Understanding the Pituitary Gland

How much do you know about this hormone powerhouse?

Tucked behind your nasal passages and below your brain is a gland the size of a pea. With direction from the part of your brain called the hypothalamus, this tiny maestro conducts a lifelong symphony of hormones.

"You need to appreciate your pituitary gland because it is the mastermind of the endocrine system," says Elizabeth McAninch, MD, an endocrinologist with Rush University Medical Center. "It keeps your other glands in check and instructs them to produce the hormones required to keep you healthy."

Name that hormone

Test your knowledge of the pituitary gland by matching each hormone it produces to that hormone's function. See how much you remember from biology class. (Scroll to bottom of story to see answers.)

Hormone Function
1. Adrenocorticotropic hormone A. Affects men's testes and women's ovaries, promoting sperm production in men and stimulating the ovaries to produce estrogen and develop eggs in women.
2. Follicle-stimulating hormone B. Helps with the secretion of progesterone in women and testosterone in men.
3. Luteinizing hormone C. Stimulates breasts to grow at puberty and milk to flow after childbirth.
4. Thyroid-stimulating hormone D. Triggers milk flow in breastfeeding mothers.
5. Growth hormone E.  Stimulates the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism and growth.
6. Prolactin F. Signals the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones — including cortisol, which helps maintain blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
7. Antidiuretic hormone (also known as vasopressin) G. Regulates water and sodium balance by reducing the amount of water excreted in urine.
8. Oxytocin H. Stimulates growth in kids and helps adults maintain bone and muscle mass.

The inside scoop on pituitary tumors

Tumors on the pituitary gland are quite common, says McAninch. And when a patient consults her about one, she's often able to give this good news: "Most pituitary tumors are not cancerous — and often don't require surgery."

Still, doctors monitor pituitary tumors because they can cause problems. For example, they can press against the optic nerve and disrupt vision, or they can trigger a hormone imbalance.

In many cases, medications can shrink the tumor and bring hormones back into balance or even cause the tumor to go away.

When surgery is required, skull base and pituitary care at Rush includes the care of a multidisciplinary team that includes endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, and ear, nose and throat surgeons.

"The endocrinologists take care of regulating the hormones. And the neurosurgeons and ear, nose and throat surgeons collaborate to safely remove the tumor when surgery is needed. This multidisciplinary approach to pituitary tumors translates to better care for the patient," McAninch says.

Fast fact

The pituitary gland releases hormones on different schedules. Most are released every one to three hours. But some, such as growth hormone and prolactin, follow a circadian rhythm, rising and falling throughout the day. They hit their lowest levels just before you go to sleep each night and peak just before you wake up.

Answers to word match: 1-F; 2-A; 3-B; 4-E; 5-H; 6-C; 7-G; 8-D 

Related Stories