell responds within milliseconds of receiving the chemical “message”; this response then ceases very quickly once the neural signaling ends. In this way, neural communication enables body functions that involve quick, brief actions, such as movement, sensation, and cognition.In contrast, the endocrine system uses just one method of communication: chemical signaling. These signals are sent by the endocrine organs, which secrete chemicals—the hormone—into the extracellular fluid. Hormones are transported primarily via the bloodstream throughout the body, where they bind to receptors on target cells, inducing a characteristic response. As a result, endocrine signaling requires more time than neural signaling to prompt a response in target cells, though the precise amount of time varies with different hormones. For example, the hormones released when confronted with a dangerous or frightening situation, called the fight-or-flight response, occur by the release of adrenal hormones—epinephrine and norepinephrine—within seconds. In contrast, it may take up to 48 hours for target cells to respond to certain reproductive hormones.
In addition, endocrine signaling is typically less specific than neural signaling. The same hormone may play a role in a variety of different physiological processes depending on the target cells involved. For example, the hormone oxytocin promotes uterine contractions in women in labor. It is also important in breastfeeding, and may be involved in the sexual response and in feelings of emotional attachment in both males and females.
In general, the nervous system involves quick responses to rapid changes in the external environment, and the endocrine system is usually slower acting—taking care of the internal environment of the body, maintaining homeostasis, and controlling reproduction. So how does the fight-or-flight response that was mentioned earlier happen so quickly if hormones are usually slower acting? It is because the two systems are connected. It is the fast action of the nervous system in response to the danger in the environment that stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete their hormones. As a result, the nervous system can cause rapid endocrine responses to keep up with sudden changes in both the external and internal environments when necessary.
|Endocrine and Nervous Systems|
|Endocrine system||Nervous system|
|Primary chemical signal||Hormones||Neurotransmitters|
|Distance traveled||Long or short||Always short|
|Response time||Fast or slow||Always fast|
|Environment targeted||Internal||Internal and external|
Structures of the Endocrine System
The endocrine system consists of cells, tissues, and organs that secrete hormones as a primary or secondary function. The endocrine gland is the major player in this system. The primary function of these ductless glands is to secrete their hormones directly into the surrounding fluid. The interstitial fluid and the blood vessels then transport the hormones throughout the body. The endocrine system includes the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pineal glands. Some of these glands have both endocrine and non-endocrine functions. For example, the pancreas contains cells that function in digestion as well as cells that secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood glucose levels. The hypothalamus, thymus, heart, kidneys, stomach, small intestine, liver, skin, female ovaries, and male testes are other organs that contain cells with endocrine function. Moreover, adipose tissue has long been known to produce hormones, and recent research has revealed that even bone tissue has endocrine functions.
The ductless endocrine glands are not to be confused with the body’s exocrine system, whose glands release their secretions through ducts. Examples of exocrine glands include the sebaceous and sweat glands of the skin. As just noted, the pancreas also has an exocrine function: most of its cells secrete pancreatic juice through the pancreatic and accessory ducts to the lumen of the small intestine.
Other Types of Chemical Signaling
In endocrine signaling, hormones secreted into the extracellular fluid diffuse into the blood or lymph, and can then travel great distances throughout the body. In contrast, autocrine signaling takes place within the same cell. An autocrine (auto- = “self”) is a chemical that elicits a response in the same cell that secreted it. Interleukin-1, or IL-1, is a signaling molecule that plays an important role in inflammatory response. The cells that secrete IL-1 have receptors on their cell surface that bind these molecules, resulting in autocrine signaling.
Local intercellular communication is controlled by paracrine factors, chemicals that induce a response in neighboring cells. Although paracrines may enter the bloodstream, their concentration is generally too low to elicit a response from distant tissues. A familiar example to those with asthma is histamine, a paracrine that is released by immune cells in the bronchial tree. Histamine causes the smooth muscle cells of the bronchi to constrict, narrowing the airways. Another example is the neurotransmitters of the nervous system, which act only locally within the synaptic cleft.
Although a given hormone may travel throughout the body in the bloodstream, it will affect the activity only of its target cells; that is, cells with receptors for that particular hormone. Once the hormone binds to the receptor, a chain of events is initiated that leads to the target cell’s response. Hormones play a critical role in the regulation of physiological processes because of the target cell responses they regulate. These responses contribute to human reproduction, growth and development of body tissues, metabolism, fluid, and electrolyte balance, sleep, and many other body functions. The major hormones of the human body and their effects are identified in the table below.
|Endocrine Glands and Their Major Hormones|
|Endocrine gland||Associated hormones||Chemical class||Effect|
|Pituitary (anterior)||Growth hormone (GH)||Protein||Promotes growth of body tissues|
|Pituitary (anterior)||Prolactin (PRL)||Peptide||Promotes milk production|
|Pituitary (anterior)||Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)||Glycoprotein||Stimulates thyroid hormone release|
|Pituitary (anterior)||Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)||Peptide||Stimulates hormone release by adrenal cortex|
|Pituitary (anterior)||Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)||Glycoprotein||Stimulates gamete production|
|Pituitary (anterior)||Luteinizing hormone (LH)||Glycoprotein||Stimulates androgen production by gonads|
|Pituitary (posterior)||Antidiuretic hormone (ADH)||Peptide||Stimulates water reabsorption by kidneys|
|Pituitary (posterior)||Oxytocin||Peptide||Stimulates uterine contractions during childbirth|
|Thyroid||Thyroxine (T4), triiodothyronine (T3)||Amine||Stimulate basal metabolic rate|
|Thyroid||Calcitonin||Peptide||Reduces blood Ca2+levels|
|Parathyroid||Parathyroid hormone (PTH)||Peptide||Increases blood Ca2+levels|
|Adrenal (cortex)||Aldosterone||Steroid||Increases blood Na+levels|
|Adrenal (cortex)||Cortisol, corticosterone, cortisone||Steroid||Increase blood glucose levels|
|Adrenal (medulla)||Epinephrine, norepinephrine||Amine||Stimulate fight-or-flight response|
|Pineal||Melatonin||Amine||Regulates sleep cycles|
|Pancreas||Insulin||Protein||Reduces blood glucose levels|
|Pancreas||Glucagon||Protein||Increases blood glucose levels|
|Testes||Testosterone||Steroid||Stimulates development of male secondary sex characteristics and sperm production|
|Ovaries||Estrogens and progesterone||Steroid||Stimulate development of female secondary sex characteristics and prepare the body for childbirth|
Types of Hormones
The hormones of the human body can be divided into two major groups on the basis of their chemical structure. Hormones derived from amino acids include amines, peptides, and proteins. Those derived from lipids include steroids. These chemical groups affect a hormone’s distribution, the type of receptors it binds to, and other aspects of its function.
Hormones derived from the modification of amino acids are referred to as amine hormones. Typically, the original structure of the amino acid is modified such that a –COOH, or carboxyl, group is removed, whereas the -NH3+, or amine group remains.
Amine hormones are synthesized from the amino acids tryptophan or tyrosine. An example of a hormone derived from tryptophan is melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland and helps regulate circadian rhythm. Tyrosine derivatives include the metabolism-regulating thyroid hormones, as well as the catecholamines, such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted by the adrenal medulla and play a role in the fight-or-flight response, whereas dopamine is secreted by the hypothalamus and inhibits the release of certain anterior pituitary hormones.
Peptide and Protein Hormones
Whereas the amine hormones are derived from a single amino acid, peptide and protein hormones consist of multiple amino acids that link to form an amino acid chain. Peptide hormones consist of short chains of amino acids, whereas protein hormones are longer polypeptides. Both types are synthesized like other body proteins: DNA is transcribed into mRNA, which is translated into an amino acid chain.
Examples of peptide hormones include antidiuretic hormone (ADH), a pituitary hormone important in fluid balance, and atrial-natriuretic peptide, which is produced by the heart and helps to decrease blood pressure. Some examples of protein hormones include growth hormone, which is produced by the pituitary gland, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which has an attached carbohydrate group and is thus classified as a glycoprotein. FSH helps stimulate the maturation of eggs in the ovaries and sperm in the testes.
The primary hormones derived from lipids are steroids. Steroid hormones are derived from the lipid cholesterol. For example, the reproductive hormones testosterone and the estrogens—which are produced by the gonads (testes and ovaries)—are steroid hormones. The adrenal glands produce the steroid hormone aldosterone, which is involved in osmoregulation, and cortisol, which plays a role in metabolism.
Like cholesterol, steroid hormones are not soluble in water (they are hydrophobic). Because blood is water-based, lipid-derived hormones must travel to their target cell bound to a transport protein. This more complex structure extends the half-life of steroid hormones much longer than that of hormones derived from amino acids. A hormone’s half-life is the time required for half the concentration of the hormone to be degraded. For example, the lipid-derived hormone cortisol has a half-life of approximately 60 to 90 minutes. In contrast, the amino acid–derived hormone epinephrine has a half-life of approximately one minute.
Pathways of Hormone Action
The message a hormone sends is received by a hormone receptor, a protein located either inside the cell or within the cell membrane. The receptor will process the message by initiating other signaling events or cellular mechanisms that result in the target cell’s response. Hormone receptors recognize molecules with specific shapes and side groups, and respond only to those hormones that are recognized. The same type of receptor may be located on cells in different body tissues, and trigger somewhat different responses. Thus, the response triggered by a hormone depends not only on the hormone, but also on the target cell.
Once the target cell receives the hormone signal, it can respond in a variety of ways. The response may include the stimulation of protein synthesis, activation or deactivation of enzymes, alteration in the permeability of the cell membrane, altered rates of mitosis and cell growth, and stimulation of the secretion of products. Moreover, a single hormone may be capable of inducing different responses in a given cell.
Pathways Involving Intracellular Hormone Receptors
Intracellular hormone receptors are located inside the cell. Hormones that bind to this type of receptor must be able to cross the cell membrane. Steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol and therefore can readily diffuse through the lipid bilayer of the cell membrane to reach the intracellular receptor. Thyroid hormones, which contain benzene rings studded with iodine, are also lipid-soluble and can enter the cell.
The location of steroid and thyroid hormone binding differs slightly: a steroid hormone may bind to its receptor within the cytosol or within the nucleus. In either case, this binding generates a hormone-receptor complex that moves toward the chromatin in the cell nucleus and binds to a particular segment of the cell’s DNA. In contrast, thyroid hormones bind to receptors already bound to DNA. For both steroid and thyroid hormones, binding of the hormone-receptor complex with DNA triggers transcription of a target gene to mRNA, which moves to the cytosol and directs protein synthesis by ribosomes.
Pathways Involving Cell Membrane Hormone Receptors
Hydrophilic, or water-soluble, hormones are unable to diffuse through the lipid bilayer of the cell membrane and must therefore pass on their message to a receptor located at the surface of the cell. Except for thyroid hormones, which are lipid-soluble, all amino acid–derived hormones bind to cell membrane receptors that are located, at least in part, on the extracellular surface of the cell membrane. Therefore, they do not directly affect the transcription of target genes, but instead initiate a signaling cascade that is carried out by a molecule called a second messenger. In this case, the hormone is called a first messenger.
The second messenger used by most hormones is cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). In the cAMP second messenger system, a water-soluble hormone binds to its receptor in the cell membrane (Step 1 in figure 2). This receptor is associated with an intracellular component called a G protein, and binding of the hormone activates the G-protein component (Step 2). The activated G protein in turn activates an enzyme called adenylyl cyclase, also known as adenylate cyclase (Step 3), which converts adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to cAMP (Step 4). As the second messenger, cAMP activates a type of enzyme called a protein kinase that is present in the cytosol (Step 5). Activated protein kinases initiate a phosphorylation cascade, in which multiple protein kinases phosphorylate (add a phosphate group to) numerous and various cellular proteins, including other enzymes (Step 6).
The phosphorylation of cellular proteins can trigger a wide variety of effects, from nutrient metabolism to the synthesis of different hormones and other products. The effects vary according to the type of target cell, the G proteins and kinases involved, and the phosphorylation of proteins. Examples of hormones that use cAMP as a second messenger include calcitonin, which is important for bone construction and regulating blood calcium levels; glucagon, which plays a role in blood glucose levels; and thyroid-stimulating hormone, which causes the release of T3 and T4 from the thyroid gland.
Overall, the phosphorylation cascade significantly increases the efficiency, speed, and specificity of the hormonal response, as thousands of signaling events can be initiated simultaneously in response to a very low concentration of hormone in the bloodstream. However, the duration of the hormone signal is short, as cAMP is quickly deactivated by the enzyme phosphodiesterase (PDE), which is located in the cytosol. The action of PDE helps to ensure that a target cell’s response ceases quickly unless new hormones arrive at the cell membrane.
Importantly, there are also G proteins that decrease the levels of cAMP in the cell in response to hormone binding. For example, when growth hormone–inhibiting hormone (GHIH), also known as somatostatin, binds to its receptors in the pituitary gland, the level of cAMP decreases, thereby inhibiting the secretion of human growth hormone.
