Hormones Aren’t Child’s Play
A woman’s physiology is complex. Our hormones fluctuate greatly depending on where we are in our life–puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding or menopause. Even within a month’s time, your hormones jump up and down like the blips on an EKG. This is normal. Without this hormonal ebb and flow, your special female qualities would be lost. The challenge women face is the discomfort from hormones that jump around too much. Many people call this “hormonal imbalance”.
Health care professionals believe 75 percent of women at some time in their lives experience symptoms related to hormonal imbalance–sometimes they’re not even aware the cause is hormonal. Have you ever been irritable, bloated, depressed, craved sugar so bad you ate spoonful’s from the bag or had menstrual cramps? Did you know these symptoms could be due to wild hormones? Perhaps you’ve experienced the hot flashes, insomnia, anxiety, and night sweats related to menopause. Are you concerned about bone loss in your post-menopausal years? Overly fluctuating hormones could be a contributing cause.
When you acknowledge the cause of your “woman problems” may be hormonal, you can take intelligent and effective steps to shift your body back into balance. You can make your system whole and healthy again with natural solutions. I did! During my healing journey, I learned how hormones work in a woman’s body. Along the way, I discovered a safe road that corrected hormone problems using natural therapies.
What Are Hormones?
The word “hormone” comes from the Greek word meaning to excite or to stir up. Immediately, I think of the sex hormones! The word sex brings up feelings of passion and excitement. How appropriate that hormone means to stir-up. When my hormones “stir-up”, I effectively “excite” everyone around me! Your hormones are imperative to your health. These chemical substances direct, regulate, and coordinate the activities of your entire system. It’s true that hormones manage basic sex drives and the reproductive system, but they also promote growth, control body temperature, maintain energy, repair tissues as well as aid in water and salt metabolism.
For example, estrogen, a steroid hormone, is made largely by your ovaries. This sex hormone is responsible for growth, development, maintenance and function of your sex organs. Estrogen is what gives you feminine characteristics like soft skin and an hourglass figure. In the next chapter, I will address this and another incredibly important sex hormone, progesterone, in more detail. For right now, you need to understand that estrogen and progesterone regulate the reproductive cycle and determine how you experience adolescence, menopause and all the years in between and beyond. Hormones have a powerful influence and effect on every cell in your body. To further your understanding, let’s take a closer look at the function of hormones, where they come from and how they get where they are supposed to be going.
Where Do Hormones Come From?
Hormones are produced and secreted by the endocrine glands–thyroid, pancreas, pineal, thymus, ovaries, testes, adrenals and parathyroid–into the bloodstream to evoke a response in another part of your body. This very large and important family of glands is your endocrine system. Your endocrine glands grab amino acids, cholesterol and other ingredients from your body, mix them up and make hormones. Each gland has its own job to do, but they all work together, too, so your body will run smoothly.
Who’s In Charge Of The Endocrine System?
The conductor of the endocrine system is the anterior pituitary gland, nestled at the base of your brain. It’s this gland that operates the feedback mechanism that controls where hormones are going and when they need to be shut off. This system works somewhat like a small computer in your body, sending and receiving messages. The big boss is the hypothalamus which sends special hormones called releasing factors to the pituitary, instructing it how to manage the other endocrine glands.
As you’ve probably guessed, the endocrine system is a busy place. It reminds me of those cloverleaf highways in Los Angeles where cars are zipping all over the place. Your hormones are like those cars, and the exits are the different cells and tissues in your body. LA drivers get to their destinations by reading street signs. Your hormones work the same way. Not all hormones affect all cells in your body. When cruising through your bloodstream, hormones depend on specific hormone receptors–“street signs”–on designated cells to direct them.
Once a particular hormone has found its “target” cell, then a cascade of chemical reactions kicks that cell into action. Without a receptor to receive the hormone, nothing can happen. You can also think of receptors like a lock and the hormone as the key that opens that lock. Once a hormone “opens” a cell up, depending on the hormone and the type of cell it fits, any number of things can happen. That cell might make more hormones, it could produce a protein or cause a muscle cell to contract.
Throughout your body, there are receptor cells for estrogen and progesterone. For example, both estrogen and progesterone receptors reside in your breasts. Estrogen makes your breasts firm and full, while progesterone has the opposite effect and leaves them soft and mushier. If you have PMS, your estrogen levels most likely overshoot during the last half of your cycle and your progesterone falls too low. Have ever wondered why you have breast tenderness or swelling a few weeks before your period? It could be that you have too much estrogen clogging up the receptors on your breast cells creating full, firm, swollen breasts.
A synthetic progestogen (called progestin) won’t help your aching breasts. While man-made progesterone is similar in structure to your own natural source, it’s not close enough to reduce symptoms. Your body does not have receptors to fully recognize synthetic hormones, therefore your symptoms continue and may even worsen with these drugs.
Under normal conditions, there is a harmonious balance between the endocrine glands, nervous system, and the response of the receptor cells. If a gland or some related part of your body isn’t working right, a hormonal deficiency or excess can occur, causing what some call an imbalance. Stress or improper diet, for example, can adversely affect your glands, disrupt your feedback mechanism and upset hormonal secretions.
