Hormones have become a hot topic of debate in recent years, and you’ve likely encountered all kinds of conflicting information regarding their impact on health and fitness. No doubt you’ve heard that ‘insulin is the devil’ when it comes to fat loss. Or that cortisol is the ‘enemy’ that you need to avoid at all costs.
However, the reality is that hormones are part of the highly sophisticated ecosystem that is the human body. Labelling hormones as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ fails to appreciate their vast complexity. In this second instalment in our Female Health series, read on to learn all the tools you need to get your hormonal health on track.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones are chemical messengers, effectively any compound produced by the body that exerts a biological effect elsewhere. Hormones represent one link in a chain of signals that elicit a particular effect, process or series of processes. This can include the regulation of circadian rhythm, internal temperature, hunger signalling, energy levels, and much more.
Your body produces hormones in various organs, known as endocrine glands, which secrete hormones directly into the blood. While endocrine glands aren’t directly connected, they form a functional system that works in synergy to regulate nearly every physiological process in the body. As a result, the release of one hormone can trigger the release of another, resulting in a coordinated change or outcome.
Almost every organ in the body produces one or more hormones, including the heart, liver, and stomach. Different organs can also create and secrete the same hormone. For example, somatostatin, or growth hormone-inhibiting hormone, is produced by neurons in the brain, as well as the cells of the stomach and pancreas. This is because hormones work locally to the organs producing them and peripherally in other tissues elsewhere.
Most hormones move throughout the body via your bloodstream. Some hormones, such as peptides and catecholamines, are water-soluble and dissolve easily into blood plasma, meaning they are self-sufficient in moving around your body. However, steroid and thyroid hormones are not water-soluble (hydrophobic) and need to ‘piggyback’ onto proteins and fatty acids to move through the bloodstream.
What Do Hormones Do?
There are two kinds of scenarios in which hormones function. The first is general physiological tasks, such as digesting food, the sleep-wake cycle, cell renewal, etc. Think of these as the day-to-day ‘to do list’. A classic example is the light-dark cycle. Your brain detects falling light levels through sensors in your eyes. This triggers the release of melatonin, causing you to fall asleep for vital cell repair to take place.
The second scenario represents the body’s adaptive response. Core to understanding this continuous adaptation is the concept of ‘homeostasis’, literally meaning ‘maintaining status’. The human body seeks to maintain the status quo at all costs, and change is interpreted as a ‘threat’ to our survival. Let’s say you’re an early human being chased by a predator. Your body gathers all its available resources to enable you to remove yourself from danger. As a result, you enter a ‘sympathetic’ or ‘fight-or-flight’ state: your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, and blood travels to your working muscles to enable you to escape the perceived danger.
However, modern life throws all sorts of things at us that interfere with this natural signalling; your body can’t tell the difference between a couple of hectic days at the office and a genuine threat to your survival. All kinds of factors interfere with our natural hormone signalling and push us into an unbalanced state or ‘heterostasis’, preventing us from performing optimally.
How Do Hormones Work?
Homeostasis acts like a benchmark, against which the body compares thousands of inputs to assess if and when it needs to trigger specific processes. It does so through negative feedback loops and feed-forward mechanisms, of which hormones are just one important component.
When the nervous system detects a change, it sends messages to the brain, which decides how to respond, based on experience and biology. The brain then responds by sending messages down the chain to organs to trigger the release of hormones, which travel to target tissues to elicit a specific outcome.
Three inputs control hormone secretion:
- Changes in plasma concentrations of a substance
- The release of neurotransmitters
- The actions of another hormone on endocrine cells
In addition, more than one of these inputs may affect how much of a hormone you produce. For example, your body secretes insulin in response to changes in blood glucose and fatty acids as well as activation by the nervous system.
Hormones bind to a receptor to create a specific outcome. Like a lock and key, each hormone has a composition that best fits a particular receptor. For example, testosterone binds to the testosterone receptor, and oestrogen binds to the oestrogen receptor. However, unlike a key, hormones can also attach to other receptors and block a response or produce a similar yet weaker signal. Other foreign compounds, such as xenoestrogens and phytoestrogens, can mimic our natural hormones and block them from binding to their receptor.
To complicate things further, there are also hormone receptor subtypes, such as alpha and beta subtypes of oestrogen receptors. As a result, a single hormone may trigger different effects depending on where it is acting. For instance, oestrogen acts as an anti-inflammatory in fat cells but stimulates milk production in breast tissue.
The strength of a hormone’s effect depends on three main factors:
The amount of a hormone you secrete.
In theory, more hormone equals a more potent effect (but not always).
The sensitivity of the receptor site.
When a receptor site is less sensitive, the body compensates by overproducing more of the relevant hormone. Equally, if a receptor site is more sensitive, the body produces less hormone to create the same effect.