Not all water-soluble hormones initiate the cAMP second messenger system. One common alternative system uses calcium ions as a second messenger. In this system, G proteins activate the enzyme phospholipase C (PLC), which functions similarly to adenylyl cyclase. Once activated, PLC cleaves a membrane-bound phospholipid into two molecules: diacylglycerol (DAG) and inositol triphosphate (IP3). Like cAMP, DAG activates protein kinases that initiate a phosphorylation cascade. At the same time, IP3 causes calcium ions to be released from storage sites within the cytosol, such as from within the smooth endoplasmic reticulum. The calcium ions then act as second messengers in two ways: they can influence enzymatic and other cellular activities directly, or they can bind to calcium-binding proteins, the most common of which is calmodulin. Upon binding calcium, calmodulin is able to modulate protein kinase within the cell. Examples of hormones that use calcium ions as a second messenger system include angiotensin II, which helps regulate blood pressure through vasoconstriction, and growth hormone–releasing hormone (GHRH), which causes the pituitary gland to release growth hormones.
Factors Affecting Target Cell Response
As discussed earlier, target cells must have receptors specific to a given hormone if that hormone is to trigger a response. But several other factors influence the target cell response. For example, the presence of a significant level of a hormone circulating in the bloodstream can cause its target cells to decrease their number of receptors for that hormone. This process is called downregulation, and it allows cells to become less reactive to the excessive hormone levels. When the level of a hormone is chronically reduced, target cells engage in upregulation to increase their number of receptors. This process allows cells to be more sensitive to the hormone that is present. Cells can also alter the sensitivity of the receptors themselves to various hormones.
Two or more hormones can interact to affect the response of cells in a variety of ways. The three most common types of interaction are as follows:
- The permissive effect, in which the presence of one hormone enables another hormone to act. For example, thyroid hormones have complex permissive relationships with certain reproductive hormones. A dietary deficiency of iodine, a component of thyroid hormones, can therefore affect reproductive system development and functioning.
- The synergistic effect, in which two hormones with similar effects produce an amplified response. In some cases, two hormones are required for an adequate response. For example, two different reproductive hormones—FSH from the pituitary gland and estrogens from the ovaries—are required for the maturation of female ova (egg cells).
- The antagonistic effect, in which two hormones have opposing effects. A familiar example is the effect of two pancreatic hormones, insulin and glucagon. Insulin increases the liver’s storage of glucose as glycogen, decreasing blood glucose, whereas glucagon stimulates the breakdown of glycogen stores, increasing blood glucose.
Regulation of Hormone Secretion
To prevent abnormal hormone levels and a potential disease state, hormone levels must be tightly controlled. The body maintains this control by balancing hormone production and degradation. Feedback loops govern the initiation and maintenance of most hormone secretion in response to various stimuli.
Role of Feedback Loops
The contribution of feedback loops to homeostasis will only be briefly reviewed here. Positive feedback loops are characterized by the release of additional hormone in response to an original hormone release. The release of oxytocin during childbirth is a positive feedback loop. The initial release of oxytocin begins to signal the uterine muscles to contract, which pushes the fetus toward the cervix, causing it to stretch. This, in turn, signals the pituitary gland to release more oxytocin, causing labor contractions to intensify. The release of oxytocin decreases after the birth of the child.
The more common method of hormone regulation is the negative feedback loop. Negative feedback is characterized by the inhibition of further secretion of a hormone in response to adequate levels of that hormone. This allows blood levels of the hormone to be regulated within a narrow range. An example of a negative feedback loop is the release of glucocorticoid hormones from the adrenal glands, as directed by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. As glucocorticoid concentrations in the blood rise, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland reduce their signaling to the adrenal glands to prevent additional glucocorticoid secretion.
Role of Endocrine Gland Stimuli
Reflexes triggered by both chemical and neural stimuli control endocrine activity. These reflexes may be simple, involving only one hormone response, or they may be more complex and involve many hormones, as is the case with the hypothalamic control of various anterior pituitary–controlled hormones.
Humoral stimuli are changes in blood levels of non-hormone chemicals, such as nutrients or ions, which cause the release or inhibition of a hormone to, in turn, maintain homeostasis. For example, osmoreceptors in the hypothalamus detect changes in blood osmolarity (the concentration of solutes in the blood plasma). If blood osmolarity is too high, meaning that the blood is not dilute enough, osmoreceptors signal the hypothalamus to release ADH. The hormone causes the kidneys to reabsorb more water and reduce the volume of urine produced. This reabsorption causes a reduction of the osmolarity of the blood, diluting the blood to the appropriate level. The regulation of blood glucose is another example. High blood glucose levels cause the release of insulin from the pancreas, which increases glucose uptake by cells and liver storage of glucose as glycogen.
An endocrine gland may also secrete a hormone in response to the presence of another hormone produced by a different endocrine gland. Such hormonal stimuli often involve the hypothalamus, which produces releasing and inhibiting hormones that control the secretion of a variety of pituitary hormones.
In addition to these chemical signals, hormones can also be released in response to neural stimuli. A common example of neural stimuli is the activation of the fight-or-flight response by the sympathetic nervous system. When an individual perceives danger, sympathetic neurons signal the adrenal glands to secrete norepinephrine and epinephrine. The two hormones dilate blood vessels, increase the heart and respiratory rate, and suppress the digestive and immune systems. These responses boost the body’s transport of oxygen to the brain and muscles, thereby improving the body’s ability to fight or flee.
The Pituitary Gland and Hypothalamus
The hypothalamus–pituitary complex can be thought of as the “command center” of the endocrine system. This complex secretes several hormones that directly produce responses in target tissues, as well as hormones that regulate the synthesis and secretion of hormones of other glands. In addition, the hypothalamus–pituitary complex coordinates the messages of the endocrine and nervous systems. In many cases, a stimulus received by the nervous system must pass through the hypothalamus–pituitary complex to be translated into hormones that can initiate a response.
The hypothalamus is a structure of the diencephalon of the brain located anterior and inferior to the thalamus. It has both neural and endocrine functions, producing and secreting many hormones. In addition, the hypothalamus is anatomically and functionally related to the pituitary gland (or hypophysis), a bean-sized organ suspended from it by a stem called the infundibulum (or pituitary stalk). The pituitary gland is cradled within the sellaturcica of the sphenoid bone of the skull. It consists of two lobes that arise from distinct parts of embryonic tissue: the posterior pituitary (neurohypophysis) is neural tissue, whereas the anterior pituitary (also known as the adenohypophysis) is glandular tissue that develops from the primitive digestive tract. The hormones secreted by the posterior and anterior pituitary, and the intermediate zone between the lobes are summarized in the figure below.
|Pituitary lobe||Associated hormones||Chemical class||Effect|
|Anterior||Growth hormone (GH)||Protein||Promotes growth of body tissues|
|Anterior||Prolactin (PRL)||Peptide||Promotes milk production from mammary glands|
|Anterior||Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)||Glycoprotein||Stimulates thyroid hormone release from thyroid|
|Anterior||Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)||Peptide||Stimulates hormone release by adrenal cortex|
|Anterior||Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)||Glycoprotein||Stimulates gamete production in gonads|
|Anterior||Luteinizing hormone (LH)||Glycoprotein||Stimulates androgen production by gonads|
|Posterior||Antidiuretic hormone (ADH)||Peptide||Stimulates water reabsorption by kidneys|
|Posterior||Oxytocin||Peptide||Stimulates uterine contractions during childbirth|
|Intermediate zone||Melanocyte-stimulating hormone||Peptide||Stimulates melanin formation in melanocytes|
The posterior pituitary is actually an extension of the neurons of the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus. The cell bodies of these regions rest in the hypothalamus, but their axons descend as the hypothalamic–hypophyseal tract within the infundibulum, and end in axon terminals that comprise the posterior pituitary.
The posterior pituitary gland does not produce hormones, but rather stores and secretes hormones produced by the hypothalamus. The paraventricular nuclei produce the hormone oxytocin, whereas the supraoptic nuclei produce ADH. These hormones travel along the axons into storage sites in the axon terminals of the posterior pituitary. In response to signals from the same hypothalamic neurons, the hormones are released from the axon terminals into the bloodstream.
When fetal development is complete, the peptide-derived hormone oxytocin (tocia- = “childbirth”) stimulates uterine contractions and dilation of the cervix. Throughout most of pregnancy, oxytocin hormone receptors are not expressed at high levels in the uterus. Toward the end of pregnancy, the synthesis of oxytocin receptors in the uterus increases, and the smooth muscle cells of the uterus become more sensitive to its effects. Oxytocin is continually released throughout childbirth through a positive feedback mechanism. As noted earlier, oxytocin prompts uterine contractions that push the fetal head toward the cervix. In response, cervical stretching stimulates additional oxytocin to be synthesized by the hypothalamus and released from the pituitary. This increases the intensity and effectiveness of uterine contractions and prompts additional dilation of the cervix. The feedback loop continues until birth.
Although the mother’s high blood levels of oxytocin begin to decrease immediately following birth, oxytocin continues to play a role in maternal and newborn health. First, oxytocin is necessary for the milk ejection reflex (commonly referred to as “let-down”) in breastfeeding women. As the newborn begins suckling, sensory receptors in the nipples transmit signals to the hypothalamus. In response, oxytocin is secreted and released into the bloodstream. Within seconds, cells in the mother’s milk ducts contract, ejecting milk into the infant’s mouth. Secondly, in both males and females, oxytocin is thought to contribute to parent–newborn bonding, known as attachment. Oxytocin is also thought to be involved in feelings of love and closeness, as well as in the sexual response.
Antidiuretic Hormone (ADH)
The solute concentration of the blood, or blood osmolarity, may change in response to the consumption of certain foods and fluids, as well as in response to disease, injury, medications, or other factors. Blood osmolarity is constantly monitored by osmoreceptors—specialized cells within the hypothalamus that are particularly sensitive to the concentration of sodium ions and other solutes.
In response to high blood osmolarity, which can occur during dehydration or following a very salty meal, the osmoreceptors signal the posterior pituitary to release antidiuretic hormone (ADH). The target cells of ADH are located in the tubular cells of the kidneys. Its effect is to increase epithelial permeability to water, allowing increased water reabsorption. The more water reabsorbed from the filtrate, the greater the amount of water that is returned to the blood and the less that is excreted in the urine. A greater concentration of water results in a reduced concentration of solutes. ADH is also known as vasopressin because, in very high concentrations, it causes constriction of blood vessels, which increases blood pressure by increasing peripheral resistance. The release of ADH is controlled by a negative feedback loop. As blood osmolarity decreases, the hypothalamic osmoreceptors sense the change and prompt a corresponding decrease in the secretion of ADH. As a result, less water is reabsorbed from the urine filtrate.
Interestingly, drugs can affect the secretion of ADH. For example, alcohol consumption inhibits the release of ADH, resulting in increased urine production that can eventually lead to dehydration and a hangover. A disease called diabetes insipidus is characterized by chronic underproduction of ADH that causes chronic dehydration. Because little ADH is produced and secreted, not enough water is reabsorbed by the kidneys. Although patients feel thirsty, and increase their fluid consumption, this doesn’t effectively decrease the solute concentration in their blood because ADH levels are not high enough to trigger water reabsorption in the kidneys. Electrolyte imbalances can occur in severe cases of diabetes insipidus.
The anterior pituitary originates from the digestive tract in the embryo and migrates toward the brain during fetal development. There are three regions: the pars distalis is the most anterior, the pars intermedia is adjacent to the posterior pituitary, and the pars tuberalis is a slender “tube” that wraps the infundibulum.
Recall that the posterior pituitary does not synthesize hormones, but merely stores them. In contrast, the anterior pituitary does manufacture hormones. However, the secretion of hormones from the anterior pituitary is regulated by two classes of hormones. These hormones—secreted by the hypothalamus—are the releasing hormones that stimulate the secretion of hormones from the anterior pituitary and the inhibiting hormones that inhibit secretion.
Hypothalamic hormones are secreted by neurons, but enter the anterior pituitary through blood vessels. Within the infundibulum is a bridge of capillaries that connects the hypothalamus to the anterior pituitary. This network, called the hypophyseal portal system, allows hypothalamic hormones to be transported to the anterior pituitary without first entering the systemic circulation. The system originates from the superior hypophyseal artery, which branches off the carotid arteries and transports blood to the hypothalamus. The branches of the superior hypophyseal artery form the hypophyseal portal system. Hypothalamic releasing and inhibiting hormones travel through a primary capillary plexus to the portal veins, which carry them into the anterior pituitary. Hormones produced by the anterior pituitary (in response to releasing hormones) enter a secondary capillary plexus, and from there drain into the circulation.
The anterior pituitary produces seven hormones. These are the growth hormone (GH), thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), beta endorphin, and prolactin. Of the hormones of the anterior pituitary, TSH, ACTH, FSH, and LH are collectively referred to as tropic hormones (trope- = “turning”) because they turn on or off the function of other endocrine glands.
The endocrine system regulates the growth of the human body, protein synthesis, and cellular replication. A major hormone involved in this process is growth hormone (GH), also called somatotropin—a protein hormone produced and secreted by the anterior pituitary gland. Its primary function is anabolic; it promotes protein synthesis and tissue building through direct and indirect mechanisms. GH levels are controlled by the release of GHRH and GHIH (also known as somatostatin) from the hypothalamus.
A glucose-sparing effect occurs when GH stimulates lipolysis, or the breakdown of adipose tissue, releasing fatty acids into the blood. As a result, many tissues switch from glucose to fatty acids as their main energy source, which means that less glucose is taken up from the bloodstream.
GH also initiates the diabetogenic effect in which GH stimulates the liver to break down glycogen to glucose, which is then deposited into the blood. The name “diabetogenic” is derived from the similarity in elevated blood glucose levels observed between individuals with untreated diabetes mellitus and individuals experiencing GH excess. Blood glucose levels rise as the result of a combination of glucose-sparing and diabetogenic effects.
