1.7 The Endocrine SystemIntroductionA Child Catches a Falling Leaf
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Figure 1. Hormones of the endocrine system coordinate and control growth, metabolism, temperature regulation, the stress response, reproduction, and many other functions. (credit: “seenthroughmylense”/flickr.com)

After studying this chapter, you will be able to:

Identify the contributions of the endocrine system to homeostasisDiscuss the chemical composition of hormones and the mechanisms of hormone actionSummarize the site of production, regulation, and effects of the hormones of the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pineal glandsDiscuss the hormonal regulation of the reproductive systemExplain the role of the pancreatic endocrine cells in the regulation of blood glucoseIdentify the hormones released by the heart, kidneys, and other organs with secondary endocrine functionsDiscuss several common diseases associated with endocrine system dysfunctionDiscuss the embryonic development of, and the effects of aging on, the endocrine system

You may never have thought of it this way, but when you send a text message to two friends to meet you at the dining hall at six, you’re sending digital signals that (you hope) will affect their behavior—even though they are some distance away. Similarly, certain cells send chemical signals to other cells in the body that influence their behavior. This long-distance intercellular communication, coordination, and control is critical for homeostasis, and it is the fundamental function of the endocrine system.

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An Overview of the Endocrine System

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

Distinguish the types of intercellular communication, their importance, mechanisms, and effectsIdentify the major organs and tissues of the endocrine system and their location in the body

Communication is a process in which a sender transmits signals to one or more receivers to control and coordinate actions. In the human body, two major organ systems participate in relatively “long distance” communication: the nervous system and the endocrine system. Together, these two systems are primarily responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body.

Neural and Endocrine Signaling

The nervous system uses two types of intercellular communication—electrical and chemical signaling—either by the direct action of an electrical potential, or in the latter case, through the action of chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin or norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters act locally and rapidly. When an electrical signal in the form of an action potential arrives at the synaptic terminal, they diffuse across the synaptic cleft (the gap between a sending neuron and a receiving neuron or muscle cell). Once the neurotransmitters interact (bind) with receptors on the receiving (post-synaptic) cell, the receptor stimulation is transduced into a response such as continued electrical signaling or modification of cellular response. The target cell responds within milliseconds of receiving the chemical “message”; this response then ceases very quickly once the neural signaling ends. In this way, neural communication enables body functions that involve quick, brief actions, such as movement, sensation, and cognition.In contrast, the endocrine system uses just one method of communication: chemical signaling. These signals are sent by the endocrine organs, which secrete chemicals—the hormone—into the extracellular fluid. Hormones are transported primarily via the bloodstream throughout the body, where they bind to receptors on target cells, inducing a characteristic response. As a result, endocrine signaling requires more time than neural signaling to prompt a response in target cells, though the precise amount of time varies with different hormones. For example, the hormones released when you are confronted with a dangerous or frightening situation, called the fight-or-flight response, occur by the release of adrenal hormones—epinephrine and norepinephrine—within seconds. In contrast, it may take up to 48 hours for target cells to respond to certain reproductive hormones.


Visit this link to watch an animation of the events that occur when a hormone binds to a cell membrane receptor. What is the secondary messenger made by adenylyl cyclase during the activation of liver cells by epinephrine?

In addition, endocrine signaling is typically less specific than neural signaling. The same hormone may play a role in a variety of different physiological processes depending on the target cells involved. For example, the hormone oxytocin promotes uterine contractions in women in labor. It is also important in breastfeeding, and may be involved in the sexual response and in feelings of emotional attachment in both males and females.

In general, the nervous system involves quick responses to rapid changes in the external environment, and the endocrine system is usually slower acting—taking care of the internal environment of the body, maintaining homeostasis, and controlling reproduction (Table (Endocrine and Nervous Systems)). So how does the fight-or-flight response that was mentioned earlier happen so quickly if hormones are usually slower acting? It is because the two systems are connected. It is the fast action of the nervous system in response to the danger in the environment that stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete their hormones. As a result, the nervous system can cause rapid endocrine responses to keep up with sudden changes in both the external and internal environments when necessary.

