I first learned about hormones in that awkward class in fifth grade - you know the one where they separate the girls and boys, hand out deodorant and feminine products, and scare you with all the changes headed your way? Come to find out, there’s a lot more to hormones than just menstrual cramps and curious teenagers.
Hormones are either influencing or being influenced by every sleeping and waking interaction we have.
Hormones secrete from multiple organs in the body and target different responses throughout the body. Whether we admit it or not, hormones play a huge role in everyday life.
The body uses over fifty different hormones to communicate in a complex network. Hence the term “chemical messengers.” While we can leave the really complex stuff to medical professionals, understanding the basics is like having an intuitive map to the body! So, I’m breaking down five essential hormones that influence areas of our every day lives.
Ever heard of Melatonin? Maybe you’ve seen it sold over the counter in pharmacies. Melatonin is a sleep aid already produced naturally in the body! Melatonin secretes from the pineal gland and dictates our sleep and wake cycles, also known as the circadian rhythm.
Tip: Did mom ever give you warm milk before bed? While you don’t necessarily have to drink milk, take your bedtime routine seriously! Melatonin begins secreting in the evening, responding to nature’s setting sun.
With technology being so pervasive in our culture, blue light from electronic screens suppresses our production of Melatonin.
So skip electronics an hour before bed, and get some good sunshine in the morning to keep your circadian rhythm in check.
Insulin and Glucagon are most related to the breakdown and use of blood sugar in the body. The pancreas secretes both Insulin and Glucagon, regulating our blood sugar and affecting our energy. Insulin allows sugars from food to enter the cells for storage. Glucagon works in the opposite fashion, releasing glucose from cell storage into the bloodstream for muscles and organs to use.
Tip: Eat a balanced combination of healthy fats, proteins, and greens. All the hype about nutrition is real - balanced nutrition regulates hormones, prevents insulin spikes, and reduces episodes of low blood sugar. What does low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) feel like? Symptoms include anxiety, clammy skin, lightheadedness, and nausea. If you’re experiencing these symptoms often, seek treatment from your primary physician. And if you experience a fainting episode, always seek emergency evaluation and treatment.
Two primary sex hormones in women’s health are Estrogen and Progesterone. Estrogen, the main sex hormone for women, secretes from the ovaries. Estrogen plays a large role in development during puberty, pregnancy, and regulation of the menstrual cycle. Progesterone also plays a role in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. Most of the symptoms women experience during their cycle, both physical and emotional, can be traced back to the dips and elevations of these two hormones. These hormones are also important for post-menopausal women and transgender women seeking hormone therapy, with many different treatments available as science advances.
Tip: Get to know your body! It’s never too late to learn about our bodies in a more intimate way. If you’re extra curious, check out Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. The book has a plethora of information. Included topics are tracking your menstrual cycle, and learning natural methods for birth control or trying to conceive. Your OB/GYN is another great resource for fertility counseling, contraception, and hormone replacement therapies.
Stress isn’t limited to the mind. Stress affects every part of the body. During periods of stress, the adrenal glands secrete Cortisol, dubbed the “stress hormone.”
Little do most people know, Cortisol plays a critical role in regular body functions.
Cortisol regulates blood pressure, metabolism, blood sugar levels, formation of memories, and reduction of inflammation. Chronic high levels of Cortisol become problematic, putting individuals at higher risk for mood disorders like anxiety and depression, decreased sex drive in women, muscle weakness, and high blood pressure.
Tip: Take time to play! Get your body out of fight-or-flight mode and give yourself a break. Check out new methods to manage stress, and free yourself from judgement. Some natural methods to reduce stress include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and acupuncture. In a pinch? Take a walk outside and spend some time in nature, practicing awareness of the beauty in your environment.
I will never forget the peppy explanation of Endorphins by Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde. Endorphins are hormones! And like Elle says, “Exercise gives you endorphins! Endorphins make you happy!” Regular exercise also helps to regulate other essential hormones, like Cortisol, Human Growth Hormone, Estrogen, and Testosterone (yes ladies, we have testosterone too). Human Growth Hormone is one of the essential, basic hormones needed for development in childhood and adolescence. It also plays a role in strengthening bone and muscle with exercise.
Tip: Get some movement. Start small. Choose activities and exercises that you enjoy, and commit to doing them three times per week. As you grow in strength, you can increase exercise time and resistance. When it comes to exercise, my motto is: Something is better than nothing!
There we have it. A crash course in hormones. While many natural, non-pharmacological methods exist to to manage hormones, I always encourage readers to discuss health plans with a physician. Some common disruptions in hormones, like hypothyroidism, require lab testing to diagnose. And because of the wide alterations in environmental and food exposure over the past 100 years, it’s never been more important to educate ourselves on the role of hormones.
Thankfully, we find ourselves in an age with incredible diagnostic tools to help pinpoint areas of imbalance in our lives. Paired with the basic lifestyle changes that promote hormone balance and overall health, there’s never been a better time to know your hormones.
Photos by Eileen Roche