GH indirectly mediates growth and protein synthesis by triggering the liver and other tissues to produce a group of proteins called insulin-like growth factors (IGFs). These proteins enhance cellular proliferation and inhibit apoptosis, or programmed cell death. IGFs stimulate cells to increase their uptake of amino acids from the blood for protein synthesis. Skeletal muscle and cartilage cells are particularly sensitive to stimulation from IGFs.
Dysfunction of the endocrine system’s control of growth can result in several disorders. For example, gigantism is a disorder in children that is caused by the secretion of abnormally large amounts of GH, resulting in excessive growth. A similar condition in adults is acromegaly, a disorder that results in the growth of bones in the face, hands, and feet in response to excessive levels of GH in individuals who have stopped growing. Abnormally low levels of GH in children can cause growth impairment—a disorder called pituitary dwarfism (also known as growth hormone deficiency).
The activity of the thyroid gland is regulated by thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), also called thyrotropin. TSH is released from the anterior pituitary in response to thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) from the hypothalamus. As discussed shortly, it triggers the secretion of thyroid hormones by the thyroid gland. In a classic negative feedback loop, elevated levels of thyroid hormones in the bloodstream then trigger a drop in production of TRH and subsequently TSH.
The adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), also called corticotropin, stimulates the adrenal cortex (the more superficial “bark” of the adrenal glands) to secrete corticosteroid hormones such as cortisol. ACTH come from a precursor molecule known as pro-opiomelanotropin (POMC) which produces several biologically active molecules when cleaved, including ACTH, melanocyte-stimulating hormone, and the brain opioid peptides known as endorphins.
The release of ACTH is regulated by the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus in response to normal physiologic rhythms. A variety of stressors can also influence its release, and the role of ACTH in the stress response is discussed later in this chapter.
Follicle-Stimulating Hormone and Luteinizing Hormone
The endocrine glands secrete a variety of hormones that control the development and regulation of the reproductive system (these glands include the anterior pituitary, the adrenal cortex, and the gonads—the testes in males and the ovaries in females). Much of the development of the reproductive system occurs during puberty and is marked by the development of sex-specific characteristics in both male and female adolescents. Puberty is initiated by gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), a hormone produced and secreted by the hypothalamus. GnRH stimulates the anterior pituitary to secrete gonadotropins—hormones that regulate the function of the gonads. The levels of GnRH are regulated through a negative feedback loop; high levels of reproductive hormones inhibit the release of GnRH. Throughout life, gonadotropins regulate reproductive function and, in the case of women, the onset and cessation of reproductive capacity.
The gonadotropins include two glycoprotein hormones: follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates the production and maturation of sex cells, or gametes, including ova in women and sperm in men. FSH also promotes follicular growth; these follicles then release estrogens in the female ovaries. Luteinizing hormone (LH) triggers ovulation in women, as well as the production of estrogens and progesterone by the ovaries. LH stimulates production of testosterone by the male testes.
As its name implies, prolactin (PRL) promotes lactation (milk production) in women. During pregnancy, it contributes to development of the mammary glands, and after birth, it stimulates the mammary glands to produce breast milk. However, the effects of prolactin depend heavily upon the permissive effects of estrogens, progesterone, and other hormones. And as noted earlier, the let-down of milk occurs in response to stimulation from oxytocin.
In a non-pregnant woman, prolactin secretion is inhibited by prolactin-inhibiting hormone (PIH), which is actually the neurotransmitter dopamine, and is released from neurons in the hypothalamus. Only during pregnancy do prolactin levels rise in response to prolactin-releasing hormone (PRH) from the hypothalamus.
Intermediate Pituitary: Melanocyte-Stimulating Hormone
The cells in the zone between the pituitary lobes secrete a hormone known as melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) that is formed by cleavage of the pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) precursor protein. Local production of MSH in the skin is responsible for melanin production in response to UV light exposure. The role of MSH made by the pituitary is more complicated. For instance, people with lighter skin generally have the same amount of MSH as people with darker skin. Nevertheless, this hormone is capable of darkening of the skin by inducing melanin production in the skin’s melanocytes. Women also show increased MSH production during pregnancy; in combination with estrogens, it can lead to darker skin pigmentation, especially the skin of the areolas and labia minora. Figure 8 below is a summary of the pituitary hormones and their principal effects.
The Thyroid Gland
A butterfly-shaped organ, the thyroid gland is located anterior to the trachea, just inferior to the larynx. The medial region, called the isthmus, is flanked by wing-shaped left and right lobes. Each of the thyroid lobes are embedded with parathyroid glands, primarily on their posterior surfaces. The tissue of the thyroid gland is composed mostly of thyroid follicles. The follicles are made up of a central cavity filled with a sticky fluid called colloid. Surrounded by a wall of epithelial follicle cells, the colloid is the center of thyroid hormone production, and that production is dependent on the hormones’ essential and unique component: iodine.
Synthesis and Release of Thyroid Hormones
Hormones are produced in the colloid when atoms of the mineral iodine attach to a glycoprotein, called thyroglobulin, that is secreted into the colloid by the follicle cells. The following steps outline the hormones’ assembly:
- Binding of TSH to its receptors in the follicle cells of the thyroid gland causes the cells to actively transport iodide ions (I–) across their cell membrane, from the bloodstream into the cytosol. As a result, the concentration of iodide ions “trapped” in the follicular cells is many times higher than the concentration in the bloodstream.
- Iodide ions then move to the lumen of the follicle cells that border the colloid. There, the ions undergo oxidation (their negatively charged electrons are removed). The oxidation of two iodide ions (2 I–) results in iodine (I2), which passes through the follicle cell membrane into the colloid.
- In the colloid, peroxidase enzymes link the iodine to the tyrosine amino acids in thyroglobulin to produce two intermediaries: a tyrosine attached to one iodine and a tyrosine attached to two iodines. When one of each of these intermediaries is linked by covalent bonds, the resulting compound is triiodothyronine(T3), a thyroid hormone with three iodines. Much more commonly, two copies of the second intermediary bond, forming tetraiodothyronine, also known as thyroxine (T4), a thyroid hormone with four iodines.
These hormones remain in the colloid center of the thyroid follicles until TSH stimulates endocytosis of colloid back into the follicle cells. There, lysosomal enzymes break apart the thyroglobulin colloid, releasing free T3 and T4, which diffuse across the follicle cell membrane and enter the bloodstream.
In the bloodstream, less than one percent of the circulating T3 and T4 remains unbound. This free T3 and T4 can cross the lipid bilayer of cell membranes and be taken up by cells. The remaining 99 percent of circulating T3 and T4 is bound to specialized transport proteins called thyroxine-binding globulins (TBGs), to albumin, or to other plasma proteins. This “packaging” prevents their free diffusion into body cells. When blood levels of T3 and T4 begin to decline, bound T3 and T4 are released from these plasma proteins and readily cross the membrane of target cells. T3is more potent than T4, and many cells convert T4 to T3through the removal of an iodine atom.
Regulation of TH Synthesis
The release of T3 and T4 from the thyroid gland is regulated by thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). As shown in figure 10, low blood levels of T3 and T4 stimulate the release of thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) from the hypothalamus, which triggers secretion of TSH from the anterior pituitary. In turn, TSH stimulates the thyroid gland to secrete T3 and T4. The levels of TRH, TSH, T3, and T4 are regulated by a negative feedback system in which increasing levels of T3 and T4 decrease the production and secretion of TSH.
Functions of Thyroid Hormones
The thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, are often referred to as metabolic hormones because their levels influence the body’s basal metabolic rate, the amount of energy used by the body at rest. When T3 and T4 bind to intracellular receptors located on the mitochondria, they cause an increase in nutrient breakdown and the use of oxygen to produce ATP. In addition, T3 and T4 initiate the transcription of genes involved in glucose oxidation. Although these mechanisms prompt cells to produce more ATP, the process is inefficient, and an abnormally increased level of heat is released as a byproduct of these reactions. This so-called calorigenic effect (calor- = “heat”) raises body temperature.
Adequate levels of thyroid hormones are also required for protein synthesis and for fetal and childhood tissue development and growth. They are especially critical for normal development of the nervous system both in utero and in early childhood, and they continue to support neurological function in adults. As noted earlier, these thyroid hormones have a complex interrelationship with reproductive hormones, and deficiencies can influence libido, fertility, and other aspects of reproductive function. Finally, thyroid hormones increase the body’s sensitivity to catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) from the adrenal medulla by upregulation of receptors in the blood vessels. When levels of T3 and T4 hormones are excessive, this effect accelerates the heart rate, strengthens the heartbeat, and increases blood pressure. Because thyroid hormones regulate metabolism, heat production, protein synthesis, and many other body functions, thyroid disorders can have severe and widespread consequences.
The thyroid gland also secretes a hormone called calcitonin that is produced by the parafollicular cells (also called C cells) that stud the tissue between distinct follicles. Calcitonin is released in response to a rise in blood calcium levels. It appears to have a function in decreasing blood calcium concentrations by:
- Inhibiting the activity of osteoclasts, bone cells that release calcium into the circulation by degrading bone matrix
- Increasing osteoblastic activity
- Decreasing calcium absorption in the intestines
- Increasing calcium loss in the urine
However, these functions are usually not significant in maintaining calcium homeostasis, so the importance of calcitonin is not entirely understood. Pharmaceutical preparations of calcitonin are sometimes prescribed to reduce osteoclast activity in people with osteoporosis and to reduce the degradation of cartilage in people with osteoarthritis. The hormones secreted by thyroid are summarized in the table below.
|Associated hormones||Chemical class||Effect|
|Thyroxine (T4), triiodothyronine (T3)||Amine||Stimulate basal metabolic rate|
|Calcitonin||Peptide||Reduces blood Ca2+ levels|
Of course, calcium is critical for many other biological processes. It is a second messenger in many signaling pathways, and is essential for muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, and blood clotting. Given these roles, it is not surprising that blood calcium levels are tightly regulated by the endocrine system. The organs involved in the regulation are the parathyroid glands.
The Parathyroid Gland
The parathyroid glands are tiny, round structures usually found embedded in the posterior surface of the thyroid gland. A thick connective tissue capsule separates the glands from the thyroid tissue. Most people have four parathyroid glands, but occasionally there are more in tissues of the neck or chest. The function of one type of parathyroid cells, the oxyphil cells, is not clear. The primary functional cells of the parathyroid glands are the chief cells. These epithelial cells produce and secrete the parathyroid hormone (PTH), the major hormone involved in the regulation of blood calcium levels.
The parathyroid glands produce and secrete PTH, a peptide hormone, in response to low blood calcium levels. PTH secretion causes the release of calcium from the bones by stimulating osteoclasts, which secrete enzymes that degrade bone and release calcium into the interstitial fluid. PTH also inhibits osteoblasts, the cells involved in bone deposition, thereby sparing blood calcium. PTH causes increased reabsorption of calcium (and magnesium) in the kidney tubules from the urine filtrate. In addition, PTH initiates the production of the steroid hormone calcitriol (also known as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D), which is the active form of vitamin D3, in the kidneys. Calcitriol then stimulates increased absorption of dietary calcium by the intestines. A negative feedback loop regulates the levels of PTH, with rising blood calcium levels inhibiting further release of PTH.
Abnormally high activity of the parathyroid gland can cause hyperparathyroidism, a disorder caused by an overproduction of PTH that results in excessive calcium reabsorption from bone. Hyperparathyroidism can significantly decrease bone density, leading to spontaneous fractures or deformities. As blood calcium levels rise, cell membrane permeability to sodium is decreased, and the responsiveness of the nervous system is reduced. At the same time, calcium deposits may collect in the body’s tissues and organs, impairing their functioning.
In contrast, abnormally low blood calcium levels may be caused by parathyroid hormone deficiency, called hypoparathyroidism, which may develop following injury or surgery involving the thyroid gland. Low blood calcium increases membrane permeability to sodium, resulting in muscle twitching, cramping, spasms, or convulsions. Severe deficits can paralyze muscles, including those involved in breathing, and can be fatal.
When blood calcium levels are high, calcitonin is produced and secreted by the parafollicular cells of the thyroid gland. As discussed earlier, calcitonin inhibits the activity of osteoclasts, reduces the absorption of dietary calcium in the intestine, and signals the kidneys to reabsorb less calcium, resulting in larger amounts of calcium excreted in the urine.
The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are wedges of glandular and neuroendocrine tissue adhering to the top of the kidneys by a fibrous capsule. The adrenal glands have a rich blood supply and experience one of the highest rates of blood flow in the body. They are served by several arteries branching off the aorta, including the suprarenal and renal arteries. Blood flows to each adrenal gland at the adrenal cortex and then drains into the adrenal medulla. Adrenal hormones are released into the circulation via the left and right suprarenal veins.
The adrenal gland consists of an outer cortex of glandular tissue and an inner medulla of nervous tissue. The cortex itself is divided into three zones: the zona glomerulosa, the zona fasciculata, and the zona reticularis. Each region secretes its own set of hormones.
The adrenal cortex, as a component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, secretes steroid hormones important for the regulation of the long-term stress response, blood pressure and blood volume, nutrient uptake and storage, fluid and electrolyte balance, and inflammation. The HPA axis involves the stimulation of hormone release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary by the hypothalamus. ACTH then stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce the hormone cortisol. This pathway will be discussed in more detail below.