Endocrine and Nervous SystemsEndocrine systemNervous system
Signaling mechanism(s)ChemicalChemical/electrical
Primary chemical signalHormonesNeurotransmitters
Distance traveledLong or shortAlways short
Response timeFast or slowAlways fast
Environment targetedInternalInternal and external

Structures of the Endocrine System

The endocrine system consists of cells, tissues, and organs that secrete hormones as a primary or secondary function. The endocrine gland is the major player in this system. The primary function of these ductless glands is to secrete their hormones directly into the surrounding fluid. The interstitial fluid and the blood vessels then transport the hormones throughout the body. The endocrine system includes the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pineal glands (Figure 1. Endocrine System). Some of these glands have both endocrine and non-endocrine functions. For example, the pancreas contains cells that function in digestion as well as cells that secrete the hormones insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood glucose levels. The hypothalamus, thymus, heart, kidneys, stomach, small intestine, liver, skin, female ovaries, and male testes are other organs that contain cells with endocrine function. Moreover, adipose tissue has long been known to produce hormones, and recent research has revealed that even bone tissue has endocrine functions.

Endocrine System
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Figure 1. Endocrine glands and cells are located throughout the body and play an important role in homeostasis.

The ductless endocrine glands are not to be confused with the body’s exocrine system, whose glands release their secretions through ducts. Examples of exocrine glands include the sebaceous and sweat glands of the skin. As just noted, the pancreas also has an exocrine function: most of its cells secrete pancreatic juice through the pancreatic and accessory ducts to the lumen of the small intestine.

Other Types of Chemical Signaling

In endocrine signaling, hormones secreted into the extracellular fluid diffuse into the blood or lymph, and can then travel great distances throughout the body. In contrast, autocrine signaling takes place within the same cell. An autocrine (auto- = “self”) is a chemical that elicits a response in the same cell that secreted it. Interleukin-1, or IL-1, is a signaling molecule that plays an important role in inflammatory response. The cells that secrete IL-1 have receptors on their cell surface that bind these molecules, resulting in autocrine signaling.

Local intercellular communication is the province of the paracrine, also called a paracrine factor, which is a chemical that induces a response in neighboring cells. Although paracrines may enter the bloodstream, their concentration is generally too low to elicit a response from distant tissues. A familiar example to those with asthma is histamine, a paracrine that is released by immune cells in the bronchial tree. Histamine causes the smooth muscle cells of the bronchi to constrict, narrowing the airways. Another example is the neurotransmitters of the nervous system, which act only locally within the synaptic cleft.


Endocrinologist

Endocrinology is a specialty in the field of medicine that focuses on the treatment of endocrine system disorders. Endocrinologists—medical doctors who specialize in this field—are experts in treating diseases associated with hormonal systems, ranging from thyroid disease to diabetes mellitus. Endocrine surgeons treat endocrine disease through the removal, or resection, of the affected endocrine gland.

Patients who are referred to endocrinologists may have signs and symptoms or blood test results that suggest excessive or impaired functioning of an endocrine gland or endocrine cells. The endocrinologist may order additional blood tests to determine whether the patient’s hormonal levels are abnormal, or they may stimulate or suppress the function of the suspect endocrine gland and then have blood taken for analysis. Treatment varies according to the diagnosis. Some endocrine disorders, such as type 2 diabetes, may respond to lifestyle changes such as modest weight loss, adoption of a healthy diet, and regular physical activity. Other disorders may require medication, such as hormone replacement, and routine monitoring by the endocrinologist. These include disorders of the pituitary gland that can affect growth and disorders of the thyroid gland that can result in a variety of metabolic problems.

Some patients experience health problems as a result of the normal decline in hormones that can accompany aging. These patients can consult with an endocrinologist to weigh the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy intended to boost their natural levels of reproductive hormones.

In addition to treating patients, endocrinologists may be involved in research to improve the understanding of endocrine system disorders and develop new treatments for these diseases.


Chapter Review

The endocrine system consists of cells, tissues, and organs that secrete hormones critical to homeostasis. The body coordinates its functions through two major types of communication: neural and endocrine. Neural communication includes both electrical and chemical signaling between neurons and target cells. Endocrine communication involves chemical signaling via the release of hormones into the extracellular fluid. From there, hormones diffuse into the bloodstream and may travel to distant body regions, where they elicit a response in target cells. Endocrine glands are ductless glands that secrete hormones. Many organs of the body with other primary functions—such as the heart, stomach, and kidneys—also have hormone-secreting cells.

