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  • Writer's pictureTania Cucciniello

Want to Better Understand Hormones? Now You Can- Part 1

Updated: May 3, 2020


Have you ever experienced a long list of random symptoms and just can't figure out why? Random symptoms that noticeably start to affect your quality of living such as unexplainable weight loss or weight gain, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, frequent urination, excess sweating, sudden skin irritations such as eczema, bloating, changes in appetite or sex drive and sudden hair loss can all be attributed to a hormonal imbalance. Some examples of hormonal imbalances happening throughout the body include hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia, adrenal depletion and deficiencies in iodine or vitamin D. Changing habits to try to regulate hormones could be challenging, even the most active and fit people who are doing everything right in their diet and exercise can experience these sudden changes and need to figure out why. Perhaps a moment of extreme stress was experienced and the side-effects of the stress embedded themselves deeply into the body. Stress is so powerful that it can completely turn healthy systems in the body "out of whack"; and that term is often the description used when a person feels a hormonal imbalance.

How do hormones affect the body?

Hormones are a class of chemicals that are produced by the glands and organs in the body, they travel mainly through the bloodstream to other organs and tissues. The system in the body that is involved in this process is called the endocrine system. The endocrine system and the nervous system work closely together to direct the proper activity of cells which we need to maintain homeostasis in the body. Homeostasis is the dynamic state of equilibrium in the body's internal environment, meaning the human body is constantly experiencing changes in its internal and external environments and must adapt. The human body is constantly receiving signals from what we eat, to what our heart rate is, to changes in body temperature; the endocrine system helps regulate these factors to stay within normal ranges.

The endocrine system helps the body stay within normal ranges by controlling what they are responsible for. The main functions of the endocrine system include:

  • Control of blood and interstitial fluid in the body

  • Control of the basal metabolic rate and energy reserves

  • Control of the circadian rhythm

  • Determine the quality of smooth and cardiac muscle contractions

  • Regulate gland secretion activity

  • Regulate the activity of the immune system and reproductive system

  • Control the growth and development of the body

The endocrine system controls these activities following a stimulation and then determines the proper secretion of hormones needed to maintain homeostasis and prevent under production or overproduction of the hormones involved.

What stimulates hormone production?

Many factors can stimulate the production of "stress hormones" and "good hormones". We begin with the hypothalamus which is located in the brain; the hypothalamus is responsible for almost all incoming sensory information regarding the body. At the base of the hypothalamus is a pea-shaped structure called the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus receives the message then signals the pituitary gland which controls growth hormones, the thyroid glands, the adrenal glands, the reproductive organs and the mammary glands. Amongst these organs, let's look at the adrenal glands; there are 2 adrenal glands in the body and they are located one on top of each kidney.

The adrenal glands are responsible for secreting the main types of stress hormones which are adrenaline, cortisol, androgens and aldosterone. When the body is under extreme stress these stress hormones get secreted and the "fight or flight" reaction is initiated in the body. For example, adrenaline is needed and produced during bouts of exercise, which is a good stress. However, excess exercise or never exercising at all can lead to adrenal depletion and stimulation of the cardiovascular system, muscular system and respiratory system decreases, becoming increasingly difficult to stimulate the metabolic system, leading to weight gain.

Cortisol also targets organs involved in the cardiovascular, muscular, nervous, lymphatic and immune systems. Cortisol has similar effects as adrenaline and plays a key role in metabolism, connective tissue repair and healing wounds. Regulating cortisol levels by decreasing levels of mental stress can give enough energy to the body to resist long-term, chronic stress.

Androgens describe the sex hormones testosterone and androstenedione. Androgen hormones work closely with the hormones secreted by the gonads - organs present in both men and women. They are responsible for sex drive/libido and reproductive activity specifically sperm cells by the testicles and ovum by the ovaries. The ovaries also secrete estrogen and progesterone which help regulate menstrual and ovulation cycles. The secretion of sex hormones is important for sexual development, differentiation and function of the reproductive organs.

The organs involved with the hormone aldosterone are the kidneys, where the control of water and minerals occurs. Aldosterone promotes sodium and water reabsorption in the kidneys. This is not the same negative connotation we assume when we hear salt and water retention and we think of water weight. Aldosterone prevents sodium loss in the body which leads to water reabsorption and results in decreased urine volume and decreased frequent urination. Sufficient iodized salt levels in the body are also needed for the thyroid gland to work properly.

The Thyroid Gland

The thyroid gland has two lobes and is located in the throat, more specifically under the larynx with each lobe lying on either side of the trachea. The thyroid gland has its own set of glands called the parathyroid glands which are 2 masses that sit on the posterior surface of each thyroid lobe, for a total of 4 parathyroid glands. Parathyroid glands are the most important regulators of calcium in the blood, which stimulate the activity of bone osteoclasts and osteoblasts. This means that when calcium levels in the blood are within normal ranges, osteoclasts can function properly in their role to break down bone tissue and osteoblasts can form new bone and rebuild.

The thyroid hormones also affect the bones along with the muscles and nervous tissues in the body. The hormones secreted by the thyroid gland are T3, T4 (abbreviated) and calcitonin. Calcitonin promotes excretion of excess calcium by the kidneys and prevents absorption of calcium in the intestines, which aids the parathyroids to use calcium as needed by the bones.

The hormones T3 (thyroxin) and T4 ( triiodothyronine) play a big role in regulating the metabolism by controlling the amount of oxygen used to generate energy (ATP) in cells. They also help stimulate protein synthesis and breakdown carbohydrates and lipids. They are responsible for growth and development during adolescence and for growth of muscle tissue during weight training. As mentioned above, the presence of iodine for the thyroid gland to function is important because iodine is used to produce thyroid hormones. A diet that is deficient in iodine can lead to hypothyroidism, which leads to a slower metabolism, constantly feeling fatigue or cold, poor muscle tone and weight gain. If you are someone who has avoided salt in your diet perhaps to help your cardiovascular system, but now you can't get any results in the gym, it could be due to lack of iodized salt. Incrementally introducing a small and healthy amount back into your diet could be the boost your thyroid needs to get those energy levels back to normal.

On the other hand, it goes without saying that too much iodized salt in your diet is not good either. This can lead to hyperthyroidism which leads to rapid heart beat, chest palpitations, intolerance to heat, rapid weight loss, insomnia and even diarrhea. Ensure to drink sufficient amounts of water to help dilute the high levels of iodine and help keep the tissues in the digestive system hydrated to prevent diarrhea. Also make sure to vary between drinking plain water and enough water with electrolytes in it to help proper mineral absorption in the body which helps balance hormones. Make your own electrolyte water using coconut water with a squeeze of lemon or lime, avoid store bought electrolyte drinks as they are full of sugar.

To wrap up Part 1- the relationships between stress, diet, exercise and our hormones are complex and something to keep in mind when we feel imbalanced. We can see that the adrenal glands and thyroid glands secrete key hormones involved in weight loss or weight gain, but they are only a minimal amount in the group of hormones that control weight. Other hormones involved include insulin - which promotes glucose transformation, ghrelin - the hunger hormone that tells your body it needs nutrients (not just calories, but food with vitamins and minerals to help proper hormone secretion) and leptin - the satiety hormone that tells us when we are full from eating. In Part 2, we will look at more ways to balance your hormones naturally and the good hormones that make us feel well! Yes, in a homeostatic state, there is a good side to hormones... stay tuned!

For more information on the endocrine system, visit The Body Blog's Anatomy board on Pinterest!

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