Types of Hormones

Identify different types of hormones and explain the regulation of hormone production

Although there are many different hormones in the human body, they can be divided into three classes based on their chemical structure: lipid-derived, amino acid-derived, and peptide (peptide and proteins) hormones. One of the key distinguishing features of lipid-derived hormones is that they can diffuse across plasma membranes whereas the amino acid-derived and peptide hormones cannot.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the role of lipid-derived hormones in maintaining homeostasis
  • Explain the role of amino acid-derived hormones in maintaining homeostasis
  • Explain the role of peptide hormones in maintaining homeostasis
  • Explain how hormone production is regulated

Lipid-Derived Hormones

Maintaining homeostasis within the body requires the coordination of many different systems and organs. Communication between neighboring cells, and between cells and tissues in distant parts of the body, occurs through the release of chemicals called hormones. Hormones are released into body fluids (usually blood) that carry these chemicals to their target cells. At the target cells, which are cells that have a receptor for a signal or ligand from a signal cell, the hormones elicit a response. The cells, tissues, and organs that secrete hormones make up the endocrine system. Examples of glands of the endocrine system include the adrenal glands, which produce hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine that regulate responses to stress, and the thyroid gland, which produces thyroid hormones that regulate metabolic rates.

Most lipid hormones are derived from cholesterol and thus are structurally similar to it, as illustrated in Figure 1. The primary class of lipid hormones in humans is the steroid hormones. Chemically, these hormones are usually ketones or alcohols; their chemical names will end in “-ol” for alcohols or “-one” for ketones. Examples of steroid hormones include estradiol, which is an estrogen, or female sex hormone, and testosterone, which is an androgen, or male sex hormone. These two hormones are released by the female and male reproductive organs, respectively. Other steroid hormones include aldosterone and cortisol, which are released by the adrenal glands along with some other types of androgens. Steroid hormones are insoluble in water, and they are transported by transport proteins in blood. As a result, they remain in circulation longer than peptide hormones. For example, cortisol has a half-life of 60 to 90 minutes, while epinephrine, an amino acid derived-hormone, has a half-life of approximately one minute.

Part A shows the molecular structure of cholesterol, which has three six-carbon rings attached to a five-carbon ring. A hydroxyl group is attached to the first six-membered ring, and a branched carbon chain is attached to the five-membered ring. Two methyl groups are attached each to a carbon that links the rings together. Part B shows the molecular structure of testosterone, which has a hydroxyl group in place of the branched carbon chain found on cholesterol. A ketone instead of a hydroxyl group is attached to the six-membered ring. Part C shows the molecular structure of estradiol, which, like testosterone, has a hydroxyl group in place of cholesterol’s branched carbon chain. Estradiol also lacks one of the methyl groups found in cholesterol.

Figure 1. The structures shown here represent (a) cholesterol, plus the steroid hormones (b) testosterone and (c) estradiol.

Amino Acid-Derived Hormones

The amino acid-derived hormones are relatively small molecules that are derived from the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, shown in Figure 2. If a hormone is amino acid-derived, its chemical name will end in –ine. Examples of amino acid-derived hormones include epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are synthesized in the medulla of the adrenal glands, and thyroxine, which is produced by the thyroid gland. The pineal gland in the brain makes and secretes melatonin which regulates sleep cycles.

Part A shows the amino acid tyrosine on the left and epinephrine on the right. Epinephrine is similar in structure to tyrosine, with minor modifications. Part B shows the amino acid tryptophan on the left and the structurally similar melatonin on the right.

Figure 2. (a) The hormone epinephrine, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, is derived from the amino acid tyrosine. (b) The hormone melatonin, which regulates circadian rhythms, is derived from the amino acid tryptophan.

Peptide Hormones

The structure of peptide hormones is that of a polypeptide chain (chain of amino acids). The peptide hormones include molecules that are short polypeptide chains, such as antidiuretic hormone and oxytocin produced in the brain and released into the blood in the posterior pituitary gland. This class also includes small proteins, like growth hormones produced by the pituitary, and large glycoproteins such as follicle-stimulating hormone produced by the pituitary. Figure 3 illustrates these peptide hormones.