The adrenal medulla is neuroendocrine tissue composed of postganglionic sympathetic nervous system (SNS) neurons. It is really an extension of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates homeostasis in the body. The sympathomedullary (SAM) pathway involves the stimulation of the medulla by impulses from the hypothalamus via neurons from the thoracic spinal cord. The medulla is stimulated to secrete the amine hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine.
One of the major functions of the adrenal gland is to respond to stress. Stress can be either physical or psychological or both. Physical stresses include exposing the body to injury, walking outside in cold and wet conditions without a coat on, or malnutrition. Psychological stresses include the perception of a physical threat, a fight with a loved one, or just a bad day at school.
The body responds in different ways to short-term stress and long-term stress following a pattern known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). Stage one of GAS is called the alarm reaction. This is short-term stress, the fight-or-flight response, mediated by the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla via the SAM pathway. Their function is to prepare the body for extreme physical exertion. Once this stress is relieved, the body quickly returns to normal. The section on the adrenal medulla covers this response in more detail.
If the stress is not soon relieved, the body adapts to the stress in the second stage called the stage of resistance. If a person is starving for example, the body may send signals to the gastrointestinal tract to maximize the absorption of nutrients from food.
If the stress continues for a longer term however, the body responds with symptoms quite different than the fight-or-flight response. During the stage of exhaustion, individuals may begin to suffer depression, the suppression of their immune response, severe fatigue, or even a fatal heart attack. These symptoms are mediated by the hormones of the adrenal cortex, especially cortisol, released as a result of signals from the HPA axis.
Adrenal hormones also have several non–stress-related functions, including the increase of blood sodium and glucose levels, which will be described in detail below.
The adrenal cortex consists of multiple layers of lipid-storing cells that occur in three structurally distinct regions. Each of these regions produces different hormones.
Hormones of the Zona Glomerulosa
The most superficial region of the adrenal cortex is the zona glomerulosa, which produces a group of hormones collectively referred to as mineralocorticoids because of their effect on body minerals, especially sodium and potassium. These hormones are essential for fluid and electrolyte balance.
Aldosterone is the major mineralocorticoid. It is important in the regulation of the concentration of sodium and potassium ions in urine, sweat, and saliva. For example, it is released in response to elevated blood K+, low blood Na+, low blood pressure, or low blood volume. In response, aldosterone increases the excretion of K+ and the retention of Na+, which in turn increases blood volume and blood pressure. Its secretion is prompted when CRH from the hypothalamus triggers ACTH release from the anterior pituitary.
Aldosterone is also a key component of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) in which specialized cells of the kidneys secrete the enzyme renin in response to low blood volume or low blood pressure. Renin then catalyzes the conversion of the blood protein angiotensinogen, produced by the liver, to the hormone angiotensin I. Angiotensin I is converted in the lungs to angiotensin II by angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE). Angiotensin II has three major functions:
- Initiating vasoconstriction of the arterioles, decreasing blood flow
- Stimulating kidney tubules to reabsorb NaCl and water, increasing blood volume
- Signaling the adrenal cortex to secrete aldosterone, the effects of which further contribute to fluid retention, restoring blood pressure and blood volume
For individuals with hypertension, or high blood pressure, drugs are available that block the production of angiotensin II. These drugs, known as ACE inhibitors, block the ACE enzyme from converting angiotensin I to angiotensin II, thus mitigating the latter’s ability to increase blood pressure.
Hormones of the Zona Fasciculata
The intermediate region of the adrenal cortex is the zona fasciculata, named as such because the cells form small fascicles (bundles) separated by tiny blood vessels. The cells of the zona fasciculata produce hormones called glucocorticoids because of their role in glucose metabolism. The most important of these is cortisol, some of which the liver converts to cortisone. A glucocorticoid produced in much smaller amounts is corticosterone. In response to long-term stressors, the hypothalamus secretes CRH, which in turn triggers the release of ACTH by the anterior pituitary. ACTH triggers the release of the glucocorticoids. Their overall effect is to inhibit tissue building while stimulating the breakdown of stored nutrients to maintain adequate fuel supplies. In conditions of long-term stress, for example, cortisol promotes the catabolism of glycogen to glucose, the catabolism of stored triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol, and the catabolism of muscle proteins into amino acids. These raw materials can then be used to synthesize additional glucose and ketones for use as body fuels. The hippocampus, which is part of the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortices and important in memory formation, is highly sensitive to stress levels because of its many glucocorticoid receptors.
Prescription and over-the-counter medications containing glucocorticoids, such as cortisone injections into inflamed joints, prednisone tablets and steroid-based inhalers are used to manage severe asthma, and hydrocortisone creams can be applied to relieve itchy skin rashes. These drugs reflect another role of cortisol—the downregulation of the immune system, which inhibits the inflammatory response.
Hormones of the Zona Reticularis
The deepest region of the adrenal cortex is the zona reticularis, which produces small amounts of a class of steroid sex hormones called androgens. During puberty and most of adulthood, androgens are produced in the gonads. The androgens produced in the zona reticularis supplement the gonadal androgens. They are produced in response to ACTH from the anterior pituitary and are converted in the tissues to testosterone or estrogens. In adult women, they may contribute to the sex drive, but their function in adult men is not well understood. In post-menopausal women, as the functions of the ovaries decline, the main source of estrogens becomes the androgens produced by the zona reticularis.
As noted earlier, the adrenal cortex releases glucocorticoids in response to long-term stress such as severe illness. In contrast, the adrenal medulla releases its hormones in response to acute, short-term stress mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The medullary tissue is composed of unique postganglionic SNS neurons called chromaffin cells, which are large and irregularly shaped, and produce the neurotransmitters epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and norepinephrine (or noradrenaline). Epinephrine is produced in greater quantities—approximately a 4 to 1 ratio with norepinephrine—and is the more powerful hormone. Because the chromaffin cells release epinephrine and norepinephrine into the systemic circulation, where they travel widely and exert effects on distant cells, they are considered hormones. Derived from the amino acid tyrosine, they are chemically classified as catecholamines.
The secretion of medullary epinephrine and norepinephrine is controlled by a neural pathway that originates from the hypothalamus in response to danger or stress (the SAM pathway). Both epinephrine and norepinephrine signal the liver and skeletal muscle cells to convert glycogen into glucose, resulting in increased blood glucose levels. These hormones increase the heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure to prepare the body to fight the perceived threat or flee from it. In addition, the pathway dilates the airways, raising blood oxygen levels. It also prompts vasodilation, further increasing the oxygenation of important organs such as the lungs, brain, heart, and skeletal muscle. At the same time, it triggers vasoconstriction to blood vessels serving less essential organs such as the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and skin, and downregulates some components of the immune system. Other effects include a dry mouth, loss of appetite, pupil dilation, and a loss of peripheral vision. The major hormones of the adrenal glands are summarized in the table below.
|Hormones of the Adrenal Glands|
|Adrenal gland||Associated hormones||Chemical class||Effect|
|Adrenal cortex||Aldosterone||Steroid||Increases blood Na+levels|
|Adrenal cortex||Cortisol, corticosterone, cortisone||Steroid||Increase blood glucose levels|
|Adrenal medulla||Epinephrine, norepinephrine||Amine||Stimulate fight-or-flight response|
Disorders Involving the Adrenal Glands
Several disorders are caused by the dysregulation of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands. For example, Cushing’s disease is a disorder characterized by high blood glucose levels and the accumulation of lipid deposits on the face and neck. It is caused by hypersecretion of cortisol. The most common source of Cushing’s disease is a pituitary tumor that secretes cortisol or ACTH in abnormally high amounts. Other common signs of Cushing’s disease include the development of a moon-shaped face, a buffalo hump on the back of the neck, rapid weight gain, and hair loss. Chronically elevated glucose levels are also associated with an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In addition to hyperglycemia, chronically elevated glucocorticoids compromise immunity, resistance to infection, and memory, and can result in rapid weight gain and hair loss.
In contrast, the hyposecretion of corticosteroids can result in Addison’s disease, a rare disorder that causes low blood glucose levels and low blood sodium levels. The signs and symptoms of Addison’s disease are vague and are typical of other disorders as well, making diagnosis difficult. They may include general weakness, abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and cravings for salty food.
The Pineal Gland
Recall that the hypothalamus, part of the diencephalon of the brain, sits inferior and somewhat anterior to the thalamus. Inferior but somewhat posterior to the thalamus is the pineal gland, a tiny endocrine gland whose functions are not entirely clear. The pinealocyte cells that make up the pineal gland are known to produce and secrete the amine hormone melatonin, which is derived from serotonin.
The secretion of melatonin varies according to the level of light received from the environment. When photons of light stimulate the retinas of the eyes, a nerve impulse is sent to a region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is important in regulating biological rhythms. From the SCN, the nerve signal is carried to the spinal cord and eventually to the pineal gland, where the production of melatonin is inhibited. As a result, blood levels of melatonin fall, promoting wakefulness. In contrast, as light levels decline—such as during the evening—melatonin production increases, boosting blood levels and causing drowsiness.
The secretion of melatonin may influence the body’s circadian rhythms, the dark-light fluctuations that affect not only sleepiness and wakefulness, but also appetite and body temperature. Interestingly, children have higher melatonin levels than adults, which may prevent the release of gonadotropins from the anterior pituitary, thereby inhibiting the onset of puberty. Finally, an antioxidant role of melatonin is the subject of current research.
Jet lag occurs when a person travels across several time zones and feels sleepy during the day or wakeful at night. Traveling across multiple time zones significantly disturbs the light-dark cycle regulated by melatonin. It can take up to several days for melatonin synthesis to adjust to the light-dark patterns in the new environment, resulting in jet lag. Some air travelers take melatonin supplements to induce sleep.
Gonadal and Placental Hormones
This section briefly discusses the hormonal role of the gonads—the male testes and female ovaries—which produce the sex cells (sperm and ova) and secrete the gonadal hormones. The roles of the gonadotropins released from the anterior pituitary (FSH and LH) were discussed earlier.
The primary hormone produced by the male testes is testosterone, a steroid hormone important in the development of the male reproductive system, the maturation of sperm cells, and the development of male secondary sex characteristics such as a deepened voice, body hair, and increased muscle mass. Interestingly, testosterone is also produced in the female ovaries, but at a much reduced level. In addition, the testes produce the peptide hormone inhibin, which inhibits the secretion of FSH from the anterior pituitary gland. FSH stimulates spermatogenesis.
The primary hormones produced by the ovaries are estrogens, which include estradiol, estriol, and estrone. Estrogens play an important role in a larger number of physiological processes, including the development of the female reproductive system, regulation of the menstrual cycle, the development of female secondary sex characteristics such as increased adipose tissue and the development of breast tissue, and the maintenance of pregnancy. Another significant ovarian hormone is progesterone, which contributes to regulation of the menstrual cycle and is important in preparing the body for pregnancy as well as maintaining pregnancy. In addition, the granulosa cells of the ovarian follicles produce inhibin, which—as in males—inhibits the secretion of FSH.During the initial stages of pregnancy, an organ called the placenta develops within the uterus. The placenta supplies oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, excretes waste products, and produces and secretes estrogens and progesterone. The placenta produces human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) as well. The hCG hormone promotes progesterone synthesis and reduces the mother’s immune function to protect the fetus from immune rejection. It also secretes human placental lactogen (hPL), which plays a role in preparing the breasts for lactation, and relaxin, which is thought to help soften and widen the pubic symphysis in preparation for childbirth. The hormones controlling reproduction are summarized in the table below.
|Gonad||Associated hormones||Chemical class||Effect|
|Testes||Testosterone||Steroid||Stimulates development of male secondary sex characteristics and sperm production|
|Testes||Inhibin||Protein||Inhibits FSH release from pituitary|
|Ovaries||Estrogens and progesterone||Steroid||Stimulate development of female secondary sex characteristics and prepare the body for childbirth|
|Placenta||Human chorionic gonadotropin||Protein||Promotes progesterone synthesis during pregnancy and inhibits immune response against fetus|
The Endocrine Pancreas
The pancreas is a long, slender organ, most of which is located posterior to the bottom half of the stomach. Although it is primarily an exocrine gland, secreting a variety of digestive enzymes, the pancreas has an endocrine function. Its pancreatic islets—clusters of cells formerly known as the islets of Langerhans—secrete the hormones glucagon, insulin, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide (PP).
Cells and Secretions of the Pancreatic Islets
The pancreatic islets each contain four varieties of cells:
- The alpha cell produces the hormone glucagon and makes up approximately 20 percent of each islet. Glucagon plays an important role in blood glucose regulation; low blood glucose levels stimulate its release.
- The beta cell produces the hormone insulin and makes up approximately 75 percent of each islet. Elevated blood glucose levels stimulate the release of insulin.
- The delta cell accounts for four percent of the islet cells and secretes the peptide hormone somatostatin. Recall that somatostatin is also released by the hypothalamus (as GHIH), and the stomach and intestines also secrete it. An inhibiting hormone, pancreatic somatostatin inhibits the release of both glucagon and insulin.
- The PP cell accounts for about one percent of islet cells and secretes the pancreatic polypeptide hormone. It is thought to play a role in appetite, as well as in the regulation of pancreatic exocrine and endocrine secretions. Pancreatic polypeptide released following a meal may reduce further food consumption; however, it is also released in response to fasting.
Regulation of Blood Glucose Levels by Insulin and Glucagon
Glucose is required for cellular respiration and is the preferred fuel for all body cells. The body derives glucose from the breakdown of the carbohydrate-containing foods and drinks we consume. Glucose not immediately taken up by cells for fuel can be stored by the liver and muscles as glycogen, or converted to triglycerides and stored in the adipose tissue. Hormones regulate both the storage and the utilization of glucose as required. Receptors located in the pancreas sense blood glucose levels, and subsequently the pancreatic cells secrete glucagon or insulin to maintain normal levels.