An Introduction To The Endocrine System
Let me personally introduce you to each of the glands and organs and tell you a little more about them and their hormones.
The hypothalamus gland plays a major role in regulating your menstrual cycle and the production of female hormones. Located in the brain, it activates messages sent to the endocrine system and is linked to your nervous system controlling countless bodily functions like body temperature, thirst, and hunger. The hypothalamus is sensitive to physical and emotional stress which can affect its ability to send signals to the anterior pituitary. These upsets can alter what the hypothalamus tells the pituitary, and thus the rest of the endocrine system. The ultimate result may be topsy-turvy hormones and an irregular menstrual cycle.
The pituitary gland is a small body joined to the hypothalamus at the base of your brain. The pituitary is actually divided into two separate glands–the anterior pituitary and the posterior pituitary. The anterior pituitary gland supplies a special brand of hormones that control your endocrine glands and regulate your menstrual cycle. The anterior pituitary also releases its own set of hormones, namely prolactin, the breastfeeding hormone, and growth hormone.
The posterior pituitary, a neighbor but unrelated to the anterior pituitary, is responsible for two hormones–antidiuretic hormone (ADH) and oxytocin. ADH helps you maintain arterial blood pressure, for example, during blood loss, by retrieving water from your kidneys. Oxytocin contracts the uterus during childbirth and causes milk let-down during breast feeding.
Your pineal gland is a member of the endocrine system but isn’t really a gland. Nerve messages tell the pineal when to release its hormone, melatonin. Your pineal gland and melatonin are thought to keep your biological clock ticking. Temperature, light, and emotions command the pineal gland regulating your sleep, mood, immunity, aging and your menstrual cycle.
An adrenal gland sits on top of each kidney. Each adrenal consists of two parts–the cortex and the medulla. All adrenal hormones are ruled by adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) from the anterior pituitary. The adrenal cortex is the outer part of the gland responsible for making and secreting three kinds of steroid hormones. The first kind, called mineralocorticoids, includes aldosterone which keeps your blood pressure normal by balancing sodium, potassium and fluid levels.
Your doctor might have prescribed cortisone for you at some time. This popular drug is very much like the glucocorticoid hormones, cortisol and corticosterone, also made by your adrenal cortex. Besides reducing inflammation, these hormones regulate blood pressure, support normal muscle function, promote protein breakdown, distribute body fat and increase blood sugar as needed. Your adrenal cortex also manufactures small amounts of the sex hormone estrogen, and the male hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
The medulla is in the inner part of the adrenal gland that acts more like it’s a part of your nervous system than your endocrine system. The medulla’s hormones, epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and norepinephrine, are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system when you’re scared or mad. When these hormones are released, your heart pounds, your blood pressure soars and you’re ready to fight!
The thyroid and parathyroid
Your windpipe is straddled by the two lobes of your thyroid gland, and snuggled in their underbelly are four tiny parathyroid glands. The thyroid gland produces the hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine–essential for growth, body temperature, regulation of proteins, fats, and the breakdown of carbohydrates needed for energy. Calcitonin, a blood calcium-lowering hormone, is also released by the thyroid and parathyroid. Your parathyroids (“para” means beside) emit parathormone (PTH) that controls phosphate and calcium metabolism for keeping your bones and nerves healthy. Thyrotrophin from the anterior pituitary keeps your thyroid hormones in check.
Squeezed behind your breast bone and just below the thyroid is an irregularly shaped member of both your endocrine and immune systems–the thymus gland. Your thymus grows until you’re a teenager, then shrinks with age as fat fills in for the lost lymphatic tissue. Your thymus hormones are thymosin, thymopoeitin and serum thymic factor. They supervise several immune operations, particularly those that protect you from yeast, fungi, parasites, viruses, cancer, and allergies.
The long slender pancreas lurks behind your stomach. You’re probably most familiar with the insulin and glucagon it makes, released by the islets of langerhans. These opposing hormones cooperate to keep your blood sugar even. Glucagon works together with epinephrine, growth hormone and glucocorticoids to prevent your blood glucose from dipping too low. High blood sugar calls your insulin into action, making sure glucose is passed from your blood into your muscles and body fat.
Your pancreas is a multi-talented organ. Did you know that without your pancreas, you wouldn’t digest your food very well? Besides its endocrine duties, the acini cells of your pancreas make and spill 2½ pints of digestive enzyme-containing juice each day–amylase for starch, lipase for fat and protease for protein–into your small intestine.
The ovaries are a pair of small almond-size female endocrine glands that are connected to either side of the uterus via fallopian tubes. Your ovaries take turns releasing one egg per month during ovulation. The ovaries produce estrogen and progesterone, hormones that make you a woman with your menstrual cycle, large breasts and hips, and soft skin. Pregnancy also depends on these hormones, as well as breast feeding. During pregnancy, the placenta also produces progesterone and estrogen, taking over from your ovaries.
The testes are a man’s source of the male sex hormone, testosterone.