‘Affinity’, e.g., how likely a hormone is to bind to a receptor.
Higher affinity occurs when a hormone meets its specific receptor site versus attempting to bind to a general receptor site, which results in a weaker response.
What Happens When Hormones Go Wrong?
Imbalances occur when the body overproduces or underproduces a hormone, or there is a mismatch with the receptor site’s sensitivity. Several factors can disrupt hormonal signalling. Ageing, chronic disease, stress, lifestyle factors and genetics can all have a significant influence on:
- Hormone production and secretion
- Hormone metabolism
- Circulating hormones in the blood
- Target tissue response, and
- Physiological rhythms, e.g. the menstrual cycle.
Signs of Hormonal Imbalance
While a blood test is the only way to confirm a hormonal imbalance, if you experience one of these key signs, it could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance.
You experience severe PMS symptoms.
Severe PMS is common, but it shouldn’t be the norm. If you frequently experience low mood and anxiety, heavy bleeding or severe period pains, your sex hormones could be off kilter.
You have frequent breakouts.
An imbalance in the sex hormones progesterone, testosterone and oestrogen can increase sebum production, causing minor bacterial infections on the skin. Adult acne could also be a sign of poor gut health.
You often feel sluggish or easily upset.
Oestrogen and progesterone directly influence serotonin and dopamine, which control ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’. During PMS, the drop in these hormones causes the typical PMS slump. However, if you feel like this all the time, it could point to conditions such as hyperandrogenism, PCOS or endometriosis.
Your hunger levels and cravings are off the charts.
While it’s normal to feel hungry, you shouldn’t be ravenous all the time. If you’re overweight and struggling to control your appetite, it could be an indication of a hormonal imbalance.
Rapid weight changes.
Thyroid issues such as Grave’s and Hashimoto’s disease are more prevalent in women. So if you’re losing or gaining weight rapidly, refer to your doctor for a blood test.
What Can You Do To Improve Your Hormonal Profile?
While hormones form part of a complex self-regulated system, positive lifestyle changes can go a long way to improving your hormonal profile.
Take a blood test.
The only real way to tell if you have a hormone imbalance is through laboratory testing. Hormones are incredibly complex, and what is normal for one person is not necessarily normal for another. Several companies, such as Medichecks, provide at-home testing kits alongside expert advice to contextualise your results.
Improve your sleep.
Research shows that short sleep can impact hormonal regulation, including insulin, ghrelin, dopamine, and the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin, which can increase your sensitivity to pain, , , . If you’re worried about your hormones, focusing on good sleep hygiene should be a top priority.
Improve your gut health.
There is strong evidence linking severe PMS, acne, psoriasis and mental health issues with gut microbiota imbalances,,,. While proper testing is essential to find the root cause, consuming a high-fibre diet with minimally processed foods can improve symptoms. Make sure also to minimise inflammatory foods, such as FODMAPs,.
Improving body composition through resistance training has several benefits for hormonal balance. Research shows that high body fat levels trigger and exacerbate diseases like type II diabetes, PCOS, and hypothyroidism, , . Resistance training is a crucial tool to improve body composition and, as a result, improve these conditions. Even without weight loss, resistance training enhances insulin and leptin sensitivity, two factors that are crucial for weight management.
Cut down the cardio.
Excessive cardio can cause you to over-produce cortisol, the stress hormone, resulting in a host of negative outcomes, including menstrual cycle disorder, , . So, if you have an irregular cycle, prioritise low-impact activity like walking instead of hours of intense cardio.
Research consistently shows that psychological stress plays a fundamental role in auto-immune diseases, such as Graves’, Hashimoto’s, and Cushing’s syndrome, which all involve hormonal imbalance, . While they are all chronic diseases that require advanced care, managing stress through self-care, meditation or even booking a pamper day will all help.
Hormones are highly complex and trigger a cascade of effects, so looking at them in isolation does not take into account the bigger picture. While lifestyle changes can make a big difference, always ask your doctor for a blood test if you’re concerned about your hormonal health.
- A hormone is a compound produced by endocrine glands that exerts a biological effect on the body.
- The human continually attempts to balance all its physical processes via homeostasis, a key underlying principle in human physiology.
- Hormones are part of an extensive system in the body that balances inputs and outputs to maintain homeostasis.
- Endocrine disorders occur when the body over- or underproduces one or more hormones, or the receptor site becomes over- or underactive.
- Symptoms of hormonal imbalance include adult acne, severe PMS, low energy and mood, decreased sex drive, and rapid weight change.
- While it is only possible to diagnose through a blood test, lifestyle changes can go a long way to improving hormonal balance.
As women age their hormone levels, specifically oestrogen, decline. The menopausal stage of a woman’s life is one that has a profound effect on the mental and physical health of women worldwide. Even in 2021, menopause is a taboo subject. So why do we avoid talking about it?