How good you look and feel is determined by your hormones – here’s how to get them working for you
Imagine a telephone network that stretches all over the world. Everyone can call everyone else. And you can call several people at once. Or they can call you. And 100 of your closest friends simultaneously. If you can imagine how complicated that might be, you can start to understand a bit more about how your hormones work! They control all our important bodily functions, and they have lots of interconnected effects, so it’s vital to maintain a balance if you’re going to be healthier and happier.
Hormones, and other cell signalling molecules known as cytokines, send messages around our bodies like air traffic controllers organising the skies around them. These messages control all our physiological and metabolic activities, including:
Digesting and absorbing nutrients
Hunger and appetite
Sleep and wakefulness
Growth and development
Tissue recovery and repair
Thinking, memory and mood
Reproduction and sexual health
Balancing our fluids, salts and minerals (which also includes blood pressure)
And, just like a large phone network or busy airport, hormones need to work together in a coordinated, highly organised way.
What are the key hormones?
Endocrinology – the science of hormones – is a relatively new field of research and we are discovering new chemical signals and messengers all the time. Also, most hormones come in more than one form and have several jobs. For instance, oestrogen governs women’s fertililty, but also helps control inflammation and maintain brain function. Here are some of the most important hormones and what they do.
Hormones involved in digestion, hunger, and appetite
Insulin is released when we eat carbohydrates. It helps to balance blood sugar and move nutrients into cells.
Glucagon is secreted when we haven’t eaten in a while. It helps break down stored glucose (sugar).
Leptin is secreted mostly in fat cells and helps tell our body how much energy we have, mostly in the form of stored body fat.
Cholecystokinin (CCK) is released in the small intestine when we eat protein and fat to help us feel full.
Hormones involved in mood and cognition
Serotonin is a “feelgood” hormone that calms us and helps us sleep.
Dopamine is part of our “reward” system that encourages us to explore, take risks, focus on challenges and try new things.
Oxytocin is an anti-stress hormone that’s secreted when we are feeling safe and connected to others.
Hormones involved in stress response
Cortisol is released in normal daily cycles, helping to free up stored nutrients among other things, but it’s also released as part of the inflammatory response to stress.
Adrenaline is part of our “fight or flight” system that quickly frees up energy for responding to danger.
Hormones involved in reproduction and fertility
Both men and women have these sex hormones, but in different amounts.
Oestrogen and progesterone organise women’s menstrual cycles and sexual development.
Testosterone is men’s main sexual and reproductive hormone. It’s also important for building muscle.
We want our hormones to be well coordinated – available at the right times, for the right reasons, in the right amounts. Many hormones have natural rhythms, such as the daily rhythm of cortisol (which normally peaks in the early morning and slowly declines throughout the day) or the monthly cycle of menstruation.
You may have heard that certain hormones are “bad”, but our bodies are complex systems with natural variations, and all hormones have important jobs. For instance, we want insulin to go up after we eat a meal with carbohydrates because it helps shuttle nutrients into our cells. However, at other times, we want insulin to be lower. Likewise, we want cortisol to go up in the early morning to release stored fuel for energy while we sleep, and to control inflammation in the early stages of injury. But at other times, like before bed, we want cortisol to be relatively low so we can get to sleep!
The most common cause of a hormonal imbalance is stress, but there are other factors, such as normal ageing; environmental toxins; having too much or not enough body fat; major dietary changes; pregnancy and lactation; serious injury or illness; drug and alcohol use; or medication.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalances can be very varied, but typically include changes in appetite, mood, memory, sleep or energy levels; changes to your libido or sexual function; differences in how much body fat is stored and where; or difficulty losing weight or gaining lean muscle. For women, changes to reproductive and sexual hormones may show up as irregular or absent periods, pelvic and breast pain, infertility, and/or loss of libido.
If you have any concerns, before you self-diagnose using the internet, go and see your doctor. Many of the major hormones can be easily tested using blood, urine or saliva tests.
Keeping hormones healthy
We can influence some of these hormonal changes with simple lifestyle habits, such as managing stress; getting good-quality sleep, adequate exercise and recovery; losing excess body fat; building lean muscle mass; eating a balanced and varied diet; limiting alcohol intake and not smoking.
The hormone system is complex but designed to keep your body performing optimally through a continuous feedback loop that tweaks levels to maintain balance. Stress is the most common cause of a hormone imbalance, which can have many negative short- and long-term health impacts. Luckily some very simple lifestyle changes can help keep your hormone levels healthy!