An Overview of Endocrine Issues and Autoimmune Diseases

Endocrine disorders are diseases and conditions that affect your endocrine system. The endocrine system includes glands and organs that secrete hormones. The hormones travel through the blood to affect other organs in the body.

Woman donating blood
andresr / Getty Images

Endocrine Disorders

Your key endocrine glands include:

  • Thyroid gland
  • Pituitary gland
  • Pineal gland
  • Pancreas
  • Ovaries
  • Testes
  • Parathyroid
  • Hypothalamus
  • Adrenals

Some of the most common endocrine disorders are number of thyroid-related conditions, including:

Some other common endocrine disorders include:

Causes of Endocrine Disorders

Endocrine disorders have a number of causes, including:

How Are Endocrine Disorders Diagnosed?

Endocrine disorders are commonly diagnosed based on symptoms, medical history, blood tests, and in some cases, imaging tests, and biopsies.

Typically, endocrine disorders cause a deficiency or excess of hormones, so testing for the presence, excess, or deficiency of hormones and the body's ability to produce them when provoked is a key step in the diagnosis.

For example:

  • Testing for adrenal disorders can include measurement of levels of the key adrenal hormone cortisol, as well as challenge tests that measure the body's ability to produce cortisol when stimulated.
  • Diabetes testing looks at glucose levels at a moment in time, over a longer period (such as with the hemoglobin A1C test), and may also look at the body's ability to respond to glucose, such as in the glucose challenge test.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome diagnosis involves a combination of history taking to learn about your menstrual cycle and symptoms, physical exam findings, blood tests to evaluate estrogen and testosterone levels, and potentially, imaging tests to detect ovarian cysts.

Endocrine disorders of the thyroid gland are typically diagnosed by clinical examination and blood tests, and in some cases, imaging tests and thyroid biopsy.

What Is Autoimmune Disease?

The immune system is complex, and its job is to protect us from diseases and defend against infections, including bacteria, viruses, and pathogens.

With an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, organs, tissues, or glands in the body as if they were infections or pathogens. Autoimmune disease is sometimes referred to as “friendly fire” by the immune system against our own body.

Some of the better-known autoimmune diseases include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and alopecia.

Causes of Autoimmune Diseases

Often, there isn't a clear cause of most autoimmune diseases, and they can develop sporadically, without a tumor or family history of the condition. But certain factors can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease—genetics, toxic exposures, stress, pregnancy, and nutritional deficiencies.

What Are the Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune diseases can be complicated to diagnose, because in some cases, early symptoms may be vague and non-specific, such as fatigue, muscle aches and pain, and brain fog. Sometimes autoimmune conditions cause inflammation, and that can cause swelling or discomfort.

Other symptoms really depend on the target of the autoimmune disease.

  • With autoimmune thyroid disease, symptoms such as fatigue and weight changes reflect changes in thyroid function.
  • Multiple sclerosis, which attacks the communication between nerve cells, can result in difficulties with coordination and walking.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, which attacks the joints, can cause pain, swelling, and impaired joint function.

How Is Autoimmune Disease Diagnosed and Treated?

Autoimmune disease diagnosis and treatment depends on the disease. The diagnosis process typically includes a clinical examination, family history, and blood tests as a starting point.

Blood tests may measure key functions of organs that are targeted, but the key measures typically are evaluations of antibody levels, and markers and measures of inflammation and inflammatory responses in the body, such as an antinuclear antibody test (ANA).

In some cases, imaging tests may be performed, such as X-rays to assess joint damage in rheumatoid arthritis, or an MRI to look for brain lesions in multiple sclerosis. Less often, a biopsy may be needed to differentiate benign from cancerous lesions or to help detect immune markers in organs or glands that are not evident from blood tests.

Treatment

Treatment of autoimmune diseases frequently aims to reduce inflammation, relieve symptoms, and rebalance affected hormones. In the cases of debilitating autoimmune diseases, modulation of the immune system to slow the rate of permanent damage to organs and tissues may be an important part of treatment.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Golden SH, Robinson KA, Saldanha I, Anton B, Ladenson PW. Clinical review: Prevalence and incidence of endocrine and metabolic disorders in the United States: a comprehensive reviewJ Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2009;94(6):1853–1878. doi:10.1210/jc.2008-2291

  2. Yu J. Endocrine disorders and the neurologic manifestationsAnn Pediatr Endocrinol Metab. 2014;19(4):184–190. doi:10.6065/apem.2014.19.4.184

  3. Ctvrtlik F, Koranda P, Tichy T. Adrenal disease: a clinical update and overview of imaging. A reviewBiomedical Papers. 2014;158(1):023-034. doi:10.5507/bp.2014.010

  4. Sacks DB, Arnold M, Bakris GL. Guidelines and Recommendations for Laboratory Analysis in the Diagnosis and Management of Diabetes MellitusDiabetes Care. 2011;34(6). doi:10.2337/dc11-9998

  5. Rosenfield RL. The Diagnosis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in AdolescentsPediatrics. 2015;136(6):1154-1165. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-1430

  6. Soh SB, Aw TC. Laboratory Testing in Thyroid Conditions - Pitfalls and Clinical UtilityAnn Lab Med. 2019;39(1):3–14. doi:10.3343/alm.2019.39.1.3

  7. Wang L, Wang F-S, Gershwin ME. Human autoimmune diseases: a comprehensive updateJournal of Internal Medicine. 2015;278(4):369-395. doi:10.1111/joim.12395

Additional Reading
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Fact Sheet, March 2016. http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/autoimmune
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Medline Database. September 15, 2016.