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Monday Medical: Endocrinology explained

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — From sleep cycles to stress levels and from bone density to blood pressure, hormones impact a lot. So if your body begins to make too much or too little of a particular hormone, the impacts can be far-reaching.

That’s where the help of an endocrinologist — a physician specializing in the medicine of hormone-producing endocrine glands — comes in handy.

“Endocrine glands are tiny glands scattered through the body that secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream,” said Dr. Jessica Devin, an endocrinologist at UCHealth Endocrinology Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “These hormones impact everything in the body and have a very wide-reaching effect.”

Below, Dr. Devin outlines things to know about endocrinology.

• Endocrine basics: Major endocrine glands include the thyroid, parathyroid, hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands, along with the pancreas, testes and ovaries. Each gland secretes different types of hormones that play roles in various bodily functions.

Consider thyroid hormone, for instance. “It affects everything from how much hair you have on your head, to how hot or cold you feel, to how fast your metabolism runs, to menstrual cycles,” Devin said.

• When things go wrong: Sometimes endocrine glands start secreting too much or too little of a hormone or develop a growth. Continuing with the thyroid example, too much or too little thyroid hormone has big impacts on how you feel.

“I like to think of the thyroid as your thermostat,” Devin said. “If your thermostat is set too high, you’re anxious, not sleeping, hot and your heart is racing. If it’s cranked down too low, you’re cold, tired and feel slow.”

Growths on endocrine glands are typically benign. For instance, only 5 percent of all thyroid nodules are cancerous. But growths are problematic if they harm the function of the gland.

Other common conditions that endocrinologists see include: osteoporosis, as bone density can be impacted by hormone levels; and diabetes, a disease in which the pancreas has stopped or reduced production of the hormone insulin or the body no longer responds to insulin.

• Trying out treatments: If you’re diagnosed with an endocrine disorder, there’s a silver lining. A treatment is likely available.

“The great thing about my specialty is that most everything is treatable,” Devin said. “We have all the medications these days to replace hormones your body normally makes, as well as numerous medications that help control hormone over-secretion.”

With various treatment options, the challenge can be finding the right treatment for each individual.

“We have so many tools, it’s mind boggling,” Devin said. “But it’s a matter of getting to know the patient and matching them with the right treatment regimen.”

• When to see an endocrinologist: Many symptoms of an endocrine disorder, such as weight loss or gain, fatigue and constipation or diarrhea, are non-specific, so most patients work with a primary care physician first.

“Your primary care physician is a great starting point because they have a very broad view of an individual and can screen for various issues,” Devin said. “I’m here to help and supplement your primary care physician. When a screening lab comes back as abnormal or an imaging study doesn’t make sense and the physician wants more depth, then I usually enter the picture.”

• Balance is key: When correcting an endocrine disorder, it can take time to find the right treatment regimen.

“What works well for one individual may not work as well for another,” Devin said. “Treatment choices are influenced by age, pregnancy, medications, other health problems and even lifestyle. It also takes time — someone who comes in feeling badly isn’t going to feel better the next week.”

But it’s worth the effort, for both patient and physician.

“It can be very, very rewarding,” Devin said. “It’s so nice to see someone who has felt badly finally start to feel better.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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