Your Glands - and You
Your love life, your emotions, your physical and mental make-up, your joys and sorrows—all are influenced by your glands
WILL man ever be able to choose his own height and weight? Will he be able to consciously regulate his emotions; and select certain ones,
reject others? A few years ago these questions would have been called absurd. Today they’re not so silly. For the answer to them is much stronger than a “maybe.” Looking into the future research men will answer with a cautious “probably—yes.”
There is nothing magical or mystical about it either. After many years of research and study medical men and other scientists have made amazing discoveries about the endocrine glands. These are a series of ductless glands that deposit into the human system secretions which greatly influence physical development and emotional attitudes. The new science of endocrinology has developed out of these studies.
Glandular abnormalities have produced many strange variations in the human form—freaks, even monsters. We still have giants, dwarfs, bearded ladies and others. But we know now that with the development of endocrinology many of these people, if properly treated, can be made into average persons, possessing the normal physical characteristics. We know that children showing signs of these abnormalities need not grow up as adult freaks, if they are treated early enough.
The present knowledge of the endocrine glands is far from complete; but what has been discovered gives us a clue to the amazing scope of this science, and the amazing possibilities. The importance of the glands cannot be overestimated; they delve into every phase of human existence. Our love life, our emotions, our physical and mental make-up, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and frustrations. To the endocrine glands no moment is too sacred for the exercise of their subtle influence.
To understand how our endocrine glands affect us so profoundly requires just a little explanation. All the glands in the body produce some sort of chemical substance; from the tiny sweat glands of the skin, each of which produces microscopic drops of perspiration, to the liver, which pours out bile, in quantities which are measured by the pint. In the case of the group of glands known as the exocrine (or duct) glands, the secretions which they manufacture are, in a sense, for “local application only.” Thus the secretion of the
oil-producing glands of the skin lubricates the skin surface but does not have any effect on more distant organs. In the same way the digestive glands pour their juices into the intestine, where they aid digestion, and are then excreted. But it is not these glands which interest the endocrinologist. It is the second group, the endocrine glands, which he makes the object of his study.
The endocrine glands differ from the exocrine glands in that their secretions, instead of being poured through a duct to lubricate a surface or aid digestion, are exuded directly into the blood in whiçh they are carried to every organ of the body. Their secretions have a special name—“hormones.” Hormones, like vitamins, are required by the body in quantities which are little more than microscopic. Thus, adrenalin, one of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands, even when diluted in the blood to the astronomical figure of 1:400,000,000, is able to produce a detectable rise in blood pressure. Yet these ridiculously tiny quantities of chemical magic spell the difference between drooling imbecility and robust mental and physical health; between the hairy-chested, gorillalike he-man and the sinuous, delicate-featured, undersexed “sissy” whose hobby is making paper flowers. The hormones, again like the vitamins, influence the entire body. They control the complex chemical reactions which are perpetually taking place in every tissue of the body. Here they encourage. There they restrain. And on the outcome of their workings depend, in great degree, the height to which we grow, the shape which we assume, the alertness of our mentality, the intensity with which we love and hate.
No one can say quite how many endocrine glands there are in the body because there are little bits of tissue (one can hardly call them organs) here and there which are suspected of producing a hormone but which have not been definitely proven to do so. The pineal body, for instance, a little nub of tissue which
lies between the two hemispheres of the brain, is one such. When a tumor develops within it, as it occasionally does in children, a five-year-old boy will change, almost before your eyes, into an infant Hercules, with mental and sexual precocity to match.
Some endocrinologists will maintain that the tumor causes an overproduction of the normal pineal hormone which, in turn, causes the startling speedup of the normal maturing process. The student of evolution, on the other hand, will attribute the change to the damage which the tumor inevitably does to the brain. According to him the pineal body is just a useless relic of the third eye which some of our reptilian ancestors may have sported and which can still be seen in some lizards.
