Gland – Definition, Structure, Types, Functions, Examples

What is Gland?

  • A gland is a vital component of an animal’s body, composed of specialized cells that perform the crucial function of synthesizing substances and secreting them for various purposes. These substances can take the form of hormones, sweat, saliva, mucus, acids, or other essential compounds necessary for the body’s proper functioning. Glands can be categorized into two primary types: endocrine glands and exocrine glands.
  • Endocrine glands release their synthesized substances directly into the bloodstream. These substances, known as hormones, travel throughout the body, acting as chemical messengers that regulate various physiological processes. They play a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis, controlling metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, and response to stress.
  • On the other hand, exocrine glands secrete their substances into cavities within the body or onto its outer surface. These substances are often released through ducts, reaching specific target areas where they carry out their functions. Examples of exocrine glands include sweat glands, salivary glands, mammary glands, and digestive glands like the gastric glands that produce hydrochloric acid.
  • The development of a gland starts with an ingrowth from the top layer of skin, known as the epithelium. This ingrowth takes the form of a tubular structure, which can begin as a column of cells or a tubular pre-structure. Over time, the column of cells may divide or branch out, leading to the formation of compound glands. This branching process is particularly important in creating large glands with extensive surface areas, such as the salivary glands and pancreatic glands.
  • The classification of glands is primarily based on their shape. If a gland maintains a tubular shape as it develops, it is referred to as a tubular gland. In contrast, if the secretory part of the gland swells and forms a bulb-like shape, it is known as an alveolar gland, resembling the structure of alveolar sacs in the lungs. Coiled glands exhibit a curling pattern, while acinar glands have a lobed, berry-like appearance. Simple glands are those that are non-branched or minimally branched, whereas compound glands exhibit more complex, branched arrangements.
  • Simple glands include various variations such as simple tubular, simple branched tubular, simple coiled tubular, simple acinar, and simple branched acinar glands. These glands have a single, unbranched structure.
  • Compound glands, on the other hand, have more intricate arrangements and can take the form of compound tubular, compound acinar, or compound tubule-acinar glands. These glands have multiple branches and ducts, allowing for a higher secretion capacity.
  • Understanding the different types and arrangements of glands is crucial in comprehending their functions and how they contribute to the overall well-being of an organism. Glands play an essential role in regulating various physiological processes, maintaining balance within the body, and enabling efficient communication between different systems.

Definition of Gland

A gland is a group of specialized cells or an organ that produces and releases substances, such as hormones or secretions, for use within the body or for elimination from the body’s surface or cavities.

Characteristics of Glands

Glands possess several characteristic features that distinguish them from other types of cells or tissues in the body. Some of the key characteristics of glands include:

  • Specialized Cells: Glands are composed of specialized cells that are uniquely adapted to synthesize, store, and release specific substances.
  • Secretion: The primary function of glands is the secretion of substances. Glands produce and release various types of substances, such as hormones, enzymes, mucus, sweat, saliva, or other chemicals, either for use within the body or for elimination.
  • Epithelial Origin: Glands originate from the epithelial tissue, which is the surface layer of cells in the body. They are formed by an ingrowth or outgrowth from the epithelial surface.
  • Ducts or Ductless: Glands can be classified as exocrine or endocrine based on the presence or absence of ducts. Exocrine glands have ducts through which their secretions are transported to target areas, such as sweat glands or salivary glands. Endocrine glands, on the other hand, lack ducts and release their secretions (hormones) directly into the bloodstream.
  • Secretory Units: Glands are composed of secretory units or acini, which are clusters of glandular cells responsible for producing and secreting substances. These secretory units can vary in shape and arrangement depending on the type of gland.
  • Branched Structures: Many glands have a branching or lobular structure. This branching allows for increased surface area and secretory capacity, enabling efficient production and release of substances.
  • Epithelial Lining: Glands are lined by epithelial cells that form the secretory units and ducts. These cells may have specialized features, such as increased secretory activity or modified shape, to facilitate their specific glandular functions.
  • Regulation: Glands are regulated by various mechanisms to control their secretion. Hormonal signals, nerve impulses, or local factors can stimulate or inhibit glandular activity, ensuring the appropriate timing and quantity of secretion.
  • Functional Diversity: Glands exhibit a wide range of functions in the body. They play crucial roles in maintaining homeostasis, regulating metabolism, controlling growth and development, assisting in digestion, lubricating surfaces, eliminating waste products, and facilitating communication between different body systems.

