What Are Gonads and What Do They Do?
The internet is amazing. It lets you ask all kinds of questions that you would never want to voice aloud. Have a weird itch in your pants? You can ask Google before you let anyone else know about it. Don’t know how to spell “a lot” (it’s two words)? You don’t have to let anyone know how stupid you are sometimes. Don’t worry too much. We all do it.
Of course, that’s what brought you here. You heard the term “gonad” in a biology class at some point. You probably sniggered and made jokes, and that’s why you don’t really know what the word means. It has something to do with sex, but that’s the limit of your vague understanding. Well, we’re going to enlighten you. By the time you’re done here, you’ll know more than you bargained for and be a veritable expert on the human gonad. Emphasis is on “human.” We’re not getting into animal science today. Maybe that will make a fun post for another time.
According to Science . . .
Let’s start with the very basics. The gonad is a term that describes sexual reproduction organs. You can stop giggling. You’re not 13 anymore (those of you who are 13 and reading this are welcome to continue giggling). You might notice that there have been no gender-specific terms so far. That’s because the gonad is a neutral term. It’s used in biology for sex organs across species and sexes. In humans, it specifically refers to the testes and ovaries.
To be a little more specific, the gonad is the reproductive gland in a species. That means it’s going to be a big player in hormone secretion and regulation. It also means that it’s at the root of the entire reproductive system. We’ll break it all down in a minute, but if you need a short answer to the question, gonads run your sex life, literally.
Before we get into the fun stuff, we have to nerd out a little. The vocabulary word for the day is gametes. Like gonads, gametes are gender-neutral. This is the word that describes reproductive cells. In other words, eggs and sperm are both gametes, and the gonad’s defining role in your body is to produce them. Well, it’s to produce one of them. If you’re producing both, you should probably see a doctor. There’s money to be made in that kind of medical marvel.
So, What Do Testes Do?
Sure, your testicles make sperm. That’s all good and well, but it’s actually a minor part of their total job description. The testes are integral to the function of your entire body. At the basic level, they control the entire sexual system, but human beings are very sexual creatures. Anything that is used to regulate your sex drive or organs will invariable impact your whole body. In fact, your testes very well might control more of your overall physiology than your brain. The old joke about guys thinking with two heads has some medical validity to it. It turns out that your very concept of masculinity all stems from this one organ.
Making Sex Possible
From before you were even born, your gonad provided the hormones that helped you develop your total sexual system. No, really. When you were still developing inside your mother’s belly, your gonad was the first sexual organ to develop. It then regulated the hormones that shaped you penis and everything else. In fact, the length, girth and shape of your penis were all locked in, by your testes, when you were still pre-born. You can’t blame your parents for this one. It turns out that your inadequacies are all your own fault.
As a grown man, your testes are still in charge of everything having to do with sex. The simple ability to have a boner is all dependent on the hormone regulation going on inside your balls. Even morning wood is caused by this. That’s right. It has nothing to do with having to pee. When you sleep, your body produces less inhibin (more on this in a minute). That’s the hormone that reduces the impact of testosterone. So, without that inhibitor (the name isn’t a coincidence), the testosterone gets you nice and woody. It’s all hormones, and it’s all run inside the sack.
The same is true when you’re awake and sexually stimulated. Whether you see something sexy or anything at all accidentally brushes up against your junk, the response is largely hormonal. Things secreted by the gonad are telling your blood vessels to dilate, and the erection ensues. Isn’t it fun to learn that your very concept of sexual attraction is really just a bunch of chemicals floating around inside of you? Sadly, none of this is an acceptable excuse for inappropriate boners. It’s hard being a man sometimes.
Speaking of hormones, your gonad is pretty amazing. It pumps your body with natural hormones throughout the day and night. You’re familiar with some of these. Testosterone is the major steroid, and it’s responsible for your muscle density, bone density (sort of) and a whole bunch of other things that make you the man you are. We also just mentioned inhibin. While it’s used to rein in the effects of testosterone, it has steroidal properties of its own. The third major hormone is androstenedione. Many anabolic steroids are actually derived from this naturally-occurring hormone.
Male gonads also produce estrogen and a slew of other hormones, but you get a lot less of them than you do the big three. The full cocktail of juices pumping through your body determines a lot of your physical characteristics. What’s crazy, though, is that the gonad isn’t just making these hormones. It’s also determining their distribution.
The gonad actually sits at the heart of the endocrine system. There are a few other major glands, but the testes are determining how your hormones are dispersed and how they interact with your body. It’s actually kind of mind bending. Sexual hormones work on a natural negative feedback loop. This means that your body’s response to any given hormone intrinsically reduces the amount that you need to produce. So, even though you use inhibin to keep testosterone in check, testosterone helps keep itself in check.
This is why hormone supplements and steroid use can be so dangerous. When you dose and get hormone levels really high, it’s telling your body to stop production. This effect is baked into the hormones themselves, so you can’t counteract it with an external stimulus. If you do this enough, it can permanently lower your testosterone account, as well as other vital hormones.
The craziest thing about all of this is how the hormones actually work. They dictate which genes in the cells of your body are most active. It’s through this mechanism that you get the myriad of developmental effects and instant biological responses to each hormone. Your gonad is basically performing gene therapy on you all day, every day.