Receptors in the pancreas can sense the decline in blood glucose levels, such as during periods of fasting or during prolonged labor or exercise. In response, the alpha cells of the pancreas secrete the hormone glucagon, which has several effects:
- It stimulates the liver to convert its stores of glycogen back into glucose. This response is known as glycogenolysis. The glucose is then released into the circulation for use by body cells.
- It stimulates the liver to take up amino acids from the blood and convert them into glucose. This response is known as gluconeogenesis.
- It stimulates lipolysis, the breakdown of stored triglycerides into free fatty acids and glycerol. Some of the free glycerol released into the bloodstream travels to the liver, which converts it into glucose. This is also a form of gluconeogenesis.
Taken together, these actions increase blood glucose levels. The activity of glucagon is regulated through a negative feedback mechanism; rising blood glucose levels inhibit further glucagon production and secretion.
The primary function of insulin is to facilitate the uptake of glucose into body cells. Red blood cells, as well as cells of the brain, liver, kidneys, and the lining of the small intestine, do not have insulin receptors on their cell membranes and do not require insulin for glucose uptake. Although all other body cells do require insulin if they are to take glucose from the bloodstream, skeletal muscle cells and adipose cells are the primary targets of insulin.
The presence of food in the intestine triggers the release of gastrointestinal tract hormones such as glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (previously known as gastric inhibitory peptide). This is in turn the initial trigger for insulin production and secretion by the beta cells of the pancreas. Once nutrient absorption occurs, the resulting surge in blood glucose levels further stimulates insulin secretion.
Precisely how insulin facilitates glucose uptake is not entirely clear. However, insulin appears to activate a tyrosine kinase receptor, triggering the phosphorylation of many substrates within the cell. These multiple biochemical reactions converge to support the movement of intracellular vesicles containing facilitative glucose transporters to the cell membrane. In the absence of insulin, these transport proteins are normally recycled slowly between the cell membrane and cell interior. Insulin triggers the rapid movement of a pool of glucose transporter vesicles to the cell membrane, where they fuse and expose the glucose transporters to the extracellular fluid. The transporters then move glucose by facilitated diffusion into the cell interior.
Insulin also reduces blood glucose levels by stimulating glycolysis, the metabolism of glucose for generation of ATP. Moreover, it stimulates the liver to convert excess glucose into glycogen for storage, and it inhibits enzymes involved in glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis. Finally, insulin promotes triglyceride and protein synthesis. The secretion of insulin is regulated through a negative feedback mechanism. As blood glucose levels decrease, further insulin release is inhibited. The pancreatic hormones are summarized in the table below.
|Hormones of the Pancreas|
|Associated hormones||Chemical class||Effect|
|Insulin (beta cells)||Protein||Reduces blood glucose levels|
|Glucagon (alpha cells)||Protein||Increases blood glucose levels|
|Somatostatin (delta cells)||Protein||Inhibits insulin and glucagon release|
|Pancreatic polypeptide (PP cells)||Protein||Role in appetite|
Organs with Secondary Endocrine Functions
Many organs of the body that have secondary endocrine functions. Here, the chapter overviews the hormone-producing activities of the heart, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, skeleton, adipose tissue, skin, and thymus.
When the body experiences an increase in blood volume or pressure, the cells of the heart’s atrial wall stretch. In response, specialized cells in the wall of the atria produce and secrete the peptide hormone atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). ANP signals the kidneys to reduce sodium reabsorption, thereby decreasing the amount of water reabsorbed from the urine filtrate and reducing blood volume. Other actions of ANP include the inhibition of renin secretion and the initiation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) and vasodilation. Therefore, ANP aids in decreasing blood pressure, blood volume, and blood sodium levels.
The endocrine cells of the GI tract are located in the mucosa of the stomach and small intestine. Some of these hormones are secreted in response to eating a meal and aid in digestion. An example of a hormone secreted by the stomach cells is gastrin, a peptide hormone secreted in response to stomach distention that stimulates the release of hydrochloric acid. Secretin is a peptide hormone secreted by the small intestine as acidic chyme (partially digested food and fluid) moves from the stomach. It stimulates the release of bicarbonate from the pancreas, which buffers the acidic chyme, and inhibits the further secretion of hydrochloric acid by the stomach. Cholecystokinin (CCK) is another peptide hormone released from the small intestine. It promotes the secretion of pancreatic enzymes and the release of bile from the gallbladder, both of which facilitate digestion. Other hormones produced by the intestinal cells aid in glucose metabolism, such as by stimulating the pancreatic beta cells to secrete insulin, reducing glucagon secretion from the alpha cells, or enhancing cellular sensitivity to insulin.
The kidneys participate in several complex endocrine pathways and produce certain hormones. A decline in blood flow to the kidneys stimulates them to release the enzyme renin, triggering the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone (RAAS) system, and stimulating the reabsorption of sodium and water. The reabsorption increases blood flow and blood pressure. The kidneys also play a role in regulating blood calcium levels through the production of calcitriol from vitamin D3, which is released in response to the secretion of parathyroid hormone (PTH). In addition, the kidneys produce the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) in response to low oxygen levels. EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells (erythrocytes) in the bone marrow, thereby increasing oxygen delivery to tissues. EPO has been used as a performance-enhancing drug (in a synthetic form).
Although bone has long been recognized as a target for hormones, only recently have researchers recognized that the skeleton itself produces at least two hormones. Fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23) is produced by bone cells in response to increased blood levels of vitamin D3 or phosphate. It triggers the kidneys to inhibit the formation of calcitriol from vitamin D3 and to increase phosphorus excretion. Osteocalcin, produced by osteoblasts, stimulates the pancreatic beta cells to increase insulin production. It also acts on peripheral tissues to increase their sensitivity to insulin and their utilization of glucose.
Adipose tissue produces and secretes several hormones involved in lipid metabolism and storage. One important example is leptin, a protein manufactured by adipose cells that circulates in amounts directly proportional to levels of body fat. Leptin is released in response to food consumption and acts by binding to brain neurons involved in energy intake and expenditure. Binding of leptin produces a feeling of satiety after a meal, thereby reducing appetite. It also appears that the binding of leptin to brain receptors triggers the sympathetic nervous system to regulate bone metabolism, increasing deposition of cortical bone. Adiponectin—another hormone synthesized by adipose cells—appears to reduce cellular insulin resistance and to protect blood vessels from inflammation and atherosclerosis. Its levels are lower in people who are obese, and rise following weight loss.
The skin functions as an endocrine organ in the production of the inactive form of vitamin D3, cholecalciferol. When cholesterol present in the epidermis is exposed to ultraviolet radiation, it is converted to cholecalciferol, which then enters the blood. In the liver, cholecalciferol is converted to an intermediate that travels to the kidneys and is further converted to calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D3. Vitamin D is important in a variety of physiological processes, including intestinal calcium absorption and immune system function. In some studies, low levels of vitamin D have been associated with increased risks of cancer, severe asthma, and multiple sclerosis. Vitamin D deficiency in children causes rickets, and in adults, osteomalacia—both of which are characterized by bone deterioration.
The thymus is an organ of the immune system that is larger and more active during infancy and early childhood, and begins to atrophy as we age. Its endocrine function is the production of a group of hormones called thymosins that contribute to the development and differentiation of T lymphocytes, which are immune cells. Although the role of thymosins is not yet well understood, it is clear that they contribute to the immune response. Thymosins have been found in tissues other than the thymus and have a wide variety of functions, so the thymosins cannot be strictly categorized as thymic hormones.
The liver is responsible for secreting at least four important hormones or hormone precursors: insulin-like growth factor (somatomedin), angiotensinogen, thrombopoetin, and hepcidin. Insulin-like growth factor-1 is the immediate stimulus for growth in the body, especially of the bones. Angiotensinogen is the precursor to angiotensin, mentioned earlier, which increases blood pressure. Thrombopoetin stimulates the production of the blood’s platelets. Hepcidins block the release of iron from cells in the body, helping to regulate iron homeostasis in our body fluids. The major hormones of these other organs are summarized in the table below.
|Organs with Secondary Endocrine Functions and Their Major Hormones|
|Heart||Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP)||Reduces blood volume, blood pressure, and Na+concentration|
|Gastrointestinal tract||Gastrin, secretin, and cholecystokinin||Aid digestion of food and buffering of stomach acids|
|Gastrointestinal tract||Glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide (GIP) and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1)||Stimulate beta cells of the pancreas to release insulin|
|Kidneys||Renin||Stimulates release of aldosterone|
|Kidneys||Calcitriol||Aids in the absorption of Ca2+|
|Kidneys||Erythropoietin||Triggers the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow|
|Skeleton||FGF23||Inhibits production of calcitriol and increases phosphate excretion|
|Skeleton||Osteocalcin||Increases insulin production|
|Adipose tissue||Leptin||Promotes satiety signals in the brain|
|Adipose tissue||Adiponectin||Reduces insulin resistance|
|Skin||Cholecalciferol||Modified to form vitamin D|
|Thymus (and other organs)||Thymosins||Among other things, aids in the development of T lymphocytes of the immune system|
|Liver||Insulin-like growth factor-1||Stimulates bodily growth|
|Liver||Angiotensinogen||Raises blood pressure|
|Liver||Thrombopoetin||Causes increase in platelets|
|Liver||Hepcidin||Blocks release of iron into body fluids|
Development and Aging of the Endocrine System
The endocrine system arises from all three embryonic germ layers. The endocrine glands that produce the steroid hormones, such as the gonads and adrenal cortex, arise from the mesoderm. In contrast, endocrine glands that arise from the endoderm and ectoderm produce the amine, peptide, and protein hormones. The pituitary gland arises from two distinct areas of the ectoderm: the anterior pituitary gland arises from the oral ectoderm, whereas the posterior pituitary gland arises from the neural ectoderm at the base of the hypothalamus. The pineal gland also arises from the ectoderm. The two structures of the adrenal glands arise from two different germ layers: the adrenal cortex from the mesoderm and the adrenal medulla from ectoderm neural cells. The endoderm gives rise to the thyroid and parathyroid glands, as well as the pancreas and the thymus.
As the body ages, changes occur that affect the endocrine system, sometimes altering the production, secretion, and catabolism of hormones. For example, the structure of the anterior pituitary gland changes as vascularization decreases and the connective tissue content increases with increasing age. This restructuring affects the gland’s hormone production. For example, the amount of human growth hormone that is produced declines with age, resulting in the reduced muscle mass commonly observed in the elderly.
The adrenal glands also undergo changes as the body ages; as fibrous tissue increases, the production of cortisol and aldosterone decreases. Interestingly, the production and secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine remain normal throughout the aging process.
A well-known example of the aging process affecting an endocrine gland is menopause and the decline of ovarian function. With increasing age, the ovaries decrease in both size and weight and become progressively less sensitive to gonadotropins. This gradually causes a decrease in estrogen and progesterone levels, leading to menopause and the inability to reproduce. Low levels of estrogens and progesterone are also associated with some disease states, such as osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, and hyperlipidemia, or abnormal blood lipid levels.
Testosterone levels also decline with age, a condition called andropause (or viropause); however, this decline is much less dramatic than the decline of estrogens in women, and much more gradual, rarely affecting sperm production until very old age. Although this means that males maintain their ability to father children for decades longer than females, the quantity, quality, and motility of their sperm is often reduced.
As the body ages, the thyroid gland produces less of the thyroid hormones, causing a gradual decrease in the basal metabolic rate. The lower metabolic rate reduces the production of body heat and increases levels of body fat. Parathyroid hormones, on the other hand, increase with age. This may be because of reduced dietary calcium levels, causing a compensatory increase in parathyroid hormone. However, increased parathyroid hormone levels combined with decreased levels of calcitonin (and estrogens in women) can lead to osteoporosis as PTH stimulates demineralization of bones to increase blood calcium levels. Notice that osteoporosis is common in both elderly males and females.
Increasing age also affects glucose metabolism, as blood glucose levels spike more rapidly and take longer to return to normal in the elderly. In addition, increasing glucose intolerance may occur because of a gradual decline in cellular insulin sensitivity. Almost 27 percent of Americans aged 65 and older have diabetes.
Metabolic processes are constantly taking place in the body. Metabolism is the sum of all of the chemical reactions that are involved in catabolism and anabolism. The reactions governing the breakdown of food to obtain energy are called catabolic reactions. Conversely, anabolic reactions use the energy produced by catabolic reactions to synthesize larger molecules from smaller ones, such as when the body forms proteins by stringing together amino acids. Both sets of reactions are critical to maintaining life.
Because catabolic reactions produce energy and anabolic reactions use energy, ideally, energy usage would balance the energy produced. If the net energy change is positive (catabolic reactions release more energy than the anabolic reactions use), then the body stores the excess energy by building fat molecules for long-term storage. On the other hand, if the net energy change is negative (catabolic reactions release less energy than anabolic reactions use), the body uses stored energy to compensate for the deficiency of energy released by catabolism.
Catabolic reactions break down large organic molecules into smaller molecules, releasing the energy contained in the chemical bonds. These energy releases (conversions) are not 100 percent efficient. The amount of energy released is less than the total amount contained in the molecule. Approximately 40 percent of energy yielded from catabolic reactions is directly transferred to the high-energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP, the energy currency of cells, can be used immediately to power molecular machines that support cell, tissue, and organ function. This includes building new tissue and repairing damaged tissue. ATP can also be stored to fulfill future energy demands. The remaining 60 percent of the energy released from catabolic reactions is given off as heat, which tissues and body fluids absorb.
