The endocrine glands appear unique in that the hormones they produce do not pass through tubes or ducts. The hormones are secreted directly into the internal environment, where they are transmitted via the bloodstream or by diffusion and act at distant points in the body. In contrast, other glands including sweat glands, salivary glands, and glands of the gastrointestinal system secrete the substances they produce through ducts, and those substances are used in the vicinity of the gland.
The regulation of body functions by the endocrine system depends on the existence of specific receptor cells in target organs that respond in specialized ways to the minute quantities of the hormonal messengers. Some endocrine hormones, such as thyroxine from the thyroid gland, affect nearly all body cells; others, such as progesterone from the female ovary, which regulates the uterine lining, affect only a single organ. The amounts of hormones are maintained by feedback mechanisms that depend on interactions between the endocrine glands, the blood levels of the various hormones, and activities of the target organ. Hormones act by regulating cell metabolism. By accelerating, slowing, or maintaining enzyme activity in receptor cells, hormones control growth and development, metabolic rate, sexual rhythms, and reproduction.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.