Hormones, Smormones: Just What Makes Them So Important Anyway?
Hormones. When they are in harmony within our bodies, all is well. Our moods are pleasant, our bodies feel energized and content, and we cannot remember the last time we were ill. Soon as one of them gets out of whack, look out! Maybe you are a little extra cranky. Maybe you are so tired you cannot drag yourself off the couch. Maybe you feel run down and seem to catch every sniffle and sneeze that comes your way. There are plenty of jokes out there about raging hormones, but the truth of the matter is, it is not very funny when they become unbalanced. It has serious consequences for the body.
Main Functions of the Endocrine System
Hormones are controlled by the body’s endocrine system. It consists of a network of glands and organs scattered throughout the body that is similar to the nervous system. These two systems are designed to complement one another, but they each have different tasks. Both the nervous system and the endocrine system communicate with the body. While the nervous system communicates with the body via nerve impulses and neurotransmitters, the endocrine system sends chemical messengers otherwise known as hormones. The endocrine system is a top dog when it comes to controlling and regulating most of the body’s functions, so it is vital the messages it sends to the body do not get lost in translation. That easily can happen if hormones are unbalanced.
When the endocrine system malfunctions, the body can get mixed signals about:
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature
- Growth and development
- Heart rate
- Sexual function and reproduction
- Sleep and wake cycles
The endocrine system has three important tasks. The endocrine glands release hormones into the bloodstream, allowing them to travel to other parts of the body where they are needed. The endocrine hormones, in turn, control our mood, development and growth, metabolism, reproduction, and how our organs do – or do not – work. It also regulates how much of a particular hormone is released. When too much or too little hormone is released, trouble ensues.
Main Parts of the Endocrine System
Eight major glands comprise the endocrine system. Each has its own responsibilities within the body.
The hypothalamus is found in the lower part of the brain and joins the endocrine system with the nervous system so they can collaborate to keep your body in proper working order. It is the job of the hypothalamus to interpret information received by our brains, and then shoot a message to the pituitary gland, directing it to make hormones designed to deal with the data.
Has someone ever called you a pea brain, thinking it was an insult? Well, they were not far off. But that is not a bad thing. The pituitary gland is located at the base of our brains and is literally the size of a pea. It may be tiny, but it sure is mighty. Sometimes called the “master gland,” the pituitary is the big boss in charge of making everything from growth hormones to determining how much water gets filtered through our kidneys. This amazing gland also is responsible for controlling our pain receptors and secreting reproductive hormones that either put us in – or out – of the mood.
Thyroids are shaped like a bowtie, making it kind of ironic they are located at the base of our necks in the front. Aside from looking like a cute accessory on an ultrasound, the thyroid controls how our bodies burn fuels from food and convert it to energy. If your thyroid is sluggish, you may gain weight. Likewise, if it kicks into overdrive, you might be struggling to gain weight.
Parathyroids are four tiny glands that cooperate to release parathyroid hormone. So, why is that important? Well, it controls the level of calcium in the blood, which is in charge of conducting electricity in our nerves and muscles, allowing them to contract. If the parathyroids did not do their job, it would be difficult if not impossible for us to control and move our bodies.
Adrenal glands are triangular-shaped and sit atop the kidneys – one on each. They consist of two parts: the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex influences salt and water balance in the body, how the body responds to stress, metabolism, the immune system, and sexual development and functioning. The adrenal medulla is responsible for that “fight or flight” feeling we get when under stress. It responds by increasing blood pressure and heart rate.
The pineal gland is in the middle of our brains and has a crucial job: it secretes melatonin. Why is that so special? Well, melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep. Too little of it and insomnia occurs.
Last but certainly not least are the reproductive glands. Gonads are primarily responsible for producing sex hormones in both men and women. That is right, ladies. You have gonads, too – more commonly called ovaries. For the guys, their gonads are located in the testes. Gonads tell our bodies when to start and stop puberty, regulate menstrual cycles in women, and control fertility in both sexes.
Mayday….Mayday….Endocrine System Going Down
Our bodies are smart. Really smart. They know exactly when things are not functioning as intended and will send out a mayday to get our attention.
If your endocrine is unhealthy during your formative years, puberty is unlikely to go off without a hitch. Puberty is hard enough to power through without adding complications to the mix. Yet, if your endocrine system is not doing its job properly, it can either accelerate puberty or stunt it. And that is not the only bad news. If it flops later in life, it can affect mood and sexual functioning, and even cause infertility in some cases.
So, what are some of the signs our body may send us that something is amiss with our endocrine system? The symptoms can vary from person to person and from women to men, but some of the more common indicators include:
- Unexplained weight gain
- Extreme fatigue
- Dry skin
- Increased sensitivity to heat or cold
- Muscle weakness
- Frequent urination
- Digestive issues (frequent diarrhea or constipation)
- Pain, stiffness, swelling of the joints
- Thinning hair
- Purple or pink stretch marks on the skin
- Blurred vision
- Decreased sex drive or infertility
Symptoms can look a little different in women. They may suffer from heavy, irregular periods, hirsutism, skin tags, and night sweats. In men, they may develop excess breast tissue, have decreased hair growth in their beards and bodies, and erectile dysfunction.
Some of these symptoms can be signs of other health conditions or illnesses. You need to alert your primary care physician if you are living with any combination of these issues to rule out other causes.
Keeping the Endocrine System Healthy
Whether we like it or not, the endocrine system is pretty much the boss of us. It is our job to make sure it is in working order. There are several things you can do to help keep yours healthy.
- Exercise at least 2 to 5 hours per week at moderate-intensity and up to 2 hours per week at a vigorous intensity.
- Eat a well-balanced diet and limit artificial sweeteners and junk food.
- Get regular medical checkups with your primary care physician and make sure they know about any family history of endocrine problems.
- Consult your physician before starting any herbal treatments or taking any supplements.
If it is determined your endocrine system is misbehaving, you do not have to just sit back and take it. Several things can be done to right the course. Consult with your primary care physician, who can determine the best path forward.