When you think of hormones, what first springs to mind? PMS? A quick temper? Hormonal acne? Increased sex drive? You might only pay attention to hormones when you feel like they’re out of whack. Hormones often are disrupted during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and puberty, but other internal and external environmental stressors can also cause hormone imbalances. So if you suspect your hormones might be to blame for your monthly breakout, find out in this blog post as we examine the role of hormones in the human body.
The Endocrine System (ECS)
The endocrine system (ECS) is made up of a number of glands that are responsible for producing and secreting hormones. This includes the pituitary, hypothalamus, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands as well as the pancreas, ovaries, and testicles (depending on your gender). As with all systems in the body, the ECS is responsible for maintaining homeostasis – a state of stability among physiological processes for optimal functioning. The way it does this is by secreting chemical substances known as hormones.
Hormones are complex chemicals responsible for a variety of body functions and processes that can alter your mood, caloric intake, sleep quality, and skin and fertility, among other things. The main function of the ECS is to regulate hormonal release to maintain balance in all of the above so you feel and function well. The hormone produced depends on the gland that secretes it and the organ or tissue it is directed to. For example, the pituitary gland is located in the brain and produces hormones like growth hormone and prolactin that affect growth and reproduction. When the pituitary gland secretes these hormones, a female’s breasts lactate and grow to feed her child.
It’s not necessary to know which gland secretes which hormones and when because there are more than two hundred hormones in the ECS and understanding them all would be complex and unnecessary. For most people, it’s only advantageous to understand the hormones that have the biggest effect and what symptoms reflect an imbalance.
“Key” hormones vary a lot between individuals. These are some of the most helpful hormones to understand.
Estrogen is one of the most well-known sex hormones, alongside testosterone. It contributes to our sex drive and reproductive function. Both men and women have testosterone and estrogen in varying quantities depending on gender.
Research shows that too much testosterone in women can cause acne, hair loss, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Too much estrogen in men can stimulate breast tissue growth, erectile dysfunction, depression, or muscle catabolism. Low levels of sex hormones in both men and women can weaken the immune system, increase fat storage, decrease sex drive, cause mood disturbances, interfere with sleep, and even cause infertility.
Another well-known hormone, cortisol is the stress hormone. Sensory overload, impending deadlines, exercising too frequently, drinking too much coffee, or not sleeping enough can cause a cortisol spike. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism and storage. As an evolutionary adaptation, this provides extra energy to handle stressful events. However, this evolutionary adaptation has become maladaptive, because stress in the twenty-first century does not often require extra energy, so the extra energy is stored as fat.
Research shows that maintaining healthy levels of cortisol is integral to avoid weight gain, have a healthy insulin response, moderate food cravings, feel energized when you wake up, and perform well during exercise.
Progesterone is another hormone involved in fertility and menstruation. It’s a steroid hormone secreted by an endocrine gland after ovulation during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Progestin is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone and is common in contraceptive pills and combined with estrogen. This hormone prepares the endometrium for potential pregnancy after ovulation, triggering the uterus lining to thicken.
Low progesterone levels can cause abnormal bleeding, irregular periods, abdominal pain, and miscarriages.
Triiodothyronine and Thyroxine
Your thyroid gland releases two major hormones: triiodothyronine and thyroxine. They play an important role in regulating your metabolism, heart rate, energy levels, and body temperature and contribute to bone and skin maintenance. When your thyroid hormone levels are low, your metabolic rate decreases, causing weight gain, a cold body temperature, constipation, muscle weakness, and water retention. This is hypothyroidism. Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, does the opposite.
Serotonin is your happy hormone. It is integral in your mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, memory, sexual drive, and digestion. Low sex drive, digestive issues, and poor cognitive performance characterize depleted serotonin levels, whereas excess serotonin can cause depression or anxiety.
Insulin plays an essential role in metabolic functioning and anabolism. Carbohydrates flooding our bloodstream prompt an insulin release to signal to the cells to store excess energy. When an individual becomes insulin resistant, they often develop obesity and Type 2 diabetes, two of the most common diseases in the US today.
What Happens to Our Hormones During Menopause?
In the years leading up to menopause, our hormones change. The number one change is a decline in estrogen levels, resulting in vaginal dryness, fatigue, hot flashes, night sweats, and a decreased sex drive. Progesterone and testosterone also decrease, affecting sexual function and causing periods to stop. The decline in these hormones can also cause cognitive changes like poor memory recall and mood fluctuations. Integrate holistic health practices into your life to manage the extent to which these changing hormones affect you.
How Can We Regulate Our Hormones?
If you experience symptoms associated with hormone imbalance like acne, rapid weight gain or loss, fatigue, or mood fluctuations, adjusting your lifestyle can help support a healthy ECS and balanced hormones. Here are the top things you can do:
- Consume a varied, nutrient-dense, whole foods diet
- Minimize your intake of refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, coffee, and inflammatory food
- Engage in regular exercise at a moderate intensity with proper recovery
- Decrease carbohydrate intake
- Increase healthy fat consumption
- Manage stress
- Sleep seven to nine hours a night
- Regulate your eating pattern
- Practicing deep breathing
The treatment for hormone balancing depends on the individual in question. Each individual may have different symptoms, genetic predispositions, and lifestyle factors that may influence the treatment they need. If you have concerns about a hormonal imbalance, reach out to a holistic healthcare practitioner for a treatment plan specifically designed for you to find balance in your life.
When we take care of our body by treating it with care, love, and respect, our body serves us well. Our ECS maintains homeostasis, our hormones are effective, and we perform optimally in all we do. Our hormones define the way we look, the way we feel, and the way we show up in the world, so make sure you are supporting them rather than causing flux.
Article written by Anne Menik. Follow Essential Anne at www.essentialanne.com for more on looking, loving, and living healthier. Learn more about her story on our blog, or reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media by clicking here.