Anterior Pituitary: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 06, 2022
5 min read

Your endocrine system controls all of your hormones. It’s made up of many different glands, including the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland (including the anterior pituitary) plays a significant role in making sure your hormones function as they should.

The anterior pituitary is part of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is located in your brain and is part of your endocrine system.

Your endocrine system is a network of organs and glands within the body that produce and control hormones. Hormones are chemicals that your body makes to regulate and coordinate your body’s functions, telling it what to do and when. 

The pituitary gland is an important part of the endocrine system. It communicates with many different parts of the endocrine system. Aside from the pituitary gland, the endocrine system contains the following glands and organs:

  • Adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are small, triangle-shaped glands that sit above your kidneys. They affect your blood pressure, metabolism, sexual development, and stress response.
  • Hypothalamus. Like the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus is located in the brain. It sends messages to control many of your body’s processes like hunger, mood, thirst, sleep, and sexual function.
  • Ovaries. Ovaries are typically found in those assigned female at birth. There are typically two ovaries within the body. They produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, as well as eggs.
  • Pancreas. The pancreas produces enzymes to aid in digestion, along with insulin, a hormone that controls your blood sugar.
  • Parathyroid. Your body has four parathyroid glands, each about the size of a grain of rice. These glands are responsible for controlling the amount of calcium within your body.
  • Pineal gland. The pineal gland manages your sleep-wake cycle by regulating the melatonin in your body.
  • Testes. Testes are typically found in those assigned male at birth. The testes release testosterone and make sperm.
  • Thyroid. Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of your neck. It’s primarily responsible for regulating your metabolism

The pituitary gland is divided into two parts: the anterior pituitary and the posterior pituitary. Each part has its own job. The anterior pituitary makes and releases its own hormones, while the posterior pituitary stores and releases hormones that are made in the hypothalamus.

The anterior pituitary hormones include the:

  • Adrenocorticotropic hormone. Adrenocorticotropic hormones, or ACTH, send messages to stimulate the adrenal gland so it will release other hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The hormones released by the adrenal gland play a part in regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and metabolism and in reducing inflammation.
  • Follicle-stimulating hormone. The follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) plays a different role depending on whether you have ovaries or testes. In those with ovaries, FSH plays a part in egg production and stimulates the ovaries to make estrogen. In those with testes, FSH stimulates the testes to make sperm.
  • Growth hormone. Growth hormone (GH) helps children grow properly. In adults, it plays a part in metabolism, as well as maintaining healthy bones and muscles and distributing fat properly.
  • Luteinizing hormone. Like FSH, luteinizing hormone (LH) plays a different role for different sexes. In those with ovaries, LH stimulates ovulation. In those with testes, it triggers testosterone production.
  • Prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone that stimulates lactation: the production of breast milk after a baby has been born. 
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone. Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) controls the thyroid, helping to manage your energy levels, metabolism, and nervous system.

While the posterior pituitary doesn’t make its own hormones, it still plays an important part in the endocrine system. The posterior pituitary stores and releases hormones sent by the hypothalamus. These include:  

  • Antidiuretic hormone. Antidiuretic hormone (ADH) is also called vasopressin. It maintains the balance of water and salt in your body.
  • Oxytocin. Oxytocin plays many roles within the body. It’s primarily responsible for feelings of bonding, love, and trust. It also plays multiple roles in reproduction. For those in labor, it tells the uterus to contract. If you’ve just given birth, it stimulates the flow of breastmilk. If you have testes, it helps move sperm.

Your pituitary gland is a small, pea-shaped gland, and the anterior pituitary is its frontal lobe. The pituitary gland is located at the base of your brain under the hypothalamus. It’s connected to the hypothalamus by the pituitary stalk, a bundle of blood vessels and nerves. This allows the hypothalamus to send messages to the pituitary gland. 

Essentially, if the hypothalamus is the commander of the endocrine system, the pituitary is the second-in-command. It receives instructions from the hypothalamus and sends those instructions out to the rest of the endocrine system.

Multiple disorders can affect your anterior pituitary gland. Most of these disorders are caused by physical damage. Other conditions that can cause poor anterior pituitary function include blood loss, infection, genetic conditions, and tumors.

Acromegaly.  Acromegaly is a condition in which your pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone, often due to a benign tumor. Symptoms include:

  • Changes in your face shape
  • Deepening of your voice
  • Excessive sweating
  • Growth of the hands, feet, lips, nose, and/or tongue
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Numb hands or carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Oily skin
  • Sleep apnea
  • Spinal cord problems

Cushing disease. Cushing disease occurs when your pituitary gland produces too much ACTH. When this happens, your adrenal gland, in turn, produces too much cortisol. 

Symptoms of Cushing disease include:

  • Acne
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Weight gain

In those assigned female at birth, Cushing disease may cause a thickening of body and facial hair and irregular or missing periods. In those assigned male at birth, it may cause erectile dysfunction and decreased fertility and sex drive.

Growth hormone deficiency. Growth hormone deficiency occurs when your pituitary gland doesn’t produce enough growth hormone. In children, a growth hormone deficiency may lead to stunted growth. In adults, growth hormone deficiency may cause a change in body composition, unhealthy cholesterol, and fatigue. Treatment may involve synthetic hormones.

Hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism may occur when your pituitary gland releases too much thyroid-stimulating hormone, leading to an overactive thyroid. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Feeling shaky
  • Hair loss
  • Increased appetite
  • Menstrual changes
  • Muscle weakness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Weight loss

Hypogonadism. Hypogonadism occurs when your pituitary gland doesn’t release enough follicle-stimulating hormones or luteinizing hormones. In those assigned female at birth, it may present as abnormal menstruation or nipple discharge. In those assigned male at birth, it may cause erectile dysfunction, infertility, muscle loss, and enlarged breasts. Both sexes may experience low sex drive and fatigue.

Hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is the opposite of hyperthyroidism. It can occur when your pituitary gland doesn’t release enough thyroid-stimulating hormone. Symptoms of hypothyroidism may include:

  • Depression
  • Dry skin
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired memory
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain in the muscles and/or joints
  • Weight gain