By possessing these characteristic features, glands fulfill vital roles in the body’s overall functioning and contribute to the maintenance of physiological balance and health.

Development of Glands

  • The development of glands involves the formation of an ingrowth from the surface of an epithelial layer. This ingrowth can initially have a tubular structure or begin as a solid column of cells that later becomes tubulated.
  • As the gland grows, the column of cells may divide or produce offshoots, leading to the formation of a compound gland. Some glands have a limited number of branches, while others, like the salivary and pancreatic glands, undergo extensive growth and subdivision, resulting in large and complex structures. In certain cases, the branches of a compound gland do not unite with each other. However, in the liver, a reticulated compound gland is formed where the branches do unite.
  • In compound glands, the secretory epithelium is typically found in the terminal portion of each branch, while the connecting portions form ducts lined with a less specialized type of epithelial cell.
  • Glands are classified based on their shape. A gland that maintains a tubular shape throughout its development is referred to as a tubular gland. In the second category, the secretory portion of the gland becomes enlarged, and the lumens (central cavities) increase in size. These types of glands are known as alveolar or saccular glands.

Types of Human Glands

Depending upon the way they secrete the substances, glands are classified as:

  1. Exocrine glands
  2. Endocrine glands
  3. Mixed glands
Types of Human Glands
Types of Human Glands

1. Exocrine glands

Exocrine glands exhibit distinct characteristics that set them apart from other glandular types in the body. Here are some key characteristics of exocrine glands:

  • Secretion via Ducts: Unlike endocrine glands that release their products directly into the bloodstream, exocrine glands secrete their substances into specific locations or regions of the body through ducts. These ducts serve as conduits to transport the secretions to their target areas.
  • Enzymatic Secretions: The secretions of exocrine glands primarily consist of enzymes. These enzymes play important roles in various physiological processes, such as digestion, by breaking down complex substances into simpler forms that can be absorbed and utilized by the body. However, not all exocrine secretions are enzymatic, as some may contain non-enzymatic substances like mucus or sweat.
  • Surface Expulsion: Exocrine glands expel their secretions onto the external surface of epithelial cells. This surface can be the skin, lining of the gastrointestinal tract, or other specific epithelial surfaces within the body.
  • Specific Functions: Exocrine glands serve specific functions depending on their location and type. For example, sweat glands regulate body temperature by secreting sweat that evaporates and cools the skin. Salivary glands produce saliva containing amylase to initiate the digestion of carbohydrates. Mammary glands secrete milk for lactation, and gastric glands aid in the digestion of food.
  • Multiple Exocrine Glands: The body contains various exocrine glands, each with its own distinct structure and function. Some examples include salivary glands, liver (which produces bile), parts of the pancreas (that secrete pancreatic enzymes), prostate gland (involved in seminal fluid propulsion), gastric glands (digestion), and sweat glands (heat removal).

These characteristics of exocrine glands highlight their role in regulating body temperature, providing lubrication, supporting lactation, aiding in digestion, and contributing to reproductive processes. By employing ducts and releasing enzymatic secretions onto specific epithelial surfaces, exocrine glands fulfill their specialized functions, facilitating vital processes in the body.


Functions of Exocrine glands

Exocrine glands play crucial roles in the body, performing a variety of functions that contribute to overall health and bodily functions. Here are some key functions of exocrine glands:

  1. Regulation of Body Temperature: Certain exocrine glands, such as sweat glands, aid in the regulation of body temperature. Sweat glands secrete sweat onto the surface of the skin, which evaporates and helps cool down the body. This thermoregulatory function is essential for maintaining a stable body temperature, especially during physical activity or in warm environments.
  2. Lubrication: Many exocrine glands are responsible for producing secretions that provide lubrication to different parts of the body. For example, the sebaceous glands in the skin secrete sebum, an oily substance that lubricates the skin and hair, keeping them moisturized and preventing dryness. Additionally, various mucous glands produce mucus, a slimy substance that lubricates and protects the linings of organs and passageways, such as the respiratory and digestive tracts.
  3. Lactation: Mammary glands are specialized exocrine glands found in the breasts of females. Their primary function is to produce and secrete milk during lactation. The milk produced by mammary glands provides essential nutrients, antibodies, and immune factors for the nourishment and growth of newborns.
  4. Digestive Functions: Exocrine glands play a significant role in digestion. For example, salivary glands secrete saliva into the mouth, which contains enzymes like amylase that initiate the breakdown of carbohydrates. In the digestive system, the pancreas produces pancreatic enzymes that are released into the small intestine to aid in the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Additionally, gastric glands in the stomach secrete hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to break down food and facilitate the digestion process.
  5. Reproductive Functions: Certain exocrine glands contribute to reproduction. In males, the prostate gland produces seminal fluid that helps nourish and transport sperm during ejaculation. The seminal fluid, together with sperm from the testes, is released during sexual intercourse for fertilization.