DOMINATING the entire group of endocrine glands is the pituitary. This vital bit of tissue, not as big as the average cigarette butt, is the kingpin of the entire endocrine system. To protect it from injury Nature has placed it immediately beneath the brain in a special bony cradle carved in the base of the skull. When the other glands begin to fall down on the job, the pituitary cracks the whip, and, if they are constitutionally able, the flagging glands start in again on their never-ending task of hormone production. The whip which the pituitary cracks is a chemical whip, a sort of superhormone, which bosses the other glands around, telling them just how much hormone they should produce.
Suppose, for instance, the sex glands are not producing enough of one particular kind of sex hormone. The pituitary takes one sniff at the blood and detects immediately that it is not up to strength in that particular hormone. Without waiting for explanations it dispatches in the blood stream a quantity of
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superhormone to stimulate the guilty gland to better production. Immediately the languishing gland starts to pour a fresh supply of the missing sex hormone into the blood. As the concentration of the hormone in the blood is built up it eventually reaches a certain critical level at which it shuts off the supply of pituitary superhormone, much as a ball valve in a cistern slowly rises and cuts off the water supply. The pituitary is kept constantly busy on this job. For every gland which comes under its control it has to manufacture and send out at appropriate moments at least one superhormone. It is not just at a time of emergency that this function comes into play, but constantly. Like a boiler-room engineer the pituitary works a never-ending play with valves and pressure gauges.
But bossing the other glands around is not the only function of this dynamic, dictatorial thimbleful of tissue. It does that with one hand, so to speak, while with the other it manufactures its own peculiar hormones—not one, but a variety of them. And if we have any doubts about their potency we have only to glance at what happens when one of them goes awry.
Consider the case of the Irish giant, for example, whose business manager advertised him to the London gentry of 1782 as “the most extraordinary production of the human species ever beheld since the days of Goliath.” As an overstatement this may perhaps be pardonable, since the Irish giant easily topped8ft. 2in. inhis stockinged feet and was still growing. The ultimate fate of the Irish giant is something of a mystery, but for many years his gigantic skull was preserved in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Nevertheless it was not until almost a century and a half later that a curious anthropologist happened to put his finger inside the skull and, by this means, detected the abnormal enlargement of the pituitary fossa, the bony foxhole in which the pituitary lies. On this piece of evidence it was deduced that the Irish giant had had an enlarged pituitary gland due to a tumor within it and that the overactive gland had secreted far too much growth hormone. Since then many cases have been seen in which a pituitary tumor has produced giantism.
Giantism and Dwarfism
Whether or not giantism will be produced by too much growth hormone depends upon the age of the individual. In the bones of the child there is a layer of cartilage which is constantly manufacturing fresh bone and thereby causing growth. When a pituitary tumor delivers an oversupply of growth hormone, this cartilage lays down new bone as fast as the blood can deliver building material in the form of the necessary nutrients, and a sevenor eight-foot giant results. In the adult this bone-forming cartilage does not exist, and, consequently, a gallon of growth hormone cannot cause giantism. But although giantism cannot occur, even more peculiar changes manifest themselves in the grown man whose pituitary pours out too much of this hormone. His lower jaw begins to enlarge, producing jowls like a bulldog. His features become coarse, thick, and heavy, his hands spadelike, and his fingers shapeless sausages. Usually the disfigurement increases slowly over a period of years, producing a gradual change into a stoop-shouldered, beetlebrowed, apelike travesty of human form, not unlike an artist’s conception
of the Neanderthal man. This disease is called acromegaly.
Maurice Tillet, the all-in wrestler who went by the name of the French Angel, and who was reputed to be the ugliest man in the world, was an acromegalic, and by all accounts a most intelligent one. Primo Camera, the Italian heavyweight, is probably a mixture of acromegaly and giantism.