Structurally, ATP molecules consist of an adenine, a ribose, and three phosphate groups. The chemical bond between the second and third phosphate groups, termed a high-energy bond, represents the greatest source of energy in a cell. It is the first bond that catabolic enzymes break when cells require energy to do work. The products of this reaction are a molecule of adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and a lone phosphate group (Pi). ATP, ADP, and Pi are constantly being cycled through reactions that build ATP and store energy, and reactions that break down ATP and release energy.
The energy from ATP drives all bodily functions, such as contracting muscles, maintaining the electrical potential of nerve cells, and absorbing food in the gastrointestinal tract. The metabolic reactions that produce ATP come from various sources.
Of the four major macromolecular groups (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids) that are processed by digestion, carbohydrates are considered the most common source of energy to fuel the body. They take the form of either complex carbohydrates, polysaccharides like starch and glycogen, or simple sugars (monosaccharides) like glucose and fructose. Sugar catabolism breaks polysaccharides down into their individual monosaccharides. Among the monosaccharides, glucose is the most common fuel for ATP production in cells, and as such, there are a number of endocrine control mechanisms to regulate glucose concentration in the bloodstream. Excess glucose is either stored as an energy reserve in the liver and skeletal muscles as the complex polymer glycogen, or it is converted into fat (triglyceride) in adipose cells (adipocytes).
Among the lipids (fats), triglycerides are most often used for energy via a metabolic process called β-oxidation. About one-half of excess fat is stored in adipocytes that accumulate in the subcutaneous tissue under the skin, whereas the rest is stored in adipocytes in other tissues and organs.
Proteins, which are polymers, can be broken down into their monomers, individual amino acids. Amino acids can be used as building blocks of new proteins or broken down further for the production of ATP. When one is chronically starving, this use of amino acids for energy production can lead to a wasting away of the body, as more and more proteins are broken down.
Nucleic acids are present in most of the foods that humans consume. During digestion, nucleic acids including DNA and various RNAs are broken down into their constituent nucleotides. These nucleotides are readily absorbed and transported throughout the body to be used by individual cells during nucleic acid metabolism.
In contrast to catabolic reactions, anabolic reactions involve the joining of smaller molecules into larger ones. Anabolic reactions combine monosaccharides to form polysaccharides, fatty acids to form triglycerides, amino acids to form proteins, and nucleotides to form nucleic acids. These processes require energy in the form of ATP molecules generated by catabolic reactions. Anabolic reactions, also called biosynthesis reactions, create new molecules that form new cells and tissues, and revitalize organs.
Hormonal Regulation of Metabolism
Catabolic and anabolic hormones in the body help regulate metabolic processes. Catabolic hormones stimulate the breakdown of molecules and the production of energy. These include cortisol, glucagon, adrenaline/epinephrine, and cytokines. All of these hormones are mobilized at specific times to meet the needs of the body. Anabolic hormones are required for the synthesis of molecules and include growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, insulin, testosterone, and estrogen. The tables below summarize the function of each of the catabolic hormones and anabolic hormones.
|Cortisol||Released from the adrenal gland in response to stress; its main role is to increase blood glucose levels by gluconeogenesis (breaking down fats and proteins)|
|Glucagon||Released from alpha cells in the pancreas either when starving or when the body needs to generate additional energy; it stimulates the breakdown of glycogen in the liver to increase blood glucose levels; its effect is the opposite of insulin; glucagon and insulin are a part of a negative-feedback system that stabilizes blood glucose levels|
|Adrenaline/epinephrine||Released in response to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system; increases heart rate and heart contractility, constricts blood vessels, is a bronchodilator that opens (dilates) the bronchi of the lungs to increase air volume in the lungs, and stimulates gluconeogenesis|
|Growth hormone (GH)||Synthesized and released from the pituitary gland; stimulates the growth of cells, tissues, and bones|
|Insulin-like growth factor (IGF)||Stimulates the growth of muscle and bone while also inhibiting cell death (apoptosis)|
|Insulin||Produced by the beta cells of the pancreas; plays an essential role in carbohydrate and fat metabolism, controls blood glucose levels, and promotes the uptake of glucose into body cells; causes cells in muscle, adipose tissue, and liver to take up glucose from the blood and store it in the liver and muscle as glycogen; its effect is the opposite of glucagon; glucagon and insulin are a part of a negative-feedback system that stabilizes blood glucose levels|
|Testosterone||Produced by the testes in males and the ovaries in females; stimulates an increase in muscle mass and strength as well as the growth and strengthening of bone|
|Estrogen||Produced primarily by the ovaries, it is also produced by the liver and adrenal glands; its anabolic functions include increasing metabolism and fat deposition|
The chemical reactions underlying metabolism involve the transfer of electrons from one compound to another by processes catalyzed by enzymes. The electrons in these reactions commonly come from hydrogen atoms, which consist of an electron and a proton. A molecule gives up a hydrogen atom, in the form of a hydrogen ion (H+) and an electron, breaking the molecule into smaller parts. The loss of an electron, or oxidation, releases a small amount of energy; both the electron and the energy are then passed to another molecule in the process of reduction, or the gaining of an electron. These two reactions always happen together in an oxidation-reduction reaction (also called a redox reaction)—when an electron is passed between molecules, the donor is oxidized and the recipient is reduced. Oxidation-reduction reactions often happen in a series, so that a molecule that is reduced is subsequently oxidized, passing on not only the electron it just received but also the energy it received. As the series of reactions progresses, energy accumulates that is used to combine Pi and ADP to form ATP, the high-energy molecule that the body uses for fuel.
Oxidation-reduction reactions are catalyzed by enzymes that trigger the removal of hydrogen atoms. Coenzymes work with enzymes and accept hydrogen atoms. The two most common coenzymes of oxidation-reduction reactions are nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD). Their respective reduced coenzymes are NADHand FADH2, which are energy-containing molecules used to transfer energy during the creation of ATP.
Carbohydrates are organic molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. The family of carbohydrates includes both simple and complex sugars. Glucose and fructose are examples of simple sugars, and starch, glycogen, and cellulose are all examples of complex sugars. The complex sugars are also called polysaccharides and are made of multiple monosaccharide molecules. Polysaccharides serve as energy storage (e.g., starch and glycogen) and as structural components (e.g., chitin in insects and cellulose in plants).
During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into simple, soluble sugars that can be transported across the intestinal wall into the circulatory system to be transported throughout the body. Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth with the action of salivary amylase on starches and ends with monosaccharides being absorbed across the epithelium of the small intestine. Once the absorbed monosaccharides are transported to the tissues, the process of cellular respiration begins. This section will focus first on glycolysis, a process where the monosaccharide glucose is oxidized, releasing the energy stored in its bonds to produce ATP.
Glucose is the body’s most readily available source of energy. After digestive processes break polysaccharides down into monosaccharides, including glucose, the monosaccharides are transported across the wall of the small intestine and into the circulatory system, which transports them to the liver. In the liver, hepatocytes either pass the glucose on through the circulatory system or store excess glucose as glycogen. Cells in the body take up the circulating glucose in response to insulin and, through a series of reactions called glycolysis, transfer some of the energy in glucose to ADP to form ATP. The last step in glycolysis produces the product pyruvate.
Glycolysis begins with the phosphorylation of glucose by hexokinase to form glucose-6-phosphate. This step uses one ATP, which is the donor of the phosphate group. Under the action of phosphofructokinase, glucose-6-phosphate is converted into fructose-6-phosphate. At this point, a second ATP donates its phosphate group, forming fructose-1,6-bisphosphate. This six-carbon sugar is split to form two phosphorylated three-carbon molecules, glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate and dihydroxyacetone phosphate, which are both converted into glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate. The glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate is further phosphorylated with groups donated by dihydrogen phosphate present in the cell to form the three-carbon molecule 1,3-bisphosphoglycerate. The energy of this reaction comes from the oxidation of (removal of electrons from) glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate. In a series of reactions leading to pyruvate, the two phosphate groups are then transferred to two ADPs to form two ATPs. Thus, glycolysis uses two ATPs but generates four ATPs, yielding a net gain of two ATPs and two molecules of pyruvate. In the presence of oxygen, pyruvate continues on to the Krebs cycle (also called the citric acid cycle or tricarboxylic acid cycle (TCA), where additional energy is extracted and passed on.
Glycolysis can be divided into two phases: energy consuming (also called chemical priming) and energy yielding. The first phase is the energy-consuming phase, so it requires two ATP molecules to start the reaction for each molecule of glucose. However, the end of the reaction produces four ATPs, resulting in a net gain of two ATP energy molecules.
Glycolysis can be expressed as the following equation:
This equation states that glucose, in combination with ATP (the energy source), NAD+ (a coenzyme that serves as an electron acceptor), and inorganic phosphate, breaks down into two pyruvate molecules, generating four ATP molecules—for a net yield of two ATP—and two energy-containing NADH coenzymes. The NADH that is produced in this process will be used later to produce ATP in the mitochondria. Importantly, by the end of this process, one glucose molecule generates two pyruvate molecules, two high-energy ATP molecules, and two electron-carrying NADH molecules.
The following discussions of glycolysis include the enzymes responsible for the reactions. When glucose enters a cell, the enzyme hexokinase (or glucokinase, in the liver) rapidly adds a phosphate to convert it into glucose-6-phosphate. A kinase is a type of enzyme that adds a phosphate molecule to a substrate (in this case, glucose, but it can be true of other molecules also). This conversion step requires one ATP and essentially traps the glucose in the cell, preventing it from passing back through the plasma membrane, thus allowing glycolysis to proceed. It also functions to maintain a concentration gradient with higher glucose levels in the blood than in the tissues. By establishing this concentration gradient, the glucose in the blood will be able to flow from an area of high concentration (the blood) into an area of low concentration (the tissues) to be either used or stored. Hexokinase is found in nearly every tissue in the body. Glucokinase, on the other hand, is expressed in tissues that are active when blood glucose levels are high, such as the liver. Hexokinase has a higher affinity for glucose than glucokinase and therefore is able to convert glucose at a faster rate than glucokinase. This is important when levels of glucose are very low in the body, as it allows glucose to travel preferentially to those tissues that require it more.
In the next step of the first phase of glycolysis, the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate isomerase converts glucose-6-phosphate into fructose-6-phosphate. Like glucose, fructose is also a six carbon-containing sugar. The enzyme phosphofructokinase-1 then adds one more phosphate to convert fructose-6-phosphate into fructose-1-6-bisphosphate, another six-carbon sugar, using another ATP molecule. Aldolase then breaks down this fructose-1-6-bisphosphate into two three-carbon molecules, glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate and dihydroxyacetone phosphate. The triosephosphate isomerase enzyme then converts dihydroxyacetone phosphate into a second glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate molecule. Therefore, by the end of this chemical-priming or energy-consuming phase, one glucose molecule is broken down into two glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate molecules.
The second phase of glycolysis, the energy-yielding phase, creates the energy that is the product of glycolysis. Glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase converts each three-carbon glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate produced during the energy-consuming phase into 1,3-bisphosphoglycerate. This reaction releases an electron that is then picked up by NAD+ to create an NADH molecule. NADH is a high-energy molecule, like ATP, but unlike ATP, it is not used as energy currency by the cell. Because there are two glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate molecules, two NADH molecules are synthesized during this step. Each 1,3-bisphosphoglycerate is subsequently dephosphorylated (i.e., a phosphate is removed) by phosphoglycerate kinase into 3-phosphoglycerate. Each phosphate released in this reaction can convert one molecule of ADP into one high-energy ATP molecule, resulting in a gain of two ATP molecules.
The enzyme phosphoglycerate mutase then converts the 3-phosphoglycerate molecules into 2-phosphoglycerate. The enolase enzyme then acts upon the 2-phosphoglycerate molecules to convert them into phosphoenolpyruvate molecules. The last step of glycolysis involves the dephosphorylation of the two phosphoenolpyruvate molecules by pyruvate kinase to create two pyruvate molecules and two ATP molecules.
In summary, one glucose molecule breaks down into two pyruvate molecules, and creates two net ATP molecules and two NADH molecules by glycolysis. Therefore, glycolysis generates energy for the cell and creates pyruvate molecules that can be processed further through the aerobic Krebs cycle (also called the citric acid cycle or tricarboxylic acid cycle); converted into lactic acid or alcohol (in yeast) by fermentation; or used later for the synthesis of glucose through gluconeogenesis.
When oxygen is limited or absent, pyruvate enters an anaerobic pathway. In these reactions, pyruvate can be converted into lactic acid. In addition to generating an additional ATP, this pathway serves to keep the pyruvate concentration low so glycolysis continues, and it oxidizes NADH into the NAD+ needed by glycolysis. In this reaction, lactic acid replaces oxygen as the final electron acceptor. Anaerobic respiration occurs in most cells of the body when oxygen is limited or mitochondria are absent or nonfunctional. For example, because erythrocytes (red blood cells) lack mitochondria, they must produce their ATP from anaerobic respiration. This is an effective pathway of ATP production for short periods of time, ranging from seconds to a few minutes. The lactic acid produced diffuses into the plasma and is carried to the liver, where it is converted back into pyruvate or glucose via the Cori cycle. Similarly, when a person exercises, muscles use ATP faster than oxygen can be delivered to them. They depend on glycolysis and lactic acid production for rapid ATP production.