These functions of exocrine glands are vital for maintaining homeostasis, ensuring proper bodily functions, supporting reproduction, and facilitating processes like temperature regulation, lubrication, digestion, and lactation. The diverse range of exocrine glands and their secretions play essential roles in the overall health and well-being of an individual.


2. Endocrine glands

Endocrine glands play a vital role in the regulation and maintenance of various bodily functions. They secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream, allowing these chemical messengers to reach target organs and tissues throughout the body. Here are some key characteristics and functions of endocrine glands:

  1. Hormone Secretion: Endocrine glands are responsible for producing and secreting hormones. Hormones are chemical substances that act as messengers, carrying signals and instructions to different parts of the body. These hormones are released into the bloodstream and transported to their target cells or organs, where they exert their specific effects.
  2. Regulation of Homeostasis: Hormones secreted by endocrine glands play a crucial role in maintaining homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to maintain a stable internal environment. They help regulate various processes such as metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, fluid balance, and energy utilization. For example, the thyroid gland releases hormones that regulate metabolism and body temperature, while the adrenal glands secrete hormones involved in stress response and fluid balance.
  3. Ductless Glands: Unlike exocrine glands that release their secretions through ducts, endocrine glands are ductless. They directly release hormones into the bloodstream, allowing for a more widespread distribution of these chemical messengers throughout the body.
  4. Targeted Effects: Each hormone secreted by an endocrine gland has specific target cells or organs that it affects. These target cells have receptors that bind to the hormone, triggering a cellular response or influencing the activity of the target organ. The effects of hormones can be widespread, influencing multiple physiological processes and organ systems.
  5. Regulation of Growth and Development: Many endocrine glands, such as the pituitary gland and the gonads (testes and ovaries), play a crucial role in growth and development. Hormones released by these glands regulate bone growth, sexual maturation, and the development of secondary sexual characteristics.
  6. Feedback Mechanisms: The secretion of hormones by endocrine glands is often regulated by feedback mechanisms. These mechanisms involve the monitoring of hormone levels in the blood or the response of target organs to hormone signals. When hormone levels reach a certain threshold or when the target organs have achieved the desired response, feedback signals may inhibit or stimulate the further release of hormones to maintain balance.

Endocrine glands, including the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, pancreas, adrenal glands, and reproductive glands, among others, are integral to the overall functioning and coordination of the body’s systems. Through their secretion of hormones, they help regulate various physiological processes, ensuring proper growth, development, metabolism, and overall homeostasis.


Functions of Endocrine glands

Endocrine glands play a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes in the body through the secretion of hormones. These hormones act as chemical messengers that travel through the bloodstream to target cells or organs, where they exert their specific effects. Here are some important functions of endocrine glands:

  1. Regulation of Metabolism: Endocrine glands such as the thyroid gland and the pancreas secrete hormones that are involved in the regulation of metabolism. The thyroid gland releases thyroid hormones (T3 and T4), which influence the rate of metabolism, energy production, and heat generation in the body. The pancreas secretes insulin and glucagon, which regulate glucose metabolism and help maintain stable blood sugar levels.
  2. Control of Growth and Development: The pituitary gland, often referred to as the “master gland,” secretes growth hormone (GH) that plays a vital role in the growth and development of tissues and bones. It stimulates cell division, protein synthesis, and bone growth. Other hormones produced by the pituitary gland, such as follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), regulate sexual development and reproductive function.
  3. Regulation of Reproduction: The reproductive glands, including the ovaries in females and testes in males, secrete hormones essential for reproductive functions. Estrogen and progesterone in females regulate the menstrual cycle, promote the development of secondary sexual characteristics, and maintain pregnancy. Testosterone in males is responsible for sperm production, the development of secondary sexual characteristics, and libido.
  4. Maintenance of Water and Electrolyte Balance: The adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, secrete hormones involved in the regulation of water and electrolyte balance. The adrenal cortex produces aldosterone, which regulates sodium and potassium balance in the body and helps control blood pressure. The adrenal medulla releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are involved in the body’s response to stress and help regulate blood pressure and heart rate.
  5. Control of Stress Response: The adrenal glands also play a crucial role in the body’s response to stress. In addition to epinephrine and norepinephrine, the adrenal cortex releases cortisol, a hormone that helps the body respond to stress and regulate immune responses, metabolism, and blood sugar levels.
  6. Regulation of Calcium and Phosphate Levels: The parathyroid glands, located near the thyroid gland, secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH), which regulates calcium and phosphate levels in the body. PTH stimulates the release of calcium from bones, enhances calcium absorption in the intestines, and promotes the reabsorption of calcium by the kidneys.

