What is the pituitary gland?

The pituitary gland is a part of your endocrine system. Its main function is to secrete hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones can affect other organs and glands, especially your:

The pituitary gland is sometimes called the master gland because it’s involved in so many processes.

Pituitary gland anatomy and function

The pituitary gland is small and oval-shaped. It’s located behind your nose, near the underside of your brain. It’s attached to the hypothalamus by a stalklike structure.

The hypothalamus is a small area of your brain. It’s very important in controlling the balance of your bodily functions. It controls the release of hormones from the pituitary gland.

The pituitary gland can be divided into two different parts: the anterior and posterior lobes.

Anterior lobe

The anterior lobe of your pituitary gland is made up of several different types of cells that produce and release different types of hormones, including:

  • Growth hormone. Growth hormone regulates growth and physical development. It can stimulate growth in almost all of your tissues. Its primary targets are bones and muscles.
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone. This hormone activates your thyroid to release thyroid hormones. Your thyroid gland and the hormones it produces are crucial for metabolism.
  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone. This hormone stimulates your adrenal glands to produce cortisol and other hormones.
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone. Follicle-stimulating hormone is involved with estrogen secretion and the growth of egg cells in women. It’s also important for sperm cell production in men.
  • Luteinizing hormone. Luteinizing hormone is involved in the production of estrogen in women and testosterone in men.
  • Prolactin. Prolactin helps women who are breastfeeding produce milk.
  • Endorphins. Endorphins have pain-relieving properties and are thought to be connected to the “pleasure centers” of the brain.
  • Enkephalins. Enkephalins are closely related to endorphins and have similar pain-relieving effects.
  • Beta-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. This hormone helps to stimulate increased pigmentation of your skin in response to exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Posterior lobe

The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland also secretes hormones. These hormones are usually produced in your hypothalamus and stored in the posterior lobe until they’re released.

Hormones stored in the posterior lobe include:

  • Vasopressin. This is also called antidiuretic hormone. It helps your body conserve water and prevent dehydration.
  • Oxytocin. This hormone stimulates the release of breast milk. It also stimulates contractions of the uterus during labor.

Pituitary gland diagram

Explore the interactive 3-D diagram below to learn more about the pituitary gland.

Pituitary gland conditions

Several conditions can affect your pituitary gland. Most are caused by a tumor in or around the pituitary gland. This can impact the release of hormones.

Examples of pituitary gland disorders include:

  • Pituitary tumors. Pituitary tumors are usually noncancerous. However, they often interfere with the release of hormones. They can also press against other areas of your brain, leading to vision problems or headaches.
  • Hypopituitarism. This condition causes your pituitary gland to produce very little or none of one or more of its hormones. This can affect things like growth or reproductive system function.
  • Acromegaly. In this condition, your pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone. This can lead to excessive growth, especially of your hands and feet. It’s often associated with pituitary tumors.
  • Diabetes insipidus. This can be caused by a problem with the release of vasopressin. It’s usually due to a head injury, surgery, or a tumor. As a result, people with this condition pass large amounts of heavily diluted urine. They may also feel like they need to drink a lot of water or other fluids.
  • Cushing’s disease. The pituitary gland releases too much adrenocorticotropic hormone in people with this condition. This can lead to easy bruising, high blood pressure, weakness, and weight gain. It’s often caused by a tumor near or in the pituitary gland.
  • Hyperprolactinemia. In this condition, your blood contains an unusually high amount of prolactin. This can lead to infertility and a decreased sex drive.
  • Traumatic brain injury. This involves a sudden blow to your brain. Depending on the injury, it can sometimes damage your pituitary gland and cause problems with memory, communication, or behavior.

Symptoms of a pituitary gland condition

Your pituitary gland is involved in a range of things, so any condition involving it can produce a diverse set of symptoms.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you regularly notice:

Most of the conditions that cause these symptoms are easy to treat and manage once you determine the underlying cause.

Tips for pituitary gland health

Follow these tips to help protect your pituitary gland. While they may not completely prevent a pituitary condition from developing, they’ll contribute to your overall health.

Eat a balanced, healthy diet

A balanced diet is good for your health but it can also affect your hormones.

For example, malnourished children may not produce enough growth hormone to meet growth goals for their age group.

General tips for healthy eating include:

  • eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which are great sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals
  • choosing good sources of fats, such as those that contain omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats
  • opting for whole grains over refined grains
  • reducing sodium intake
  • avoiding refined sugars
  • drinking at least four to six cups of water a day

Reduce stress

Chronic stress can lead to an increase in cortisol release. Too much cortisol can sometimes lead to:

  • insomnia
  • weight gain
  • anxiety
  • depression

Try setting aside some time to get at least 30 minutes per day of exercise or work on a relaxing hobby.

Learn more about lowering your cortisol levels.