Organs with Secondary Endocrine Functions


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Patrick J. Lynch; illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe; MD; cardiologist Yale University Center for Advanced Instructional Media Medical Illustrations by Patrick Lynch, generated for multimedia teaching projects by the Yale University School of Medicine, Center for Advanced Instructional Media, 1987-2000. Patrick J. Lynch, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License 2006; no usage restrictions except please preserve our creative credits: Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist.

OpenStax Biology 2e

There are several organs whose primary functions are non-endocrine but that also possess endocrine functions. These include the heart, kidneys, intestines, thymus, gonads, and adipose tissue.

The heart possesses endocrine cells in the walls of the atria that are specialized cardiac muscle cells. These cells release the hormone atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) in response to increased blood volume. High blood volume causes the cells to be stretched, resulting in hormone release. ANP acts on the kidneys to reduce the reabsorption of Na+, causing Na+ and water to be excreted in the urine. ANP also reduces the amounts of renin released by the kidneys and aldosterone released by the adrenal cortex, further preventing the retention of water. In this way, ANP causes a reduction in blood volume and blood pressure, and reduces the concentration of Na+ in the blood.

The gastrointestinal tract produces several hormones that aid in digestion. The endocrine cells are located in the mucosa of the GI tract throughout the stomach and small intestine. Some of the hormones produced include gastrin, secretin, and cholecystokinin, which are secreted in the presence of food, and some of which act on other organs such as the pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. They trigger the release of gastric juices, which help to break down and digest food in the GI tract.

While the adrenal glands associated with the kidneys are major endocrine glands, the kidneys themselves also possess endocrine function. Renin is released in response to decreased blood volume or pressure and is part of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system that leads to the release of aldosterone. Aldosterone then causes the retention of Na+ and water, raising blood volume. The kidneys also release calcitriol, which aids in the absorption of Ca2+ and phosphate ions. Erythropoietin (EPO) is a protein hormone that triggers the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow. EPO is released in response to low oxygen levels. Because red blood cells are oxygen carriers, increased production results in greater oxygen delivery throughout the body. EPO has been used by athletes to improve performance, as greater oxygen delivery to muscle cells allows for greater endurance. Because red blood cells increase the viscosity of blood, artificially high levels of EPO can cause severe health risks.

The thymus is found behind the sternum; it is most prominent in infants, becoming smaller in size through adulthood. The thymus produces hormones referred to as thymosins, which contribute to the development of the immune response.

Adipose tissue is a connective tissue found throughout the body. It produces the hormone leptin in response to food intake. Leptin increases the activity of anorexigenic neurons and decreases that of orexigenic neurons, producing a feeling of satiety after eating, thus affecting appetite and reducing the urge for further eating. Leptin is also associated with reproduction. It must be present for GnRH and gonadotropin synthesis to occur. Extremely thin females may enter puberty late; however, if adipose levels increase, more leptin will be produced, improving fertility.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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