And just as an oversupply of growth hormone can produce giantism, an undersupply will result in dwarfism. Dwarfism, in general, is a not very wellunderstood condition. It can arise from a number of causes, of which disorder of the pituitary is only one. Yet, rare as he is, the pituitary dwarf provides quite a typical picture. As a newborn babe he is usually undersized. After 20 years of frantic effort to grow he is still only 4ft. 6in. or less. Sexually, he is grossly underdeveloped. Frequently his features are delicate and refined, his hair soft and silky,.and his fingers tapering and artistic. Just occasionally,for reasons unknown, the delicate-featured appearance is displaced by the changes of premature old age, so that a boy of 14 may be as bald, wrinkled and rheumy-eyed as a man of 70. Nonetheless the pituitary dwarf may live to a ripe old age, one even having been recorded as reaching the age of 91.
Acromegaly and giantism are disorders which arise from wrong functioning of only one of the pituitary hormones. The other pituitary hormones are all more or less liable to similar disturbances. To describe in detail each of the often weird and fascinating abnormalities which result would require a volume. There is Simmond’s disease, for instance, which provides the circuses with living skeletons—human beings of average height who weigh perhaps 50 pounds. At the other end of the scale there is Dercum’s disease, another recruiter of material for side shows, which turns human beings into 300and 400-pound giants. There is diabetes insipidus, the victims of which lose water so fast that they have to drink maybe 40 or 50 pints a day to keep their tissues from drying out. There are at least a halfdozen other diseases of unpronounceable name and producing unforgettable deformities for which the pituitary must take at least part of the hlame. The phrase “part of the blame” is used advisedly, because it is practically impossible for the pituitary to fall out of step without causing a flurry in the ranks of all the other endocrine glands.
For example, there is a disease known as Cushing’s syndrome, in which the patient develops a peculiar type of obesity, a blueness of the hands and feet, frequently loss of sex function and sometimes an excessive hairiness of the skin. Harvey Cushing, the great Boston neurosurgeon, who first described the condition, attributed it to a pituitary tumor, but more recent research has shown that it is probable that the sex glands and the adrenal glands are responsible for at least part of the picture.
Three Important Glands
There is one particular triad, the pituitary, the adrenals, and the sex glands, which perhaps work more closely together than any other group. Certainly these glands exercise more influence over our daily lives, over our emotions and attitudes than any others, with the possible exception of the thyroid.
The adrenals, the two of which together total about the size of an average thumb, are perched one on top of each kidney. Each is composed of
an inner and outer layer, the inner and outer part each producing its characteristic hormone. It is the outer layer which works so closely with the pituitary and the sex glands. The sex glands in both men and women have a dual function: that of producing the life cells for a future generation, and that of producing the sex hormones. Everything would be very straightforward and very much easier for the endocrinologist if the male sex glands manufactured just male sex hormone and left the female sex glands to manufacture only female sex hormone. But Nature likes to wrap up her mysteries a trifle more artfully. Cunningly, and perhaps only to draw a red herring across the trail, she has injected male sex hormone into the veins of the female, and female sex hormone into the blood stream of the male. In other words, both sexes have both sex hormones in their blood.
Such being the case one can hardly be called the male sex hormone and the other the female sex hormone. Thus, these days, the masculinizing hormone, the one which used to be called male sex hormone, is now known as androgen and its feminizing counterpart as estrogen. The natural action of androgen is to bring about all those characteristics which distinguish a man from a boy—the hair on the chest, the greater muscular development, the deeper pitch of the voice, and the stronger sexual instinct.
Estrogen, on the other hand, is largely responsible for that particular blend of qualities, both mental and physical, which constitute femininity. Its ebb and flow from month to month account in large part for the natural rhythm of the female sexual cycle. Its presence in the blood accounts for the development of those contours which are so appealing to the male eye and for all those features and feminine mannerisms which together constitute allure.
It seems absurd to assert that Wallace Beery has this curve-producing, handkerchief-fluttering material coursing through his veins or that Mae West’s blood carries rather more than a tinge of the stuff which makes chests flat and feet big. Yet, although such is the case, Wallace Beery is in no danger of breaking out in Venus-like curves nor is Mae West running any hazard of sprouting whiskers on either her chin or her chest. Nature sees to it that there is such a preponderance of one hormone over the other that there is no shadow of doubt about the sex of the normal individual. Thus, in a real he-man, the masculinizing androgens more or less completely overwhelm the feminizing estrogens and, in a woman, the reverse holds true.