These are just a few examples of the functions of endocrine glands. Each endocrine gland produces specific hormones that have a profound impact on various physiological processes, including growth, metabolism, reproduction, stress response, and mineral balance. The proper functioning of these glands and the balance of hormone secretion are crucial for maintaining overall health and homeostasis in the body.


3. Human Mixed Glands

Human mixed glands refer to glands that possess both exocrine and endocrine functions. These glands have the ability to secrete substances through ducts into specific locations within the body, as well as release certain substances directly into the bloodstream.

Two prominent examples of human mixed glands are the pancreas and the liver.

  1. Pancreas: The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen, behind the stomach. It serves as a mixed gland because it carries out both exocrine and endocrine functions. The exocrine portion of the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes and other substances into the gastrointestinal tract through a network of ducts. These enzymes, including amylase, lipase, and proteases, aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins during digestion. The exocrine secretions of the pancreas collectively form pancreatic juice, which is crucial for proper digestion in the small intestine.

Additionally, the pancreas contains clusters of specialized cells known as pancreatic islets or islets of Langerhans, which are responsible for its endocrine function. These islets contain different types of hormone-secreting cells, including alpha cells that produce glucagon, beta cells that produce insulin, delta cells that produce somatostatin, and others. These hormones, released directly into the bloodstream, regulate blood sugar levels and play a vital role in glucose metabolism and energy balance.

  1. Liver: The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body and has a wide range of functions. It also exhibits both exocrine and endocrine capabilities. The liver’s exocrine function involves the production and secretion of bile, a substance that aids in the digestion and absorption of dietary fats. Bile is synthesized by hepatocytes, the primary cells of the liver, and is then transported through a series of ducts to the gallbladder for storage. When needed, bile is released into the small intestine to facilitate the emulsification and digestion of fats.

In terms of endocrine function, the liver produces and releases several important hormones and proteins into the bloodstream. For instance, the liver synthesizes and secretes insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which plays a key role in growth, development, and tissue repair. The liver also produces clotting factors such as fibrinogen and prothrombin, which are crucial for blood coagulation and wound healing.

In summary, human mixed glands, such as the pancreas and liver, demonstrate both exocrine and endocrine functions. They secrete substances, such as pancreatic juice and bile, into the gastrointestinal tract through ducts for digestion. Simultaneously, they release hormones and other substances directly into the bloodstream to regulate various physiological processes, including metabolism, blood sugar levels, growth, and clotting. These mixed glands play essential roles in maintaining overall health and homeostasis within the human body.

Functions of Glands

Glands perform various essential functions in the body, playing a vital role in maintaining overall health and homeostasis. Here are some key functions of glands:

  • Secretion of Hormones: Endocrine glands, such as the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, adrenal glands, and others, secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream. Hormones act as chemical messengers, regulating and coordinating numerous physiological processes, including metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, stress response, and immune function.
  • Production of Enzymes: Certain glands, like the salivary glands, pancreas, and gastric glands, produce and secrete enzymes involved in digestion. These enzymes break down complex nutrients into simpler forms, facilitating their absorption and utilization by the body.
  • Lubrication and Moisture: Exocrine glands, such as sweat glands and sebaceous glands, secrete substances like sweat and sebum, respectively. Sweat helps regulate body temperature and eliminate waste products, while sebum moisturizes and lubricates the skin and hair.
  • Protection and Defense: Glands, such as the lacrimal glands (tear glands) and mucus-secreting glands, contribute to the defense and protection of the body. Tears help keep the eyes moist and protect against foreign substances, while mucus secretions in the respiratory and digestive tracts trap and remove pathogens, irritants, and debris.
  • Excretion of Waste Products: Some glands, like the sweat glands and certain exocrine glands in the kidneys, help eliminate waste products from the body. Sweat carries away metabolic waste products, toxins, and excess substances like urea, while specific exocrine glands in the kidneys produce urine, facilitating the elimination of waste and maintenance of fluid and electrolyte balance.
  • Production of Milk: Mammary glands in female mammals produce and secrete milk, which provides essential nutrition and immune protection for newborns.
  • Regulation of Fluid Balance: Glands such as the salivary glands and lacrimal glands help maintain fluid balance by producing saliva and tears, respectively. Saliva aids in the digestion process, while tears help moisturize the eyes and maintain their optimal functioning.
  • Reproductive Functions: Glands in the reproductive system, including the testes and ovaries, produce and release hormones that regulate reproductive processes and sexual characteristics. They play a crucial role in fertility, menstrual cycles, and secondary sexual development.
  • pH Regulation: Glands like the gastric glands in the stomach secrete hydrochloric acid (HCl) to help create an acidic environment necessary for digestion and to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria.