In the presence of oxygen, pyruvate can enter the Krebs cycle where additional energy is extracted as electrons are transferred from the pyruvate to the receptors NAD+, GDP, and FAD, with carbon dioxide being a “waste product.” The NADH and FADH2 pass electrons on to the electron transport chain, which uses the transferred energy to produce ATP. As the terminal step in the electron transport chain, oxygen is the terminal electron acceptor and creates water inside the mitochondria.
Krebs Cycle/Citric Acid Cycle/Tricarboxylic Acid Cycle
The pyruvate molecules generated during glycolysis are transported across the mitochondrial membrane into the inner mitochondrial matrix, where they are metabolized by enzymes in a pathway called the Krebs cycle. The Krebs cycle is also commonly called the citric acid cycle or the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle. During the Krebs cycle, high-energy molecules, including ATP, NADH, and FADH2, are created. NADH and FADH2 then pass electrons through the electron transport chain in the mitochondria to generate more ATP molecules.
The three-carbon pyruvate molecule generated during glycolysis moves from the cytoplasm into the mitochondrial matrix, where it is converted by the enzyme pyruvate dehydrogenase into a two-carbon acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl CoA) molecule. This reaction is an oxidative decarboxylation reaction. It converts the three-carbon pyruvate into a two-carbon acetyl CoA molecule, releasing carbon dioxide and transferring two electrons that combine with NAD+ to form NADH. Acetyl CoA enters the Krebs cycle by combining with a four-carbon molecule, oxaloacetate, to form the six-carbon molecule citrate, or citric acid, at the same time releasing the coenzyme A molecule.
The six-carbon citrate molecule is systematically converted to a five-carbon molecule and then a four-carbon molecule, ending with oxaloacetate, the beginning of the cycle. Along the way, each citrate molecule will produce one ATP, one FADH2, and three NADH. The FADH2 and NADH will enter the oxidative phosphorylation system located in the inner mitochondrial membrane. In addition, the Krebs cycle supplies the starting materials to process and break down proteins and fats.
To start the Krebs cycle, citrate synthase combines acetyl CoA and oxaloacetate to form a six-carbon citrate molecule; CoA is subsequently released and can combine with another pyruvate molecule to begin the cycle again. The aconitase enzyme converts citrate into isocitrate. In two successive steps of oxidative decarboxylation, two molecules of CO2 and two NADH molecules are produced when isocitrate dehydrogenase converts isocitrate into the five-carbon α-ketoglutarate, which is then catalyzed and converted into the four-carbon succinyl CoA by α-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase. The enzyme succinyl CoA dehydrogenase then converts succinyl CoA into succinate and forms the high-energy molecule GTP, which transfers its energy to ADP to produce ATP. Succinate dehydrogenase then converts succinate into fumarate, forming a molecule of FADH2. Fumarase then converts fumarate into malate, which malate dehydrogenase then converts back into oxaloacetate while reducing NAD+ to NADH. Oxaloacetate is then ready to combine with the next acetyl CoA to start the Krebs cycle again. For each turn of the cycle, three NADH, one ATP (through GTP), and one FADH2 are created. Each carbon of pyruvate is converted into CO2, which is released as a byproduct of oxidative (aerobic) respiration.
Oxidative Phosphorylation and the Electron Transport Chain
The electron transport chain (ETC) uses the NADH and FADH2 produced by the Krebs cycle to generate ATP. Electrons from NADH and FADH2 are transferred through protein complexes embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane by a series of enzymatic reactions. The electron transport chain consists of a series of four enzyme complexes (Complex I – Complex IV) and two coenzymes (ubiquinone and Cytochrome c), which act as electron carriers and proton pumps used to transfer H+ ions into the space between the inner and outer mitochondrial membranes. The ETC couples the transfer of electrons between a donor (like NADH) and an electron acceptor (like O2) with the transfer of protons (H+ ions) across the inner mitochondrial membrane, enabling the process of oxidative phosphorylation. In the presence of oxygen, energy is passed, stepwise, through the electron carriers to collect gradually the energy needed to attach a phosphate to ADP and produce ATP. The role of molecular oxygen, O2, is as the terminal electron acceptor for the ETC. This means that once the electrons have passed through the entire ETC, they must be passed to another, separate molecule. These electrons, O2, and H+ ions from the matrix combine to form new water molecules. This is why oxygen is essential for human life. Without oxygen, electron flow through the ETC ceases.
The electrons released from NADH and FADH2 are passed along the chain by each of the carriers, which are reduced when they receive the electron and oxidized when passing it on to the next carrier. Each of these reactions releases a small amount of energy, which is used to pump H+ ions across the inner membrane. The accumulation of these protons in the space between the membranes creates a proton gradient with respect to the mitochondrial matrix.
Also embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane is an amazing protein pore complex called ATP synthase. Effectively, it is a turbine that is powered by the flow of H+ ions across the inner membrane down a gradient and into the mitochondrial matrix. As the H+ ions traverse the complex, the shaft of the complex rotates. This rotation enables other portions of ATP synthase to encourage ADP and Pi to create ATP. In accounting for the total number of ATP produced per glucose molecule through aerobic respiration, it is important to remember the following points:
- A net of two ATP are produced through glycolysis (four produced and two consumed during the energy-consuming stage). However, these two ATP are used for transporting the NADH produced during glycolysis from the cytoplasm into the mitochondria. Therefore, the net production of ATP during glycolysis is zero.
- In all phases after glycolysis, the number of ATP, NADH, and FADH2 produced must be multiplied by two to reflect how each glucose molecule produces two pyruvate molecules.
- In the ETC, about three ATP are produced for every oxidized NADH. However, only about two ATP are produced for every oxidized FADH2. The electrons from FADH2 produce less ATP, because they start at a lower point in the ETC (Complex II) compared to the electrons from NADH (Complex I).
Therefore, for every glucose molecule that enters aerobic respiration, a net total of 36 ATPs are produced.
Gluconeogenesis is the synthesis of new glucose molecules from pyruvate, lactate, glycerol, or the amino acids alanine or glutamine. This process takes place primarily in the liver during periods of low blood glucose levels, that is, under conditions of fasting, starvation, and low carbohydrate diets. So, the question can be raised as to why the body would create something it has just spent a fair amount of effort to break down? Certain key organs, including the brain, can use only glucose as an energy source; therefore, it is essential that the body maintain a minimum blood glucose concentration. When the blood glucose concentration falls below that certain point, new glucose is synthesized by the liver to raise the blood concentration to normal.
Gluconeogenesis is not simply the reverse of glycolysis. There are some important differences. Pyruvate is a common starting material for gluconeogenesis. First, the pyruvate is converted into oxaloacetate. Oxaloacetate then serves as a substrate for the enzyme phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK), which transforms oxaloacetate into phosphoenolpyruvate (PEP). From this step, gluconeogenesis is nearly the reverse of glycolysis. PEP is converted back into 2-phosphoglycerate, which is converted into 3-phosphoglycerate. Then, 3-phosphoglycerate is converted into 1,3 bisphosphoglycerate and then into glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate. Two molecules of glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate then combine to form fructose-1-6-bisphosphate, which is converted into fructose 6-phosphate and then into glucose-6-phosphate. Finally, a series of reactions generates glucose itself. In gluconeogenesis (as compared to glycolysis), the enzyme hexokinase is replaced by glucose-6-phosphatase, and the enzyme phosphofructokinase-1 is replaced by fructose-1,6-bisphosphatase. This helps the cell to regulate glycolysis and gluconeogenesis independently of each other.
As will be discussed as part of lipolysis, fats can be broken down into glycerol, which can be phosphorylated to form dihydroxyacetone phosphate or DHAP. DHAP can either enter the glycolytic pathway or be used by the liver as a substrate for gluconeogenesis.
Fats (or triglycerides) within the body are ingested as food or synthesized by adipocytes or hepatocytes from carbohydrate precursors. Lipid metabolism entails the oxidation of fatty acids to either generate energy or synthesize new lipids from smaller constituent molecules. Lipid metabolism is associated with carbohydrate metabolism, as products of glucose (such as acetyl CoA) can be converted into lipids.
Lipid metabolism begins in the intestine where ingested triglycerides are broken down into smaller chain fatty acids and subsequently into monoglyceride molecules (see Figure 10b) by pancreatic lipases, enzymes that break down fats after they are emulsified by bile salts. When food reaches the small intestine in the form of chyme, a digestive hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) is released by intestinal cells in the intestinal mucosa. CCK stimulates the release of pancreatic lipase from the pancreas and stimulates the contraction of the gallbladder to release stored bile salts into the intestine. CCK also travels to the brain, where it can act as a hunger suppressant.
Together, the pancreatic lipases and bile salts break down triglycerides into free fatty acids. These fatty acids can be transported across the intestinal membrane. However, once they cross the membrane, they are recombined to again form triglyceride molecules. Within the intestinal cells, these triglycerides are packaged along with cholesterol molecules in phospholipid vesicles called chylomicrons (see Figure 11). The chylomicrons enable fats and cholesterol to move within the aqueous environment of the lymphatic and circulatory systems. Chylomicrons leave the enterocytes by exocytosis and enter the lymphatic system via lacteals in the villi of the intestine. From the lymphatic system, the chylomicrons are transported to the circulatory system. Once in the circulation, they can either go to the liver or be stored in fat cells (adipocytes) that comprise adipose (fat) tissue found throughout the body.
To obtain energy from fat, triglycerides must first be broken down by hydrolysis into their two principal components, fatty acids and glycerol. This process, called lipolysis, takes place in the cytoplasm. The resulting fatty acids are oxidized by β-oxidation into acetyl CoA, which is used by the Krebs cycle. The glycerol that is released from triglycerides after lipolysis directly enters the glycolysis pathway as DHAP. Because one triglyceride molecule yields three fatty acid molecules with as much as 16 or more carbons in each one, fat molecules yield more energy than carbohydrates and are an important source of energy for the human body. Triglycerides yield more than twice the energy per unit mass when compared to carbohydrates and proteins. Therefore, when glucose levels are low, triglycerides can be converted into acetyl CoA molecules and used to generate ATP through aerobic respiration.
The breakdown of fatty acids, called fatty acid oxidation or beta (β)-oxidation, begins in the cytoplasm, where fatty acids are converted into fatty acyl CoA molecules. This fatty acyl CoA combines with carnitine to create a fatty acyl carnitine molecule, which helps to transport the fatty acid across the mitochondrial membrane. Once inside the mitochondrial matrix, the fatty acyl carnitine molecule is converted back into fatty acyl CoA and then into acetyl CoA (Figure 12). The newly formed acetyl CoA enters the Krebs cycle and is used to produce ATP in the same way as acetyl CoA derived from pyruvate.
If excessive acetyl CoA is created from the oxidation of fatty acids and the Krebs cycle is overloaded and cannot handle it, the acetyl CoA is diverted to create ketone bodies. These ketone bodies can serve as a fuel source if glucose levels are too low in the body. Ketones serve as fuel in times of prolonged starvation or when patients suffer from uncontrolled diabetes and cannot utilize most of the circulating glucose. In both cases, fat stores are liberated to generate energy through the Krebs cycle and will generate ketone bodies when too much acetyl CoA accumulates.
In this ketone synthesis reaction, excess acetyl CoA is converted into hydroxymethylglutaryl CoA (HMG CoA). HMG CoA is a precursor of cholesterol and is an intermediate that is subsequently converted into β-hydroxybutyrate, the primary ketone body in the blood.
Ketone Body Oxidation
Organs that have classically been thought to be dependent solely on glucose, such as the brain, can actually use ketones as an alternative energy source. This keeps the brain functioning when glucose is limited. When ketones are produced faster than they can be used, they can be broken down into CO2 and acetone. The acetone is removed by exhalation. One symptom of ketogenesis is that the patient’s breath smells sweet like alcohol. This effect provides one way of telling if a diabetic is properly controlling the disease. The carbon dioxide produced can acidify the blood, leading to diabetic ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition in diabetics.
Ketones oxidize to produce energy for the brain. beta (β)-hydroxybutyrate is oxidized to acetoacetate and NADH is released. An HS-CoA molecule is added to acetoacetate, forming acetoacetyl CoA. The carbon within the acetoacetyl CoA that is not bonded to the CoA then detaches, splitting the molecule in two. This carbon then attaches to another free HS-CoA, resulting in two acetyl CoA molecules. These two acetyl CoA molecules are then processed through the Krebs cycle to generate energy.
When glucose levels are plentiful, the excess acetyl CoA generated by glycolysis can be converted into fatty acids, triglycerides, cholesterol, steroids, and bile salts. This process, called lipogenesis, creates lipids (fat) from the acetyl CoA and takes place in the cytoplasm of adipocytes (fat cells) and hepatocytes (liver cells). If more glucose is consumed than the body needs, the body uses acetyl CoA to turn the excess into fat. Although there are several metabolic sources of acetyl CoA, it is most commonly derived from glycolysis. Acetyl CoA availability is significant, because it initiates lipogenesis. Lipogenesis begins with acetyl CoA and advances by the subsequent addition of two carbon atoms from another acetyl CoA; this process is repeated until fatty acids are the appropriate length. Because this is a bond-creating anabolic process, ATP is consumed. However, the creation of triglycerides and lipids is an efficient way of storing the energy available in carbohydrates. Triglycerides and lipids, high-energy molecules, are stored in adipose tissue until they are needed.
