Hello, Hormones! Getting To Know Your Body Better

Donna Ison

 

Most people have heard of hormones, but few actually understand what they do and how they do it—and, even more importantly, how to recognize potential problems and find a fix. This article offers an overview and answers to some common questions.

According to the Hormone Health Network at hormone.org, “Hormones are your body’s chemical messengers. They travel in your bloodstream to tissues or organs. They work slowly, over time, and affect many different processes.” These processes include metabolism, mood, growth and development, reproductive health, and sexual desire and function. Too much or too little of any hormone can have adverse effects on all of the above.

Laura Coombs, personal trainer and author of Of Course Your Knees Hurt, further explained, “We generally think of hormones as being responsible for fertility, reproduction, and virility. And that’s certainly part of the hormone story. But they also affect our mood, hunger, fatigue, mental focus, fat storage, inflammation, sleep, muscle mass, and overall vigor. No matter your age or your phase in life, they really are the answer to everything.”

Coombs is a certified athletic trainer, strength coach, and posture therapist with 30 years of experience working with athletes and active adults. Her focus is on helping clients implement the critical aspects of optimal aging into their daily lifestyle, which includes understanding the role of hormones.

EVERYTHING ENDOCRINE

“The endocrine system is a series of glands that produce and secrete hormones that the body uses for a wide range of functions. Hormones are produced by glands and sent into the bloodstream to the various tissues in the body. Hormones tell each part of your body what work to do, when to do it, and for how long,” the Hormone Health Network stated.

The primary glands of the endocrine system are the hypothalamus, thyroid, parathyroid, pineal, pituitary, pancreas, and adrenal, along with the ovaries for women and testes for men. Each of these glands is linked to a specific function, ranging from calcium control to insulin production to body temperature. At the top of the gland chain is the pituitary, sometimes referred to as “the master control gland” because it informs the other glands. In women, the ovaries produce the female sex hormone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which is mistakenly only associated with men. For men, the testes are responsible for testosterone and the male sex hormone as well as sperm.

HAPPY HORMONES, HAPPY HUMAN

When our hormones are functioning properly, our bodies make certain we stay at an optimal temperature, experience appropriate hunger, and thirst, have an active libido, and generate sufficient energy for daily activities. Conversely, a hormone imbalance can lead to a host of problems.

Coombs stated, “As a trainer, the symptoms I see most are tight muscles, creaky joints, delayed recovery from physical activity, loss of muscle mass, low energy, cravings, poor sleep, and unexplained change in weight.”

BALANCING ACT

When our hormones are not being produced and dispersed at the necessary levels, we are said to have a hormone imbalance. The Hormone Health Network stated, “Sometimes hormones get out of balance. That can lead to problems like diabetes, weight gain or loss, infertility, weak bones, and other problems.” Two of the primary culprits leading to hormone imbalance are aging and stress.

Of aging, the Hormone Health Network said, “With increasing age, the pituitary gland (located in the brain) can become smaller and may not work as well. Decreased growth hormone levels in older people might lead to problems such as decreased lean muscle, decreased heart function, and osteoporosis. Aging affects a woman’s ovaries and results in menopause. In menopause, the ovaries stop making estrogen and progesterone and no longer have a store of eggs.”

Coombs elaborated, “Aging itself causes hormone imbalance, it’s part of our human design. When we are young, the anabolic or ‘build up’ hormones, like estrogen, testosterone, and growth hormone, are abundant. Their abundance ensures a seemingly endless supply of energy, strength, and vigor that most of us enjoy until we’re about 40. Over time, the youthful surge of these anabolic hormones dwindle.”

Secondly, there is stress. For nearly the last year and half, we have all been on high alert, trying to safely live our lives. Couple that with the added responsibilities of working and schooling from home, social isolation, and decreased exercise, and it’s no wonder stress levels are at an all-time high.

As reported by hormones.org, “For the body to respond to and cope with physical stress, the adrenal glands make more cortisol. Anxiety and depression may also be linked to high cortisol levels.”

According to Coombs, “Stress is another common cause of hormone imbalance. Catabolic or ‘break down’ hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon, are all released during times of stress. They are very handy at breaking down and delivering stored nutrients to equip us to deal with the stressor at hand. Over time and with prolonged stress, this beneficial breakdown of nutrients blurs into a breakdown of healthy tissue too.”

