Optimal health requires understanding of hormones
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Hormones have many functions in the body.
They are best known for growth and reproduction, maintaining our libido, and regulating our moods. Although important, these functions are only the tip of the iceberg. Like the iceberg's much larger block of ice hidden below the water surface, hormones also have many more purposes and when out- of-balance, can affect our health in numerous ways.
In fact, you may have asked yourself one of the following questions that highlights their complexity:
- I feel tired but unable to determine the cause?
- I find it difficult to lose weight despite excess exercising and calorie counting?
- What are the pros and cons of different treatment options for hormonal imbalances?
- Does hormone replacement therapy either as synthetic or bioidentical hormones treat the cause or is it only minimizing symptoms?
- Are there any alternatives to the use of birth control pills or hormone-releasing IUDs for menstrual concerns?
- Can a deficiency or excess of one hormone (or gland) affect another hormone (or gland) in our bodies?
- Why does stress affect my sleep, energy levels, and can even contribute to menstrual problems?
- Are hormone imbalances an important cause of my disease?
The truth is that anyone with a chronic condition has a hormonal problem. My previous column entitled "Hormones play a role in all health problems" provided a good first discussion about hormones.
Let's now explore the interactions between hormones so that we can better understand how hormones can influence our health.
Simply put, hormones co-ordinate the continuous biochemical reactions that occur in ALL of our cells and systems in our body and brain.
Our bodies are constantly adjusting to changes in our internal environment (eg thoughts, digestive processes, circadian rhythms, etc.), and external environment (eg temperature changes, noises, listening to a someone speak, etc.). Hormones work very closely with our nervous system to achieve this state of balance (this dynamic equilibrium is a process that is called homeostasis).
To achieve ideal hormone homeostasis, one must have optimal functioning and interaction among the pineal gland, the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and specific glands such as thyroid, adrenal, ovary, and pancreas. For any given symptom or disease related to hormone imbalances, any one of these levels can be affected.
To illustrate this point, let's examine a few common examples:
Sleep and low energy
Insomnia is often associated with pineal gland dysfunction because this is where melatonin (often known as the sleep hormone) is secreted. While this is true, sleep problems reflect hormonal imbalances between cortisol, growth hormone and melatonin.
Cortisol is an important hormone secreted by our adrenal glands (also known as the 'stress' glands). Under normal health conditions, cortisol is highest in the morning giving the pick-up and go that is needed and should be lowest in the evening when it is time to relax before bed. In conjunction with our nervous system, it enables our body and mind to shut down for the night. When its 24-hour rhythm is offset, common symptoms can include feeling tired upon waking and feeling 'wired' in the evening before bed.
Different types of stressors have a 'trickle down affect' and can affect our bodies at one of more levels of the hypothalamus (also known as the control center), the pituitary gland, the adrenal gland, and/or the nervous system.
Our state of mind, whether relaxed or stressed, directly affects hormone balance. For example, prolonged periods of stress during the day, eating late, arguing with your spouse, watching an intense movie, overdoing mentally challenging work, or exercising too late can all cause raised cortisol levels leading to insomnia.
The link between adrenal health and the outcome of menopausal symptoms is an important one.
During the menopausal transition, the ovaries stop ovulating and decrease their production of progesterone and estrogen. This decline in female hormones causes the cessation of menses and can contribute to a host of unpleasant symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia, skin and vaginal dryness, low sex drive, memory and mood changes, and fatigue.
To make up for this lack of sex hormones, a woman's adrenal glands at this stage in life are designed to pick-up the slack for the ovaries.
The ovaries and adrenal glands are intimately connected during the menopausal transition. For more information about this topic, please read Dr. Gleixner previous column entitled "Understand the link between adrenal health, menopause".
The hypothalamus is the master control centre in the brain. It is on a constant 24-hour surveillance of what's going on in the body. It monitors and creates changes in the body based on our body temperature, hormone or mineral levels in the blood stream, and our emotions.
As it relates directly to the menstrual cycle, it regulates the pituitary gland's production of two hormones called LH and FSH. Simply put, FSH stimulates the ovaries to make estrogen, while LH triggers ovulation. The signals sent from the brain determine how much estrogen and progesterone are released by the ovaries.
When we understand the complexity of the hypothalamus, it is no wonder that menstruation and ovulation can be affected by stress, diet, and other hormones (such as the thyroid hormone or cortisol). These factors can cause abnormal secretion of LH and FSH by the hypothalamus, which in turn can lead to a host of menstrual imbalances. This can include the absence of menstruation, excessive menstruation, lack of ovulation during a menstrual cycle, infertility, menstrual cramps, PMS, etc.
Too often, synthetic progesterone (called progestins) and/or synthetic estrogen in the form of birth control pills, IUDs, or hormone replacement therapy are used to treat these hormonal imbalances. Although these can be effective at decreasing symptoms in the short term, it does not address the cause(s) behind hypothalamus/pituitary/ovarian disruption.
Low thyroid function
The thyroid gland, which is located in the throat area, produces hormones that control how quickly the body burns energy. Underactive thyroid (a condition called hypothyroidism) for example decreases our metabolism and can lead to weight gain, fatigue, constipation, feeling cold, dry skin/hair, etc.
The health of the thyroid gland is strongly dependent on the health of other glands shown in the embedded diagram. For those with low optimal adrenal gland function for example, have declined levels of cortisol. Both thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) and cortisol control the metabolism of all our cells in the body. We can see how the health of either the thyroid gland or adrenal gland will place a greater reliance on the other gland for metabolic processes.
A complete discuss of the thyroid gland is beyond the scope of this article. Please read the following article for more info related to thyroid gland imbalances/disease.
In conclusion, suboptimal hormone levels or hormone imbalances can cause a host of health concerns. Fatigue, menstrual changes, bone loss, menopausal symptoms, flabby skin, cravings, weight gain or loss, metabolism dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, low immunity and mood changes may all be related to hormones imbalances.
In fact, hormones play a role in ALL health problems. The same hormones that keep us healthy are the same hormones that may cause emotional and physical distress when not in balance.
In addition to standard lab tests and complaint oriented physical examinations, it is important to include a complete review of all symptoms (not just a patient's chief concern) and of all systems and organs in the body. Only when we look at the whole can we gain a complete perspective of one's state of health.
Hormone saliva testing conducted by naturopathic doctors is another useful tool for diagnosing abnormal hormone patterns that may be missed by conventional blood tests.
As I've often mentioned before, chronic health conditions and related hormonal imbalances are complicated and should be evaluated based on the greater context of your care. Work with your medical doctor and naturopathic doctor to assess the effect of hormones on your health.
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Wednesday October 12th, 2011 in Times & Transcript.
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