Although lipogenesis occurs in the cytoplasm, the necessary acetyl CoA is created in the mitochondria and cannot be transported across the mitochondrial membrane. To solve this problem, pyruvate is converted into both oxaloacetate and acetyl CoA. Two different enzymes are required for these conversions. Oxaloacetate forms via the action of pyruvate carboxylase, whereas the action of pyruvate dehydrogenase creates acetyl CoA. Oxaloacetate and acetyl CoA combine to form citrate, which can cross the mitochondrial membrane and enter the cytoplasm. In the cytoplasm, citrate is converted back into oxaloacetate and acetyl CoA. Oxaloacetate is converted into malate and then into pyruvate. Pyruvate crosses back across the mitochondrial membrane to wait for the next cycle of lipogenesis. The acetyl CoA is converted into malonyl CoA that is used to synthesize fatty acids. Figure 15 below summarizes the pathways of lipid metabolism.
Much of the human body is made of protein, and these proteins take on a myriad of forms, including–but not limited to–cell signaling receptors, signaling molecules, structural members, enzymes, intracellular trafficking components, extracellular matrix scaffolds, ion pumps, ion channels, oxygen and CO2 transporters (hemoglobin). There is protein in bones (collagen), muscles, and tendons; the hemoglobin that transports oxygen; and enzymes that catalyze all biochemical reactions. Protein is also used for growth and repair. Amid all these necessary functions, proteins also hold the potential to serve as a metabolic fuel source. Proteins are not stored for later use, so excess proteins must be converted into glucose or triglycerides, and used to supply energy or build energy reserves. Although the body can synthesize proteins from amino acids, food is an important source of those amino acids, especially because humans cannot synthesize all of the 20 amino acids used to build proteins.
The digestion of proteins begins in the stomach. When protein-rich foods enter the stomach, they are greeted by a mixture of the enzyme pepsin and hydrochloric acid (HCl; 0.5 percent). The latter produces an environmental pH of 1.5–3.5 that denatures proteins within food. Pepsin cuts proteins into smaller polypeptides and their constituent amino acids. When the food-gastric juice mixture (chyme) enters the small intestine, the pancreas releases sodium bicarbonate to neutralize the HCl. This helps to protect the lining of the intestine. The small intestine also releases digestive hormones, including secretin and CCK, which stimulate digestive processes to break down the proteins further. Secretin also stimulates the pancreas to release sodium bicarbonate. The pancreas releases most of the digestive enzymes, including the proteases trypsin, chymotrypsin, and elastase, which aid protein digestion. Together, all of these enzymes break complex proteins into smaller individual amino acids, which are then transported across the intestinal mucosa to be used to create new proteins, or to be converted into fats or acetyl CoA and used in the Krebs cycle.
In order to avoid breaking down the proteins that make up the pancreas and small intestine, pancreatic enzymes are released as inactive proenzymes that are only activated in the small intestine. In the pancreas, vesicles store trypsin and chymotrypsin as trypsinogen and chymotrypsinogen. Once released into the small intestine, an enzyme found in the wall of the small intestine, called enterokinase, binds to trypsinogen and converts it into its active form, trypsin. Trypsin then binds to chymotrypsinogen to convert it into the active chymotrypsin. Trypsin and chymotrypsin break down large proteins into smaller peptides, a process called proteolysis. These smaller peptides are catabolized into their constituent amino acids, which are transported across the apical surface of the intestinal mucosa in a process that is mediated by sodium-amino acid transporters. These transporters bind sodium and then bind the amino acid to transport it across the membrane. At the basal surface of the mucosal cells, the sodium and amino acid are released. The sodium can be reused in the transporter, whereas the amino acids are transferred into the bloodstream to be transported to the liver and cells throughout the body for protein synthesis.
Freely available amino acids are used to create proteins. If amino acids exist in excess, the body has no capacity or mechanism for their storage; thus, they are converted into glucose or ketones, or they are decomposed. Amino acid decomposition results in hydrocarbons and nitrogenous waste. However, high concentrations of nitrogen are toxic. The urea cycle processes nitrogen and facilitates its excretion from the body.
The urea cycle is a set of biochemical reactions that produces urea from ammonium ions in order to prevent a toxic level of ammonium in the body. It occurs primarily in the liver and, to a lesser extent, in the kidney. Prior to the urea cycle, ammonium ions are produced from the breakdown of amino acids. In these reactions, an amine group, or ammonium ion, from the amino acid is exchanged with a keto group on another molecule. This transamination event creates a molecule that is necessary for the Krebs cycle and an ammonium ion that enters into the urea cycle to be eliminated.
In the urea cycle, ammonium is combined with CO2, resulting in urea and water. The urea is eliminated through the kidneys in the urine ([link]).
Amino acids can also be used as a source of energy, especially in times of starvation. Because the processing of amino acids results in the creation of metabolic intermediates, including pyruvate, acetyl CoA, acetoacyl CoA, oxaloacetate, and α-ketoglutarate, amino acids can serve as a source of energy production through the Krebs cycle ([link]). [link] summarizes the pathways of catabolism and anabolism for carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins.
Metabolic States of the Body
The brain needs a continuous supply of glucose. To compensate for this constant demand for energy, the human body processes a portion of the food eaten for immediate use and a portion for storage to satisfy energy demands later. Without these storage methods, humans would need to eat constantly to satiate demands for energy. Distinct mechanisms are in place to facilitate energy storage, and to make stored energy available during times of fasting and starvation.
The Absorptive State
The absorptive state, or the fed state, occurs after a meal when the body is digesting the food and absorbing the nutrients (anabolism exceeds catabolism). Digestion begins the moment food enters the mouth, as the food is broken down into its constituent parts to be absorbed through the intestine. The digestion of carbohydrates begins in the mouth, whereas the digestion of proteins and fats begins in the stomach and small intestine. The constituent parts of these carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are transported across the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream (sugars and amino acids) or the lymphatic system (fats). From the intestines, these systems transport them to the liver, adipose tissue, or muscle cells that will process and use, or store, the energy.
Depending on the amounts and types of nutrients ingested, the absorptive state can linger for up to 4 hours. The ingestion of food and the rise of glucose concentrations in the bloodstream stimulate pancreatic beta cells to release insulin into the bloodstream, where it initiates the absorption of blood glucose by liver hepatocytes, and by adipose and muscle cells. Once inside these cells, glucose is immediately converted into glucose-6-phosphate. By doing this, a concentration gradient is established where glucose levels are higher in the blood than in the cells. This allows for glucose to continue moving from the blood to the cells where it is needed. Insulin also stimulates the storage of glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscle cells where it can be used for later energy needs of the body. Insulin also promotes the synthesis of protein in muscle. Conversely, in times of starvation, muscle protein can be catabolized to be used as fuel.
If energy is exerted shortly after eating, the dietary fats and sugars that were just ingested will be processed and used immediately for energy. If not, the excess glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle cells, or as fat in adipose tissue; excess dietary fat is also stored as triglycerides in adipose tissues. Figure 20 below summarizes the metabolic processes occurring in the body during the absorptive state.
The Postabsorptive State
The postabsorptive state, or the fasting state, occurs when the food has been digested, absorbed, and stored. Fasting normally occurs overnight, but skipping meals during the day puts the body in the postabsorptive state as well. During this state, the body must rely initially on stored glycogen. Glucose levels in the blood begin to drop as it is absorbed and used by the cells. In response to the decrease in glucose, insulin levels also drop. Glycogen and triglyceride storage slows. However, due to the demands of the tissues and organs, blood glucose levels must be maintained in the normal range of 80–120 mg/dL. In response to a drop in blood glucose concentration, the hormone glucagon is released from the alpha cells of the pancreas. Glucagon acts upon the liver cells, where it inhibits the synthesis of glycogen and stimulates the breakdown of stored glycogen back into glucose. This glucose is released from the liver to be used by the peripheral tissues and the brain. As a result, blood glucose levels begin to rise. Gluconeogenesis will also begin in the liver to replace the glucose that has been used by the peripheral tissues.
After ingestion of food, fats and proteins are processed as described previously; however, the glucose processing changes a bit. The peripheral tissues preferentially absorb glucose. The liver, which normally absorbs and processes glucose, will not do so after a prolonged fast. The gluconeogenesis that has been ongoing in the liver will continue after fasting to replace the glycogen stores that were depleted in the liver. After these stores have been replenished, excess glucose that is absorbed by the liver will be converted into triglycerides and fatty acids for long-term storage. Figure 21 summarizes the metabolic processes occurring in the body during the postabsorptive state.
When the body is deprived of nourishment for an extended period of time, it goes into “survival mode.” The first priority for survival is to provide enough glucose or fuel for the brain. The second priority is the conservation of amino acids for proteins. Therefore, the body uses ketones to satisfy the energy needs of the brain and other glucose-dependent organs, and to maintain proteins in the cells. Because glucose levels are very low during starvation, glycolysis will shut off in cells that can use alternative fuels. For example, muscles will switch from using glucose to fatty acids as fuel. As previously explained, fatty acids can be converted into acetyl CoA and processed through the Krebs cycle to make ATP. Pyruvate, lactate, and alanine from muscle cells are not converted into acetyl CoA and used in the Krebs cycle, but are exported to the liver to be used in the synthesis of glucose. As starvation continues, and more glucose is needed, glycerol from fatty acids can be liberated and used as a source for gluconeogenesis.
After several days of starvation, ketone bodies become the major source of fuel for the heart and other organs. As starvation continues, fatty acids and triglyceride stores are used to create ketones for the body. This prevents the continued breakdown of proteins that serve as carbon sources for gluconeogenesis. Once these stores are fully depleted, proteins from muscles are released and broken down for glucose synthesis. Overall survival is dependent on the amount of fat and protein stored in the body.
Energy and Heat Balance
The body tightly regulates the body temperature through a process called thermoregulation, in which the body can maintain its temperature within certain boundaries, even when the surrounding temperature is very different. The core temperature of the body remains steady at around 36.5–37.5 °C (or 97.7–99.5 °F). In the process of ATP production by cells throughout the body, approximately 60 percent of the energy produced is in the form of heat used to maintain body temperature. Thermoregulation is an example of negative feedback.
The hypothalamus in the brain is the master switch that works as a thermostat to regulate the body’s core temperature. If the temperature is too high, the hypothalamus can initiate several processes to lower it. These include increasing the circulation of the blood to the surface of the body to allow for the dissipation of heat through the skin and initiation of sweating to allow evaporation of water on the skin to cool its surface. Conversely, if the temperature falls below the set core temperature, the hypothalamus can initiate shivering to generate heat. The body uses more energy and generates more heat. In addition, thyroid hormone will stimulate more energy use and heat production by cells throughout the body. An environment is said to be thermoneutral when the body does not expend or release energy to maintain its core temperature. For a naked human, this is an ambient air temperature of around 84 °F. If the temperature is higher, for example, when wearing clothes, the body compensates with cooling mechanisms. The body loses heat through the mechanisms of heat exchange.
Mechanisms of Heat Exchange
When the environment is not thermoneutral, the body uses four mechanisms of heat exchange to maintain homeostasis: conduction, convection, radiation, and evaporation. Each of these mechanisms relies on the property of heat to flow from a higher concentration to a lower concentration; therefore, each of the mechanisms of heat exchange varies in rate according to the temperature and conditions of the environment.
Conduction is the transfer of heat by two objects that are in direct contact with one another. It occurs when the skin comes in contact with a cold or warm object. For example, when holding a glass of ice water, heat from the skin will warm the glass and melt the ice. Alternatively, on a cold day, holding a hot mug of coffee will warm cold hands via conduction. Only about 3 percent of the body’s heat is lost through conduction.
Convection is the transfer of heat to the air surrounding the skin. The warmed air rises away from the body and is replaced by cooler air that is subsequently heated. Convection can also occur in water. When the water temperature is lower than the body’s temperature, the body loses heat by warming the water closest to the skin, which moves away to be replaced by cooler water. The convection currents created by the temperature changes continue to draw heat away from the body more quickly than the body can replace it, resulting in hyperthermia. About 15 percent of the body’s heat is lost through convection.
Radiation is the transfer of heat via infrared waves. This occurs between any two objects when their temperatures differ. A radiator can warm a room via radiant heat. On a sunny day, the radiation from the sun warms the skin. The same principle works from the body to the environment. About 60 percent of the heat lost by the body is lost through radiation.
Evaporation is the transfer of heat by the evaporation of water. Because it takes a great deal of energy for a water molecule to change from a liquid to a gas, evaporating water (in the form of sweat) takes with it a great deal of energy from the skin. However, the rate at which evaporation occurs depends on relative humidity—more sweat evaporates in lower humidity environments. Sweating is the primary means of cooling the body during exercise, whereas at rest, about 20 percent of the heat lost by the body occurs through evaporation.
The metabolic rate is the amount of energy consumed minus the amount of energy expended by the body. The basal metabolic rate (BMR) describes the amount of daily energy expended by humans at rest, in a neutrally temperate environment, while in the postabsorptive state. It measures how much energy the body needs for normal, basic, daily activity. About 70 percent of all daily energy expenditure comes from the basic functions of the organs in the body. Another 20 percent comes from physical activity, and the remaining 10 percent is necessary for body thermoregulation or temperature control. This rate will be higher if a person is more active or has more lean body mass. With age, the BMR generally decreases as the percentage of less lean muscle mass decreases.
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SA Bos, M.D.