The Sex Glands
Why each sex should require the hormone of the opposite sex as well as its own characteristic hormone is one of Nature’s secrets. Yet, without explanation, the bare fact alone goes some way toward explaining why some men are as masculine as a bull elephant while others are just feeble Milquetoasts, and why the mere bat of an eyelid from one woman causes a minor stampede in her direction while a dozen wallflowers are left to wilt in the other.
Normally, the sex hormones are manufactured mainly in the sex glands. But because removal of the sex glands does not stop their production entirely it is obvious that other organs must lend a hand in the job. The organs concerned are probably the adrenals. Almost always these diminutive organs appear to be the responsible glands for that most ludicrous of tragedies—the man-woman or the bearded lady. Even
before a child is born they may pull their hideous practical joke. The victim, practically always a female child, may so resemble a male that it is brought up as a boy and the mistake discovered only in adolescence or at the time of puberty. Sometimes the masculinizing influence is delayed for a few years, as it was in a fairly recently recorded case of a little girl of six who suddenly developed a full beard. But most frequently the disease strikes a woman of mature years, robbing her of every feminine attribute and leaving in its stead a coarse, half-male, halffemale caricature of human form. Fortunately, by removing the diseased adrenal or by injecting an excess of feminizing hormone, the condition can usually be controlled. More rarely a tumor of the female sex glands or a disorder of the pituitary has been incriminated as responsible for the masculinizing changes.
If the ovaries are at fault, their removal presents no great difficulty but surgical interference with the pituitary gland is, under the best of circumstances, a desperate risk. The opposite condition, the feminization of an already masculine man, although it occurs, has been seen but a few times in all recorded medical history.
Happily, the number of those who are affected with such complete derangement of the sex hormones is small. But it falls to the lot of almost every woman, and not a few men, to undergo that upsetting rearrangement of sex | hormones which we call the change of ! life. In a woman this transition is more abrupt, more dramatic, and, frequently, altogether more severe than in a man. Let us see what happens. Normally, the female sex glands pour out estrogen, the feminizing sex hormone, under the stimulation of the j pituitary “superhormone.” The estrogen, which is produced to a great extent, controls and regulates the monthly changes which take place in all her reproductive organs.
Change of Life
When a woman reaches her later forties, for some reason still unfathomed, the sex glands become less and less responsive to the whiplash of the pituitary “superhormone.” As though overcome by an irresistible fatigue they fall asleep on the job and, like any other inactive tissue, they become shrunken and wizened. As estrogen production comes practically to a standstill the womb and the other reproductive organs, released from the constant chemical prodding, find it more and more of an effort to maintain the constant monthly cycles. Eventually these enfeebled efforts peter out and all rhythmic change grinds slowly to a halt. While all this is going on the woman has to adapt herself to a new internal environment. Her tissues are accustomed to being bathed in blood rich in estrogen. Now her blood is devoid or near-devoid of the precious material. She has to become accustomed to this new internal environment just as much as a man has to become accustomed to the new external environment of a rarefied atmosphere when he goes to live at a great height.
Whether or not she has symptoms, and whether these symptoms will be severe if she does have them, depends largely on how long a period these changes are in the making. If they are very gradual the woman has more time to adjust herself and obviously stands a greater chance of doing it without suffering. On the other hand, if the changes are rapid, and particularly if the change of life is brought about artificially by removal of the sex glands at operation, the shock to the system is severe. Under such circum-
stances the sudden sex hormone deprivation may cause almost any conceivable symptom from insomnia to insanity.
In the male of the species the change of life is much less spectacular, but in some nonetheless real. By the nature of his constitution the dissipation of male procreative power is much more gradual than that of the female. Production of the masculinizing hormone falls gradually over a period of many years, giving the subject a prolonged period in which to adjust himself. Usually this adjustment takes place unconsciously, without producing symptoms. But in some unfortunates, who are either more sensitive to such change than the average, or in whom the changes take place more rapidly than normal, there is a prolonged and difficult period of adjustment.
