*Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. Seek the guidance of a physician if you have any questions.*
The endocrine system is a large, intricate, complicated system that helps control everything from sleep to appetite to sex drive to metabolism. Virtually every animal on planet earth - dogs, insects, whales - have an endocrine system. There are many possible issues that may arise as a result of an improperly functioning endocrine system. Today, let’s take a moment to better understand the causes, symptoms, and sleep effects of endocrine disorders. If any of the diseases or symptoms in this article sound familiar to you or a loved one, do not hesitate to contact your primary care physician. They will be able to connect you with an endocrinologist - someone who specializes in the endocrine system.
What Is the Endocrine System?
In a nutshell, the endocrine system is the part of your body that controls your hormones. It is made up of three parts: the glands that release hormones, the receptors on organs that receive hormones, and the hormones themselves. Let’s take a look at some of the organs, receptors, and hormones that are most commonly affected by endocrine disorders/
- Adrenal glands: These sit on top of the kidneys and are responsible for producing the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol (among others).
- Pancreas: This organ produces the hormones insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin. These are largely responsible for the regulation of blood sugar in the body.
- Thyroid: This “butterfly” shaped organ sits in front of the neck. It is responsible for many roles in regulating our metabolism.
- Insulin: Released from the pancreas, insulin is responsible for moving sugar from the blood into the cells.
- Testosterone/Estrogen: These are two of many cortical sex hormones. They are part of a class of hormones that is responsible for sex determination, gamete formation, and pregnancy regulation.
- Thyroxine and Triiodothyronine: Known as T3 and T4, these hormones are released by the thyroid gland. As such, they are responsible for many parts of human metabolism.
Types of Endocrine Disorders
An exhaustive list of every endocrine disorder would fill volumes of text. Let’s take a look at three common disorders that are relatively common in the United States.
- Description: This term refers to a group of disorders - all of them affect how our bodies use glucose (sugar). Regardless of type, diabetes can cause excess sugar to build up in the bloodstream, a condition known as hyperglycemia. Symptoms of hyperglycemia include increased thirst or hunger, blurred vision, and headache. Left untreated hyperglycemia may lead to ketoacidosis which may cause coma or death.
- Cause: The two main types of diabetes, Type I and Type II, have different causes. Type I is also known as “childhood diabetes” owning to the fact that it is genetic in nature. Type II diabetes is known as “adult-onset diabetes” and is generally known to be a lifestyle disease.
- Treatment: Just like the causes of the two main types of diabetes, the treatments are different, too. Type I is generally treated with a blood sugar monitor and insulin injections. Type II is treated with a healthier diet, exercise, and sleep regiment.
- Effect on Sleep: Individuals with Type II diabetes are at a very high risk of developing obstructive sleep apena. This typically will require treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
- Description: This is a disease characterized by an underactive thyroid. Essentially, the thyroid is underproducing the correct amount of important thyroid hormones. According to the Mayo Clinic, left untreated, hypothyroidism can cause “a number of health problems, such as obesity, joint pain, infertility and heart disease.”
- Cause: There are many different causes of hypothyroidism, including “autoimmune disease, hyperthyroidism treatments, radiation therapy, thyroid surgery and certain medications.”
- Treatment: Thankfully, many treatment options for hypothyroidism exist. Because the thyroid is producing less than the necessary amount of T3 and T4, supplementation with synthetic hormones is usually quite effective. For most individuals with persistent hypothyroidism (most people who are affected), the condition will be lifelong. This means that your doctor will likely suggest a yearly or twice-yearly appointment to check your thyroid hormone levels. This is then used to adjust the medication dosage.
- Effect on Sleep: There is significant evidence that hypothyroidism can have detrimental effects on sleep quality. Because the thyroid affects metabolism, individuals with hypothyroidism often do not tolerate cold temperatures while sleeping. As such, they often wake, disrupting important REM sleep.
- Description: The prefix “osteo” means “bone” and the suffix “porosis” means “characterized by pores.” Put together, this disorder causes individuals to have weak bones. Throughout our lives, our bone cells are being replaced and regenerated, much like our skin. When we are young, the bone “building” happens at a faster rate than bone “breaking.” This causes a net increase in bone mass. After about age 30, this becomes the opposite, and most individuals will lose bone mass. An increased or accelerated loss of mass is referred to as “osteoporosis.”
- Cause: There are many known causes of osteoporosis, many of them are endocrine in nature. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Lowered sex hormone levels tend to weaken bone.” This is why post-menopausal women are at particularly high risk. Thyroid hormone levels also play a large role. Individuals with hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) are at higher risk.
- Treatment: One of the major risks for individuals with osteoporosis is breaking a bone. For young individuals (those who usually do not have osteoporosis), breaking a bone may not be a large issue. But, for a 70 or 80-year-old senior, a broken hip can turn into a many-month hospital stay. Many medication-based treatment options exist. While they differ in their mechanisms and outcomes, they all aim to strengthen bones that have lost density.
- Effect on Sleep: In the case of osteoporosis, the question might instead be, what effect does sleep have on osteoporosis? A 2019 study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research concludes, “women who reported sleeping 5 hours or less per night had on average... significantly lower BMD” (bone mineral density).