Hormones

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

Identify the three major classes of hormones on the basis of chemical structureCompare and contrast intracellular and cell membrane hormone receptorsDescribe signaling pathways that involve cAMP and IP3Identify several factors that influence a target cell’s responseDiscuss the role of feedback loops and humoral, hormonal, and neural stimuli in hormone control

Although a given hormone may travel throughout the body in the bloodstream, it will affect the activity only of its target cells; that is, cells with receptors for that particular hormone. Once the hormone binds to the receptor, a chain of events is initiated that leads to the target cell’s response. Hormones play a critical role in the regulation of physiological processes because of the target cell responses they regulate. These responses contribute to human reproduction, growth and development of body tissues, metabolism, fluid, and electrolyte balance, sleep, and many other body functions. The major hormones of the human body and their effects are identified in Table (Endocrine Glands and Their Major Hormones).

Endocrine Glands and Their Major HormonesEndocrine glandAssociated hormonesChemical classEffect
Pituitary (anterior)Growth hormone (GH)ProteinPromotes growth of body tissues
Pituitary (anterior)Prolactin (PRL)PeptidePromotes milk production
Pituitary (anterior)Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH)GlycoproteinStimulates thyroid hormone release
Pituitary (anterior)Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)PeptideStimulates hormone release by adrenal cortex
Pituitary (anterior)Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)GlycoproteinStimulates gamete production
Pituitary (anterior)Luteinizing hormone (LH)GlycoproteinStimulates androgen production by gonads
Pituitary (posterior)Antidiuretic hormone (ADH)PeptideStimulates water reabsorption by kidneys
Pituitary (posterior)OxytocinPeptideStimulates uterine contractions during childbirth
ThyroidThyroxine (T4), triiodothyronine (T3)AmineStimulate basal metabolic rate
ThyroidCalcitoninPeptideReduces blood Ca2+ levels
ParathyroidParathyroid hormone (PTH)PeptideIncreases blood Ca2+ levels
Adrenal (cortex)AldosteroneSteroidIncreases blood Na+ levels
Adrenal (cortex)Cortisol, corticosterone, cortisoneSteroidIncrease blood glucose levels
Adrenal (medulla)Epinephrine, norepinephrineAmineStimulate fight-or-flight response
PinealMelatoninAmineRegulates sleep cycles
PancreasInsulinProteinReduces blood glucose levels
PancreasGlucagonProteinIncreases blood glucose levels
TestesTestosteroneSteroidStimulates development of male secondary sex characteristics and sperm production
OvariesEstrogens and progesteroneSteroidStimulate development of female secondary sex characteristics and prepare the body for childbirth

Types of Hormones

The hormones of the human body can be divided into two major groups on the basis of their chemical structure. Hormones derived from amino acids include amines, peptides, and proteins. Those derived from lipids include steroids (Figure 1. Amine, Peptide, Protein, and Steroid Hormone Structure). These chemical groups affect a hormone’s distribution, the type of receptors it binds to, and other aspects of its function.

Amine, Peptide, Protein, and Steroid Hormone Structure
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Figure 1. 

Amine Hormones

Hormones derived from the modification of amino acids are referred to as amine hormones. Typically, the original structure of the amino acid is modified such that a –COOH, or carboxyl, group is removed, whereas the -NH3+, or amine, group remains.

Amine hormones are synthesized from the amino acids tryptophan or tyrosine. An example of a hormone derived from tryptophan is melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland and helps regulate circadian rhythm. Tyrosine derivatives include the metabolism-regulating thyroid hormones, as well as the catecholamines, such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted by the adrenal medulla and play a role in the fight-or-flight response, whereas dopamine is secreted by the hypothalamus and inhibits the release of certain anterior pituitary hormones.