Oxytocin, growth hormone, and follicle stimulating hormone are all large, with complex three-dimensional structures.

Figure 3. The structures of peptide hormones (a) oxytocin, (b) growth hormone, and (c) follicle-stimulating hormone are shown. These peptide hormones are much larger than those derived from cholesterol or amino acids.

Secreted peptides like insulin are stored within vesicles in the cells that synthesize them. They are then released in response to stimuli such as high blood glucose levels in the case of insulin. Amino acid-derived and polypeptide hormones are water-soluble and insoluble in lipids. These hormones cannot pass through plasma membranes of cells; therefore, their receptors are found on the surface of the target cells.

Hormone Regulation

Hormone production and release are primarily controlled by negative feedback. In negative feedback systems, a stimulus elicits the release of a substance; once the substance reaches a certain level, it sends a signal that stops further release of the substance. In this way, the concentration of hormones in blood is maintained within a narrow range. For example, the amount of glucose in the blood controls the secretion of insulin and glucagons via negative feedback.

During hormone regulation, hormones are released, either directly by an endocrine gland or indirectly through the action of the hypothalamus of the brain, which stimulates other endocrine glands to release hormones in order to maintain homeostasis. The hormones activate target cells, which initiate physiological changes that adjust the body conditions. When normal conditions have been recovered, the corrective action – the production of hormones – is discontinued. Thus, in negative feedback, when the original (abnormal) condition has been repaired, or negated, corrective actions decrease or discontinue.

In another example of hormone regulation, the anterior pituitary signals the thyroid to release thyroid hormones. Increasing levels of these hormones in the blood then give feedback to the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary to inhibit further signaling to the thyroid gland, as illustrated in Figure 4.

The hypothalamus secretes thyrotropin-releasing hormone, which causes the anterior pituitary gland to secrete thyroid-stimulating hormone. Thyroid-stimulating hormone causes the thyroid gland to secrete the thyroid hormones T3 and T4, which increase metabolism, resulting in growth and development. In a negative feedback loop, T3 and T4 inhibit hormone secretion by the hypothalamus and pituitary, terminating the signal.

Figure 4. The anterior pituitary stimulates the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormones T3 and T4. Increasing levels of these hormones in the blood results in feedback to the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary to inhibit further signaling to the thyroid gland. (credit: modification of work by Mikael Häggström)


There are three mechanisms by which endocrine glands are stimulated to synthesize and release hormones: humoral stimuli, hormonal stimuli, and neural stimuli.

Humoral Stimuli

The term “humoral” is derived from the term “humor,” which refers to bodily fluids such as blood. A humoral stimuli refers to the control of hormone release in response to changes in extracellular fluids such as blood or the ion concentration in the blood. For example, a rise in blood glucose levels triggers the pancreatic release of insulin. Insulin causes blood glucose levels to drop, which signals the pancreas to stop producing insulin in a negative feedback loop.

Hormonal Stimuli

Hormonal stimuli refers to the release of a hormone in response to another hormone. A number of endocrine glands release hormones when stimulated by hormones released by other endocrine glands. For example, the hypothalamus produces hormones that stimulate the anterior portion of the pituitary gland. The anterior pituitary in turn releases hormones that regulate hormone production by other endocrine glands. The anterior pituitary releases the thyroid-stimulating hormone, which then stimulates the thyroid gland to produce the hormones T3 and T4. As blood concentrations of T3 and T4 rise, they inhibit both the pituitary and the hypothalamus in a negative feedback loop.

Neural Stimuli

In some cases, the nervous system directly stimulates endocrine glands to release hormones, which is referred to as neural stimuli. Recall that in a short-term stress response, the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are important for providing the bursts of energy required for the body to respond. Here, neuronal signaling from the sympathetic nervous system directly stimulates the adrenal medulla to release the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine in response to stress.

Practice Question

Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland is overactive. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland is underactive. Which of the conditions are the following two patients most likely to have?

  • Patient A has symptoms including weight gain, cold sensitivity, low heart rate and fatigue.
  • Patient B has symptoms including weight loss, profuse sweating, increased heart rate and difficulty sleeping.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.