These functions highlight the diverse and essential roles played by glands in the body. Through their secretion of hormones, enzymes, fluids, and other substances, glands contribute to the regulation of numerous physiological processes, maintenance of homeostasis, and overall well-being.

Examples of Glands

Everyday life presents us with several examples of glands that we may encounter or be familiar with. Here are two prominent examples:

  1. Sweat Glands: Sweat glands are a type of exocrine gland that we are all well-aware of. Located close to the surface of the skin, sweat glands secrete moisture in the form of sweat. There are two main types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands are distributed throughout our bodies and secrete a water-based sweat that helps regulate body temperature. When we engage in physical activities or experience an increase in body temperature, eccrine glands produce sweat to cool down the body through evaporation.

On the other hand, apocrine glands are mainly found in areas like the armpits and perineal regions. Unlike eccrine glands, apocrine glands secrete their sweat into vesicles or sacs that enter the lumen. While they have a lesser role in humans, apocrine glands are more prominent in certain animals, particularly hoofed animals like cattle.

  1. Mammary Glands: Mammary glands are another example of exocrine glands that are familiar to us. Found in mammals, including humans, mammary glands serve the important function of producing and secreting milk to nourish offspring. They are classified as apocrine glands, as lactating animals have the ability to pinch off their milk secretions into membrane-bound vesicles.

In humans, mammary glands develop and mature during puberty in females, preparing them for potential lactation. During pregnancy and after childbirth, hormonal changes stimulate mammary glands to produce milk. The milk is then released through specialized ducts in the nipples, allowing infants to feed and receive essential nutrients for growth and development.

These everyday examples of glands, such as sweat glands and mammary glands, highlight the diverse functions that glands serve in the human body and in other animals. They demonstrate the remarkable ability of glands to secrete specialized substances to regulate body temperature, maintain homeostasis, and support essential biological processes like lactation and nourishment of offspring.


What are glands?

Glands are specialized organs or tissues in the body that produce and secrete substances such as hormones, enzymes, or other products.

How many types of glands are there in the human body?

There are two main types of glands in the human body: exocrine glands and endocrine glands.

What is the difference between exocrine and endocrine glands?

Exocrine glands secrete their products through ducts onto a surface (e.g., sweat glands), while endocrine glands secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream (e.g., adrenal glands).

What are the functions of exocrine glands?

Exocrine glands perform various functions, including lubrication (e.g., sebaceous glands), digestion (e.g., salivary glands), and regulation of body temperature (e.g., sweat glands).

What are the functions of endocrine glands?

Endocrine glands produce hormones that regulate bodily functions, including metabolism (e.g., thyroid gland), growth (e.g., pituitary gland), and reproduction (e.g., ovaries and testes).

Can glands be found in animals other than humans?

Yes, glands are present in various animals, serving similar or different functions. For example, mammary glands in mammals produce milk for their young.

How do glands secrete their products?

Exocrine glands use ducts to transport their secretions to a specific location, while endocrine glands release hormones directly into the bloodstream, allowing them to reach target organs throughout the body.

Can glands become diseased?

Yes, glands can be affected by various diseases and disorders. For example, malfunctioning thyroid glands can lead to hormonal imbalances, resulting in conditions like hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.

Can glands be removed or treated if they are diseased?

Depending on the condition, treatment options for glandular diseases may include medication, lifestyle changes, or surgical interventions like gland removal (e.g., removal of the gallbladder for gallstones).

Can glands regenerate or regrow if damaged?

The regenerative capacity of glands varies. Some glands, like the liver, have the ability to regenerate and restore their function after damage, while others may have limited regenerative capabilities.

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