Peptide and Protein Hormones

Whereas the amine hormones are derived from a single amino acid, peptide and protein hormones consist of multiple amino acids that link to form an amino acid chain. Peptide hormones consist of short chains of amino acids, whereas protein hormones are longer polypeptides. Both types are synthesized like other body proteins: DNA is transcribed into mRNA, which is translated into an amino acid chain.

Examples of peptide hormones include antidiuretic hormone (ADH), a pituitary hormone important in fluid balance, and atrial-natriuretic peptide, which is produced by the heart and helps to decrease blood pressure. Some examples of protein hormones include growth hormone, which is produced by the pituitary gland, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which has an attached carbohydrate group and is thus classified as a glycoprotein. FSH helps stimulate the maturation of eggs in the ovaries and sperm in the testes.

Steroid Hormones

The primary hormones derived from lipids are steroids. Steroid hormones are derived from the lipid cholesterol. For example, the reproductive hormones testosterone and the estrogens—which are produced by the gonads (testes and ovaries)—are steroid hormones. The adrenal glands produce the steroid hormone aldosterone, which is involved in osmoregulation, and cortisol, which plays a role in metabolism.

Like cholesterol, steroid hormones are not soluble in water (they are hydrophobic). Because blood is water-based, lipid-derived hormones must travel to their target cell bound to a transport protein. This more complex structure extends the half-life of steroid hormones much longer than that of hormones derived from amino acids. A hormone’s half-life is the time required for half the concentration of the hormone to be degraded. For example, the lipid-derived hormone cortisol has a half-life of approximately 60 to 90 minutes. In contrast, the amino acid–derived hormone epinephrine has a half-life of approximately one minute.

Pathways of Hormone Action

The message a hormone sends is received by a hormone receptor, a protein located either inside the cell or within the cell membrane. The receptor will process the message by initiating other signaling events or cellular mechanisms that result in the target cell’s response. Hormone receptors recognize molecules with specific shapes and side groups, and respond only to those hormones that are recognized. The same type of receptor may be located on cells in different body tissues, and trigger somewhat different responses. Thus, the response triggered by a hormone depends not only on the hormone, but also on the target cell.

Once the target cell receives the hormone signal, it can respond in a variety of ways. The response may include the stimulation of protein synthesis, activation or deactivation of enzymes, alteration in the permeability of the cell membrane, altered rates of mitosis and cell growth, and stimulation of the secretion of products. Moreover, a single hormone may be capable of inducing different responses in a given cell.

Pathways Involving Intracellular Hormone Receptors

Intracellular hormone receptors are located inside the cell. Hormones that bind to this type of receptor must be able to cross the cell membrane. Steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol and therefore can readily diffuse through the lipid bilayer of the cell membrane to reach the intracellular receptor (Figure 2. Binding of Lipid-Soluble Hormones). Thyroid hormones, which contain benzene rings studded with iodine, are also lipid-soluble and can enter the cell.

The location of steroid and thyroid hormone binding differs slightly: a steroid hormone may bind to its receptor within the cytosol or within the nucleus. In either case, this binding generates a hormone-receptor complex that moves toward the chromatin in the cell nucleus and binds to a particular segment of the cell’s DNA. In contrast, thyroid hormones bind to receptors already bound to DNA. For both steroid and thyroid hormones, binding of the hormone-receptor complex with DNA triggers transcription of a target gene to mRNA, which moves to the cytosol and directs protein synthesis by ribosomes.

Binding of Lipid-Soluble Hormones
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Figure 2. A steroid hormone directly initiates the production of proteins within a target cell. Steroid hormones easily diffuse through the cell membrane. The hormone binds to its receptor in the cytosol, forming a receptor–hormone complex. The receptor–hormone complex then enters the nucleus and binds to the target gene on the DNA. Transcription of the gene creates a messenger RNA that is translated into the desired protein within the cytoplasm.

Pathways Involving Cell Membrane Hormone Receptors

Hydrophilic, or water-soluble, hormones are unable to diffuse through the lipid bilayer of the cell membrane and must therefore pass on their message to a receptor located at the surface of the cell. Except for thyroid hormones, which are lipid-soluble, all amino acid–derived hormones bind to cell membrane receptors that are located, at least in part, on the extracellular surface of the cell membrane. Therefore, they do not directly affect the transcription of target genes, but instead initiate a signaling cascade that is carried out by a molecule called a second messenger. In this case, the hormone is called a first messenger.