HORMONE HELP

Fortunately, there are several solutions to help you get your hormones back in balance. According to Coombs, “The good news: Many hormones are within our control, regardless of age, with some basic adjustments to our lifestyle. You can combat the ‘break down’ process by avoiding stressors in your diet, like sugar, alcohol, and excess calories. And you can reduce physical stressors, like being overweight, sedentary, and sleep deprived.”

Coombs offered this advice: “As a personal trainer, I encourage my clients to rebalance their hormones with specific exercise, diet, sleep, and stress management protocols. One of the hormone-balancing exercises I recommend to almost everyone is a daily ‘forest bath’—a long, slow walk outside in nature. It works wonders immediately for your stress level but also helps with insulin sensitivity, sleep, and the hunger hormones.”

Still, some individuals opt for hormone replacement therapy (HRT), in which the patient receives estrogen (female) or testosterone (male) via an injection, patch, gel, or other delivery method. Hourglass Aesthetics + Salon in Lexington offers Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy. They offer BioTE Medical pellet therapy. “The pellets are placed subcutaneously in the body and release a continuous stream of bioidentical hormones,” Beth Hourigan with Hourglass explains. “The BHRT pellets are made to replicate the hormones men and women lose as they age. Hormone replacement pellets dissolve and are absorbed into the body.”

There are also supplements on the market and vitamin regimens that claim to keep hormones in balance. For example, Vitamin D is thought to boost the function of both the parathyroid and pituitary glands, while magnesium improves thyroid function. A diet high in lean protein and healthy fats and low in sugars and refined carbohydrates is linked to greater hormone health as well. And, stress reduction plays a major role.

Before embarking on any plan, visit your physician to discuss the best option for you, or schedule an appointment with an endocrinologist for a more in-depth evaluation.

Need Hormone Help?

There are many vitamins, minerals and herbs touted as alternative treatments for hormone imbalance. Here’s a little more information about how these may help. As always, consult your doctor first to better understand what’s appropriate for your unique needs.

Probiotics

When you’re thinking about your hormones, your gut may be the last place you worry about. The healthy bacteria found in probiotics can help with the production and regulation of hormones... and yeah, it’s all about gut health! Foods that are naturally rich in probiotics include yogurt, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, kombucha, and cheddar cheese.

Dong Quai

This root has been used as an herbal medication for more than 2,000 years. It has been used to help regulate the menstrual cycle (and soothe cramps!) It may also help improve blood circulation and relieve pain. It should not be taken by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Black Cohosh

Studies have shown mixed results as to whether this herb helps with hot flashes. However, many people report that it helps them, and it has had a good safety record. Recent studies show that it does not mimic estrogen in the system, which makes it a popular alternative to HRT.

Wild Yam

This folk remedy is often used in a cream form. However, studies have shown that the effects are similar to a placebo.

Red Clover

Same deal here: while it’s a common folk remedy, studies show that it’s no more effective than a placebo.

Flaxseed

Some studies have shown that women who consumed 2 Tablespoons of ground flaxseed twice daily halved the number of hot flashes they experienced. While this certainly isn’t a guarantee, flaxseed offers Omega- 3s, fibre and lingans, a compound that has qualities of both plant-based estrogen and antioxidants. Maybe people have their ground flaxseed in cereal or over yogurt with oatmeal.

Magnesium

Many people don’t get enough magnesium in their diet, and stress may sap the magnesium available in your body. This macromineral is essential for many bodily functions, including absorption of other vitamins and minerals that help balance hormones. Magnesium may also help prevent migraines.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s are an essential building block of hormones. Without enough Omega-3s, the body struggles to produce enough of the hormones it needs, which can cause inflammation. This is commonly found in fish oil. Omega-3s are important for another reason: they may support heart health.

Vitamin D

D-vitamins help produce and encourage activity of hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. As a bonus, it also aids with insulin regulation and overall blood sugar balance!

Zinc

This mineral helps balance your thyroid and helps with the regulation of the menstrual cycle. It may also help with acne, if that’s a concern for you!

Vitamin B12

Many people with poorly functioning thyroids have a deficiency in B12. This vitamin supports nerve function, energy levels, memory, and learning, as well. It is mainly found in animal proteins, so people who eat no or little meat should supplement their B12 intake.