How does the pituitary gland work?

The pituitary gland regulates various body functions and plays an important role in controlling hormone levels in the body. It is about the size of a pea or cherry, and hangs down from the main part of the brain. The gland lies well protected in a small bony cavity of the skull, roughly in the middle of the head, behind where the eyes are.

Illustration: Pituitary gland – Location and individual parts, as described in the article

Together with the hypothalamus – which belongs to a part of the brain known as the diencephalon – the pituitary gland controls the involuntary (vegetative) nervous system. This part of the nervous system manages the balance of energy, heat and water in the body, which includes things like body temperature, heartbeat, urination, sleep, hunger and thirst. The pituitary gland also makes a number of that either regulate most of the other hormone-producing glands in the body or have a direct effect on specific organs.

The pituitary gland is made up of four parts, each with their own functions:

  • Anterior lobe
  • Posterior lobe
  • The area between the two lobes (the intermediate part, or "pars intermedia")
  • Pituitary stalk: connects the pituitary gland to the hypothalamus

What does the anterior lobe do?

The anterior lobe makes up about three quarters of the overall mass of the pituitary gland. It produces two kinds of :

  • Hormones that control other hormone-producing glands
  • Hormones that have a direct effect on the body

The that control glands include:

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): regulates hormone production in the thyroid gland.
  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH): stimulates the adrenal glands to produce such as adrenalin (epinephrine) or steroids.
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH): regulates hormone production in the ovaries and testicles.
  • Luteinizing hormone (LH): also has an effect on hormone production in the ovaries and testicles.

The that have a direct effect include:

  • Growth hormone (GH), also called somatotropic hormone (STH): has an effect in many parts of the body – particularly the liver, bones, fat tissue and muscle tissue.
  • Prolactin: influences the mammary (breast) glands and ovaries.

The are released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland and then travel through the blood vessels until they reach the various organs they have an effect on. TSH, for example, stimulates the thyroid gland to increase or reduce the production of thyroid , depending on how much is needed. Prolactin stimulates the growth of girls’ mammary glands in puberty, suppresses ovulation in pregnant women, and triggers the production of breast milk after giving birth.

The production of in the anterior lobe itself is regulated in two ways:

  • Through the hypothalamus, which makes (known as “releasing ”) that increase the production of in the anterior lobe, or (known as “inhibiting ”) that reduce it.
  • Through hormone levels in the blood: For instance, if the level of thyroid in the body is high enough, the pituitary gland stops producing the hormone that stimulates the thyroid gland. This works the other way round, too: If the level of thyroid is too low, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus make more of thyroid-stimulating hormone. The thyroid gland then produces more thyroid .

What does the posterior lobe do?

The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland mainly consists of nerve fibers coming from the hypothalamus. Two different are stored in the posterior lobe. They are released if needed:

  • Oxytocin: affects the womb and mammary glands, and causes contractions in childbirth, for instance.
  • Antidiurietic hormone (ADH): regulates water uptake in the kidneys and makes the blood vessels narrower.
The posterior lobe of the pituitary gland is directly connected to the hypothalamus through the pituitary stalk.

What happens in the intermediate lobe?

The tissue between the anterior and posterior lobes also makes . Melanocyte-stimulating (MSH) are produced in this intermediate lobe. They stimulate the production of things like melanin in the skin. Melanin is a pigment that protects against harmful ultraviolet sun rays. MSH also controls our appetite and affects our sex drive.

Brandes R, Lang F, Schmidt R. Physiologie des Menschen: mit Pathophysiologie. Berlin: Springer; 2019.

Lippert H. Lehrbuch Anatomie. München: Urban und Fischer; 2017.

Menche N. Biologie Anatomie Physiologie. München: Urban & Fischer/ Elsevier GmbH; 2016.

Pschyrembel Online. 2021.

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Updated on June 18, 2021

Next planned update: 2024


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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