The second messenger used by most hormones is cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). In the cAMP second messenger system, a water-soluble hormone binds to its receptor in the cell membrane (Step 1 in Figure 3. (Binding of Water-Soluble Hormones)). This receptor is associated with an intracellular component called a G protein, and binding of the hormone activates the G-protein component (Step 2). The activated G protein in turn activates an enzyme called adenylyl cyclase, also known as adenylate cyclase (Step 3), which converts adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to cAMP (Step 4). As the second messenger, cAMP activates a type of enzyme called a protein kinase that is present in the cytosol (Step 5). Activated protein kinases initiate a phosphorylation cascade, in which multiple protein kinases phosphorylate (add a phosphate group to) numerous and various cellular proteins, including other enzymes (Step 6).

Binding of Water-Soluble Hormones
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Figure 3. Water-soluble hormones cannot diffuse through the cell membrane. These hormones must bind to a surface cell-membrane receptor. The receptor then initiates a cell-signaling pathway within the cell involving G proteins, adenylyl cyclase, the secondary messenger cyclic AMP (cAMP), and protein kinases. In the final step, these protein kinases phosphorylate proteins in the cytoplasm. This activates proteins in the cell that carry out the changes specified by the hormone.

The phosphorylation of cellular proteins can trigger a wide variety of effects, from nutrient metabolism to the synthesis of different hormones and other products. The effects vary according to the type of target cell, the G proteins and kinases involved, and the phosphorylation of proteins. Examples of hormones that use cAMP as a second messenger include calcitonin, which is important for bone construction and regulating blood calcium levels; glucagon, which plays a role in blood glucose levels; and thyroid-stimulating hormone, which causes the release of T3 and T4 from the thyroid gland.

Overall, the phosphorylation cascade significantly increases the efficiency, speed, and specificity of the hormonal response, as thousands of signaling events can be initiated simultaneously in response to a very low concentration of hormone in the bloodstream. However, the duration of the hormone signal is short, as cAMP is quickly deactivated by the enzyme phosphodiesterase (PDE), which is located in the cytosol. The action of PDE helps to ensure that a target cell’s response ceases quickly unless new hormones arrive at the cell membrane.

Importantly, there are also G proteins that decrease the levels of cAMP in the cell in response to hormone binding. For example, when growth hormone–inhibiting hormone (GHIH), also known as somatostatin, binds to its receptors in the pituitary gland, the level of cAMP decreases, thereby inhibiting the secretion of human growth hormone.

Not all water-soluble hormones initiate the cAMP second messenger system. One common alternative system uses calcium ions as a second messenger. In this system, G proteins activate the enzyme phospholipase C (PLC), which functions similarly to adenylyl cyclase. Once activated, PLC cleaves a membrane-bound phospholipid into two molecules: diacylglycerol (DAG) and inositol triphosphate (IP3). Like cAMP, DAG activates protein kinases that initiate a phosphorylation cascade. At the same time, IP3causes calcium ions to be released from storage sites within the cytosol, such as from within the smooth endoplasmic reticulum. The calcium ions then act as second messengers in two ways: they can influence enzymatic and other cellular activities directly, or they can bind to calcium-binding proteins, the most common of which is calmodulin. Upon binding calcium, calmodulin is able to modulate protein kinase within the cell. Examples of hormones that use calcium ions as a second messenger system include angiotensin II, which helps regulate blood pressure through vasoconstriction, and growth hormone–releasing hormone (GHRH), which causes the pituitary gland to release growth hormones.

Factors Affecting Target Cell Response

You will recall that target cells must have receptors specific to a given hormone if that hormone is to trigger a response. But several other factors influence the target cell response. For example, the presence of a significant level of a hormone circulating in the bloodstream can cause its target cells to decrease their number of receptors for that hormone. This process is called downregulation, and it allows cells to become less reactive to the excessive hormone levels. When the level of a hormone is chronically reduced, target cells engage in upregulation to increase their number of receptors. This process allows cells to be more sensitive to the hormone that is present. Cells can also alter the sensitivity of the receptors themselves to various hormones.

