Your brain controls your body in two ways – the nervous and the endocrine system. The nervous system is used for immediate, shorter actions and reactions, whereas, the endocrine system uses chemical messengers called hormones that regulate bodily functions over a wider span of time.
How do hormones work?
Hormones travel through the blood stream carrying unique messages that change your mood, regulate your sleep, help you break down food (metabolism), and aid your growth and development. A normal hormonal process includes the following steps:
- The brain sends a signal to any of the endocrine glands (e.g. pituitary, thyroid, pancreas)
- The gland releases the hormones into the bloodstream
- The hormones are targeted to specific cells with markers for that hormone
- The message is recognized and acted on by these marker cells
- This creates the desired change in a bodily function (often a response to external factors)
- The hormone is broken down
How do hormones affect your health?
Hormones are secreted into the bloodstream through endocrine glands found in various areas of the body, and control specific functions including:
- Pituitary gland: Helps growth and development, controls secretion of many essential hormones and maintains fluid balance in the body by tightly controlling urine output
- Thyroid gland: Regulates heart rate and calorie usage and affects body weight
- Adrenal gland: Affects stress and mineral balance in the body
- Pancreas: Regulates blood sugar levels and food digestion
- Ovaries/testes: Controls female and male sex hormones respectively
What happens when hormone levels go awry?
As hormones play such a critical role in your body’s processes, even a slight change in levels in the bloodstream can cause seriously impact your everyday health. This is called a hormonal imbalance. While certain life stages like menopause or pregnancy may naturally create a hormonal imbalance, there are several other health issues that can be a cause too:
- Estrogen: This is a defining female hormone. Low estrogen levels (more common than high estrogen) can be a result of excessive exercise, eating disorders or problems in the pituitary gland or ovaries. An estrogen imbalance may cause acne, skin lesions or even osteoporosis along with, moodiness and depression.
- Testosterone: Commonly identified as the male hormone, testosterone imbalances can cause weight gain, decreased libido, insomnia and poor memory in men. Low testosterone can cause erectile dysfunction while, in women, high testosterone deepen their voice or lead to excessive hair growth.
- Thyroxine: This hormone is key to your emotional and physical wellbeing. It affects your mood, sleep cycles, energy levels, appetite, body weight and some muscular functions. Low thyroxine may lead to depression, weight gain, constipation and fatigue while higher levels can create agitation, weight loss, fast heartbeat and hot weather intolerance.
- Cortisol: Cortisol helps you pump-up on your energy and controls physical and psychological stress. Cortisol is one of the key hormones to your fight-or-flight responses, which normally curbs to normal levels after a while. However, unnaturally imbalanced cortisol may lead to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, fatigue, anxiety, osteoporosis and even high cholesterol when levels are high. Low cortisol can result in chronic fatigue, loss of appetite and weight loss, and abdominal pain.
Hormonal imbalance shouldn’t ring alarms in your head, but a visit your doctor or endocrinologist will help you understand and manage your condition. There are, however, changes you can make on your own that can help normalize your hormone levels:
- Being physically active
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Managing stress
- Sleeping well regularly
- Consuming a diet that is rich in healthy fats and fiber
Depending on your condition, your doctor or endocrinologist may recommend a treatment plan which can consist of hormone control or replacement medication, vitamin supplements, and even lifestyle changes to help you get your hormones back in balance.