Disorders of the Endocrine System

Since the turn of the century, we have heard a great deal about a newly discovered system in the body-the endocrine system. This consists of many glands, including the thyroid gland, pituitary gland, gonads, pancreas, and adrenal glands. The diseases associated with the endocrine system range from the common problems of diabetes mellitus and irregular menstrual periods to Addison’s disease-a problem with the adrenal glands that gained much attention when President John F. Kennedy was said to suffer from it. And most of us have at least one friend with an under-active thyroid gland.

The endocrine system consists of glands that empty their chemical products, called hormones, directly into the bloodstream. These hormones control nearly every aspect of our body’s functioning, including metabolism (thyroid glands), sugar usage (pancreas), and sexual functioning (gonads). The release of epinephrine, which we would feel, for example, a few moments after an almost fatal accident, is the result of a release of a minute quantity of the chemical from the adrenal glands.

When a nerve cell is stimulated, it conducts the discharge all the way from one end to the other. As it reaches the end of the nerve, this information must cross a small space, called a synapse, to another nerve, muscle, or other kind of cell. It does this by releasing an extremely small quantity of a certain chemical, such as acetylcholine or a form of adrenalin (depending upon the kind of nerve cell). It is this tiny amount of chemical that causes the next cell to realize that a message has come down the nerve fiber. In a way, each nerve is like a tiny gland!

The endocrine glands are richly supplied with nerves and are rigorously controlled by the nervous system; I often view them as huge nerve endings. Instead of releasing minute amounts of chemical, as the tiny nerve endings do, the endocrine glands may release much larger quantities. They are, therefore, able to adjust the person’s overall activity in many ways.

Just as you are able to increase the activity of your hand by moving it back and forth and up and down, it is possible for the thyroid gland to increase the overall activity and metabolism of your entire body. If you have an overactive thyroid gland or if someone gives you thyroid hormone pills, you may find your arms and legs moving much more often, feel nervous and jittery, and always feel too warm even though other people feel comfortable. On the other hand, too little thyroid hormone can cause feelings of being slowed down or drowsy and make a person tend to gain weight. In a similar fashion, the other endocrine glands may be seen as superenlarged nerve endings that regulate a person’s overall activity in one way or another.

Because of their close association with the nervous system, there is much opportunity for the function of these glands to become involved in conditioned reflexes. In other words, a person’s glands may secrete too much or too little hormone, depending upon what kind of stimuli are in the person’s environment and what kind of thought patterns the person has. I have worked with several people who had improper secretion levels of the endocrine glands. In the course of exploration we saw a pattern of conditioning that was similar to that discussed up until now except that a change in the secretion of the gland became one of the responses. Following exploration and deconditioning there was an improvement in glandular function.

We spoke before about such problems as muscle tension and spasm being due to a continuous tension maintained by the central nervous system. In other words, instead of there being just occasional impulses going to the part of the body that is in tension, the impulses tend to run continuously. Thus a condition of the body can be maintained by the nervous system alone. This, however, is the job of the endocrine glands. They function to provide steady, continuous conditions of the organism. They produce overall changes in general activity in the same way that the nerves produce intermittent types of activity. A disease of muscle tension that occurs in the presence of certain stimuli is there because there was a tension present at the time of some sensitizing event or at the time of a series of conditioning events. The tension is produced because the nerves to the muscle are functioning abnormally. Through the rules of negative conditioning, then, this may become more and more pronounced with each new trial. In the same fashion an interruption of the normal secretory patterns of an endocrine gland by negatively programmed events may also sow the seed for future dysfunction. Let’s see how this might happen in a particular case.

Let us imagine that Betty has parents who, for some reason, are sensitive to any noise or activity above a certain level. Each time Betty begins to play and becomes very active or loud, her mother and father come in, yell at her, and tell her to go to bed. Thus several stimuli are becoming linked with a reflex in which enthusiastic activity causes an increase in tension, such as that which is experienced when the child is punished. Later on, then, being very active is associated with increased fear, and thus, through avoidance programming, the child becomes trained to be less and less active.

The gland controlling overall bodily activity is the thyroid gland. As this conditioning grows stronger and stronger through the years, the overall program, which the mind is carrying out, becomes less active. The way the body generally carries out the commands to become less active is to decrease the output of thyroid hormone. By the time Betty has reached twenty or thirty years of age, the program may be strong enough that its effects are noticed, and she may go to a doctor to learn that she has an underactive thyroid gland.

Other situations might cause an individual to develop an overactive gland. Graves’ disease (thyrotoxicosis) is a malfunction of the endocrine system in which huge amounts of thyroid hormone are released into the bloodstream by the thyroid. This release is believed by many to be because of overactivity of the pituitary gland, which controls the thyroid. The pituitary, in turn, is controlled by way of the hypothalamus, a higher center in the brain. In many studies patients with hyperthyroidism relate the onset to major emotional or traumatic crises in their lives (that is, stressful situations that tell the unconscious that it should do something). Some of the symptoms seem like a prolonged negative (escape) response: elevated metabolic rate, increased sweating, diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, tremor, and apprehensiveness. Perhaps the unconscious believes that the crisis is here to stay and so it develops a lasting glandular alteration.

Or let us say that Betty, at the age of three years, discovers that she feels a pleasurable sensation when she plays with her clitoris. As she is experiencing this joyous new discovery, she is discovered by her prudish mother, who becomes horrified and spanks her, telling her she is a bad girl and forcing her to wash her hands and go to bed. Thus there is an association of the functioning of the sexual glands and the sexual parts of the body with the feeling of tension. As Betty grows older and finds herself becoming interested in boys, her mother’s attitude makes itself felt in her life. All her endeavors to meet and go out with boys are greeted with maternal disapproval, leading to tension on Betty’s part. In other words, whenever the sexual glands are functioning normally, which includes stimulating the body, there is an associated tension. As both a child and as a teenager, then, the activity of Betty’s sexual glands and the sexual parts of Betty’s body are being disturbed.

Because breast development is dependent upon the normal functioning of these glands, it would not be unusual to find that Betty’s breasts were delayed in their development. Indeed, they might never develop fully until this conditioning is altered. She might well have difficulties in her marriage because of pain on intercourse or sexual nonresponsiveness, irregular and troublesome periods, and difficulty, both physical and mental, in bearing and giving birth to children. I find early sexual repression to be a common pattern when the presenting complaints are of this type.

The coherency theory gives us a way to visualize how a gland can be involved in a reflex pattern. At the time when certain stimuli are present and when the tension is felt, incoherent information is being sent to the gland that is being used at the moment, just as it is sent down the nerve to the spastic stomach muscle in the person with an ulcer. This means that repetitions of the same stimuli and emotion on future occasions will cause this reaction to grow stronger and stronger and, as the years pass, the gland will actually begin to become measurably abnormal in its secretions. It is even easier to visualize how when this stress occurs during childhood, while the gland is growing, its development can be influenced.

Like most physicians I have observed the close connection between a person’s moods and feelings and the functioning of the endocrine system. Probably most people have known a woman who, fearing pregnancy, has missed her period by one, two, or three weeks, although her period may have been regular until that time. Often she will go to see a physician, fearing pregnancy. When informed that she is not pregnant, it is common for her to begin her period that very day. I feel that many glandular disorders may begin and end in response to stress or relaxation, but because the other glands don’t announce their state of activity by such a dramatic and immediate change as menstrual bleeding, the connection is not as readily detected.

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Written by Emmett Miller MD

Explore Wellness in 2021