Two or more hormones can interact to affect the response of cells in a variety of ways. The three most common types of interaction are as follows:

The permissive effect, in which the presence of one hormone enables another hormone to act. For example, thyroid hormones have complex permissive relationships with certain reproductive hormones. A dietary deficiency of iodine, a component of thyroid hormones, can therefore affect reproductive system development and functioning.The synergistic effect, in which two hormones with similar effects produce an amplified response. In some cases, two hormones are required for an adequate response. For example, two different reproductive hormones—FSH from the pituitary gland and estrogens from the ovaries—are required for the maturation of female ova (egg cells).The antagonistic effect, in which two hormones have opposing effects. A familiar example is the effect of two pancreatic hormones, insulin and glucagon. Insulin increases the liver’s storage of glucose as glycogen, decreasing blood glucose, whereas glucagon stimulates the breakdown of glycogen stores, increasing blood glucose.

Regulation of Hormone Secretion

To prevent abnormal hormone levels and a potential disease state, hormone levels must be tightly controlled. The body maintains this control by balancing hormone production and degradation. Feedback loops govern the initiation and maintenance of most hormone secretion in response to various stimuli.

Role of Feedback Loops

The contribution of feedback loops to homeostasis will only be briefly reviewed here. Positive feedback loops are characterized by the release of additional hormone in response to an original hormone release. The release of oxytocin during childbirth is a positive feedback loop. The initial release of oxytocin begins to signal the uterine muscles to contract, which pushes the fetus toward the cervix, causing it to stretch. This, in turn, signals the pituitary gland to release more oxytocin, causing labor contractions to intensify. The release of oxytocin decreases after the birth of the child.

The more common method of hormone regulation is the negative feedback loop. Negative feedback is characterized by the inhibition of further secretion of a hormone in response to adequate levels of that hormone. This allows blood levels of the hormone to be regulated within a narrow range. An example of a negative feedback loop is the release of glucocorticoid hormones from the adrenal glands, as directed by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. As glucocorticoid concentrations in the blood rise, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland reduce their signaling to the adrenal glands to prevent additional glucocorticoid secretion (Figure 4. Negative Feedback Loop).

Negative Feedback Loop
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Figure 4. The release of adrenal glucocorticoids is stimulated by the release of hormones from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. This signaling is inhibited when glucocorticoid levels become elevated by causing negative signals to the pituitary gland and hypothalamus.

Role of Endocrine Gland Stimuli

Reflexes triggered by both chemical and neural stimuli control endocrine activity. These reflexes may be simple, involving only one hormone response, or they may be more complex and involve many hormones, as is the case with the hypothalamic control of various anterior pituitary–controlled hormones.

Humoral stimuli are changes in blood levels of non-hormone chemicals, such as nutrients or ions, which cause the release or inhibition of a hormone to, in turn, maintain homeostasis. For example, osmoreceptors in the hypothalamus detect changes in blood osmolarity (the concentration of solutes in the blood plasma). If blood osmolarity is too high, meaning that the blood is not dilute enough, osmoreceptors signal the hypothalamus to release ADH. The hormone causes the kidneys to reabsorb more water and reduce the volume of urine produced. This reabsorption causes a reduction of the osmolarity of the blood, diluting the blood to the appropriate level. The regulation of blood glucose is another example. High blood glucose levels cause the release of insulin from the pancreas, which increases glucose uptake by cells and liver storage of glucose as glycogen.

An endocrine gland may also secrete a hormone in response to the presence of another hormone produced by a different endocrine gland. Such hormonal stimuli often involve the hypothalamus, which produces releasing and inhibiting hormones that control the secretion of a variety of pituitary hormones.

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In addition to these chemical signals, hormones can also be released in response to neural stimuli. A common example of neural stimuli is the activation of the fight-or-flight response by the sympathetic nervous system. When an individual perceives danger, sympathetic neurons signal the adrenal glands to secrete norepinephrine and epinephrine. The two hormones dilate blood vessels, increase the heart and respiratory rate, and suppress the digestive and immune systems. These responses boost the body’s transport of oxygen to the brain and muscles, thereby improving the body’s ability to fight or flee.