When Things Go Wrong
That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that your testes can be linked to some serious health problems. Before we discuss this elephant in the room, it’s time for a little disclaimer. Hypochondriacs should probably skip to the next section. We aren’t going to be hitting you with disturbing pictures, but if you’re highly susceptible to these kinds of things, this section could have you walking away with sore balls.
With that out of the way, let's talk about how your testes can really hurt you. Even through hormone regulation, you can get testicular torsion, epididymitis and hypogonadism. Testicular torsion is what it sounds like. The tubes inside your balls get twisted. It can be excruciatingly painful and cause a whole bunch of side-effects that you don’t want to experience.
Epididymitis is an inflammation of the gonad that stems from the tube that carries sperm. It can cause swelling, pain, discharges and other issues. While this is usually linked to infection, the specific nature of the problem stems from how the infection interacts with your hormones. It’s weird.
Hypogonadism is the fancy doctor word for low testosterone. A lot of things can contribute to this, but low T can be bad for you in general. It hurts your physical and mental health at the same time, and it can complicate all kinds of other things. Low testoserone can be linked to a lot of external factors, but in the end, it's the testes that are proliferating the problem. Whether steroid use, trauma or something else is the root source, it's how these things change your gonad that leads to low testosterone and the problems attached to it. That's also why treatments can range from taking supplements to corrective surgery.
The worst way your gonad can go wrong is with cancer. For starters, testicular cancer is a thing that happens and it can be very serious. Likewise prostate and other reproductive cancers are often linked to the things happening inside of your balls. What’s crazier is that your testes are often tied to cancers that are nowhere near your balls. Because of how sex hormones impact cells at the DNA level, any endocrine-related cancer can potentially be traced back to your balls. In other cases, it's the endocrine system that helps cancers spread. As much as you love them, sometimes they don’t love you back. But, that doesn't mean you should be thinking of them as a time bomb. Despite ties to the testes, all cancers are complicated and hard to predict. As much as we all hate cancer, it's important to remember that a minority of people will every develop any form of it. We just think it's fascinating to know that your balls are possibly the deadliest organ in any man.
Now, some of you who shouldn’t have read that section did. If you had any of the health problems listed (except for low T), it would be hard to walk. You don’t have cancer. You don’t have torsion. You’re fine. Let’s distract ourselves from the horror of ball disorders by learning about the fairer sex.
What About the Ladies?
Oh, you thought this was all going to be about you? You Googled gonads. That means women are involved in this too. It’s probably for the best. It’s long past time for you to learn some of the basics of female anatomy. This is doubly true for any of you planning to live with (or heaven forbid, please) a woman. There’s no question about it. You guys are woefully lacking in knowledge. This crash course is far from a complete guide, but learning about the female gonad is a great place to start — especially since a lot of it will relate to what you just learned about your own gonad.
Just like with men, female gonads (the ovaries) drive the entire reproductive system. All of the sexual structures you like to think about are developed through exposure to hormones driven by the ovaries. We’re not just talking about the parts between the legs. The shape of the hips, breast development and basically every part of a body that appears feminine is directed by these hormones. For a woman to look like a woman, the hormonal balance has to be there. It’s kind of weird to realize that the entire social side of sexual reproduction is just one set of hormones reacting to another set in an infinite loop.
So, while some of you think of ovaries as the enemy (kids are the worst possible outcome of sex, right?), they might actually be your favorite part of women, anatomically speaking.
Female hormones parallel what you just learned about male hormones. The ovaries produce all of the major sex hormones, but there are three that are much more abundant. Those are estrogen, progesterone and activin. Estrogen is like the female analogue to testosterone. It’s the major player in determining uniquely feminine characteristics. Progesterone and activin largely control menstruation. So, the next time you find yourself completely confused by female behavior, you know what’s really to blame.
On a more serious note, these are largely the same hormones that impact your body. That means that the ovaries are steering women at a genetic level, just like your testes control a lot more of your life than your brain does. That also means that the ovaries are at the root of a number of health problems for women.
The Health Issues
Cancer aside, ovarian cysts and torsion are bad news. When you read about testicular torsion, you probably winced haplessly. Ovarian torsion is considerably worse. Same with the cysts. They tend to be brutally painful, and they can come with some serious side-effects to boot. You may have learned that ovaries are never your enemy, but sadly, they can be the enemy of women at times.
As for cancer, it’s pretty much the same deal. Swap testicular cancer for ovarian cancer, and you find that men and women are a lot alike in this regard. The ovaries are a major driver of the endocrine system, and they can be tied to a number of cancers.
If any ladies are reading this, we need to apologize. We didn’t give you a disclaimer. We will take a moment to give you the same assurances we gave the men a minute ago. Ovarian health problems come with debilitating pain. If you can focus your eyes enough to read this, you’re probably fine. But, if you don’t want to take key medical advice from a blog on the internet, it’s always ok to talk to a health professional. There’s a reason they haven’t been replaced by Google, yet.
This concludes today’s lesson. You learned that the gonad isn’t just a silly word to use to describe your junk. It's possibly the most important part of your whole body. It runs the show, and it’s pretty much the whole story of what makes you a man. You’re still probably going to laugh the next time your hear the word pop up, but then you’re going to bore everyone around you with the mass of trivia knowledge you just acquired. So, until next time, have fun out there telling people more than they need to know about their gonads, and maybe this will help you answer one more question at trivia night.