What is the pituitary gland and what does it do?

The pituitary gland is a very small, pea-sized gland found behind the nose. It is linked directly to the brain via a hollow stalk-like stem called the infundibulum.

The pituitary gland plays an important role in the endocrine system. The gland is made up of two parts: the posterior lobe and anterior lobe. The gland is often referred to as the ‘master gland’ because it controls the function of several other hormone glands.

The anterior lobe receives its instructions from the hypothalamus (an area of the brain directly above the pituitary gland). The anterior lobe controls the following hormones:

  • Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). These two hormones work together to maintain normal function of the ovaries or testes.
  • Growth hormone (GH). This hormone is important for body growth from birth to adulthood. It also plays a part in keeping bones healthy, as well as muscle and fat distribution.
  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH stimulates hormone production in the adrenal glands.
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH stimulates hormone production in the thyroid gland.

     

  • Prolactin. This hormone is important in the process of breast milk production.

The posterior lobe receives hormones directly from the hypothalamus ready for distribution around the body. The posterior lobe is linked to the following hormone functions:

  • Oxytocin. This hormone helps to contract the uterus after childbirth and also stimulates the production of breast milk.
  • Anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). ADH tells the kidneys to increase water absorption from the blood.

What conditions can develop due to problems with the pituitary gland?

Many of the conditions linked to the pituitary gland are caused by a benign tumour. A pituitary tumour may press on the gland and cause it to change its usual function. This can have an impact on any one of the numerous hormones that the pituitary gland controls.

Too much or too little of one type of hormone has the potential to cause certain conditions to develop.

  • Pituitary adenoma

This is a fairly common type of tumour which is not usually life-threatening. The majority of these tumours are benign. The presence of a pituitary adenoma might not result in any noticeable symptoms. This type of tumour may be diagnosed by chance when it appears on a scan result as an incidental finding.

However, pituitary adenomas can still cause disruption in the normal function of the pituitary gland and thus impact the gland’s ability to produce and distribute hormones as it should. A secretory or functioning adenoma can cause a change in the usual balance of hormones and therefore produce some problems. For example a tumour may trigger the overproduction of the thyroid stimulating hormone which can result in hyperthyroidism.

As a tumour grows it may press on other parts of the brain and result in unwanted side effects such as vision problems or headaches.

Tumours that do not cause symptoms may be monitored without the need for treatment.

  • Acromegaly

This hormone disorder occurs when the pituitary gland produces too much of the growth hormone (GH) during adulthood. Affecting mostly middle-aged adults, the condition causes extra growth in the hands, face and feet. The condition may not be immediately noticeable as the changes tend to happen over a long period of time. Treatment may be recommended to limit the risk of further complications.

  • Brain injury

A traumatic brain injury could potentially impact the function of the pituitary gland. Depending on the nature and the extent of the injury this could cause memory problems, behavioural changes or hormone imbalances. These sort of injuries can be life-changing and require continuous treatment.

How to keep the pituitary gland healthy

It is difficult to pinpoint changes you can make to your lifestyle and/or diet that might have a direct impact on your pituitary gland.

Pituitary tumours are not usually inherited from family members, so this means that anyone could develop this type of benign growth. As mentioned above, a large portion of people with a pituitary tumour will not be aware that they have one and do not require treatment.

The pituitary gland works closely with the brain, therefore foods that are said to boost brain function might have some benefit.

Brain-boosting foods include:

  • Oily fish that contain omega-3 essential fatty acids.
  • Nuts and seeds that contain vitamin E which is thought to contribute to a reduction in cognitive decline as we get older.
  • Avocados, blueberries and whole grains to encourage good blood flow. By focusing on cardiovascular health you will in turn improve blood flow to the brain.
  • Beans and lentils help to keep blood sugar levels stable and maintain a constant supply of fuel to the brain.

It is also important to follow a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco products and reporting any unusual symptoms or changes in vision or headaches to your doctor.