Sexual failure may be predominant but the symptoms are often so far removed from the sexual sphere that their true cause may even be overlooked by the physician. Indecision, forgetfulness, procrastination — all those faults which would make a previously capable executive think he is losing his grip—are common features of this time of life. These and similar symptoms may amount to no more than passing annoyances or they may be so intense as to drive him to despair or even suicide. Luckily, such tragedies are completely unnecessary. Medical science has the perfect answer to this problem in the form of factorymade sex hormones, that can be given by hypodermic or by mouth, according to the requirements of the particular patient. It is not false claim—it is fact that neither men nor women need any longer suffer from the embarrassment of hot flushes, the emotional jags and the feelings of inferiority that used to be considered part and parcel of the change of life. Properly administered sex hormones, estradiol for the female and testosterone for the male, can put a stop to all that—not in weeks or months but in days, and in some cases hours.
Last of the glands under consideration in this article is the thyroid. The thyroid lies in the front of the neck just below the Adam’s apple. As endocrine glands go, it is quite a sizeable organ, extending out for an inch or two on either side of the windpipe. Essentially it is the pacemaker of our lives. It can drive us at such breakneck speed that our system burns itself out to an early death or it can slow down our mental and physical processes to the point of lolling and drooling imbecility. The hormone of the thyroid is known as thyroxin. At any given moment in his life a normal individual has just about one quarter of a grain of this precious material circulating through his body. Yet that is sufficient to keep his vital processes working at normal speed. If we feed thyroxin to a normal individual start-
ling changes begin to occur. His pulse rate creeps up. His breathing becomes faster. He begins to feel on edge. As we increase the dose his heart rate begins to climb dizzily; his tissues begin to burn themselves up at such a rapid rate that he becomes emaciated; his eyes start from their sockets in a wild apprehensive stare; his emotional state becomes uncontrollable. If we give him enough we can surely kill him.
What happened to this hypothetical victim as a result of administering thyroxin to him is precisely what happens to those unfortunates whose perverted thyroids persist in manufacturing too much thyroxin for their own good. Sometimes called Graves’ disease, at other times exophthalmic goiter, this condition is about the commonest of all the endocrine disorders. What happens if we withdraw thyroxin from the normal individual by removing the major part of his thyroid gland? Just as one might expect, life processes slow almost to the point of extinction. And this condition has its counterpart in Nature too. A child born without sufficient thyroid is an imbecile without even sense of selfpreservation. An adult whose thyroid loses the capacity to produce thyroxin becomes a coarse-skinned, slow-thinking, subhuman, with about as much vitality or social charm as a rhinoceros. The comparison is crude but it should hurt no one’s feelings, for the condition should no longer exist. Thyroxin is but another of the hormones which can be made in the factory, and thyroxin can, without exception, save potential victims from this fate.
Time Will Tell
Complexity is the keynote of endocrinology. But who knows where it will end? Despite the wonders that have been accomplished, medical research has as yet only scratched the surface of the possibilities which are latent. There are hormones which we know exist but which the chemist is still unable to extract or make for us. There are certainly additional hormones waiting to be uncovered, the existence of which we do not even suspect. Their possible field of usefulness ranges far beyond the realms of present medical practice. Short or tall—thin or fat—emotional or placid. It is not mere fancy to suggest that when these hormones can be pried from the body and trained to a test-tube existence, we shall be able to exercise a choice in these matters. Perhaps more important still, there seems great hope that in years to come endocrinology may make great contributions to the rehabilitation of certain types of social outcast—the sexual delinquent, the chronic alcoholic, and the drug addict. A dream of the future! Maybe, but so 50 years ago was adrenalin. So 25 years ago was insulin, and so, little more than 10 years ago, were the sex hormones, estradiol and testosterone.