by Edie Horstman
What Are Hormones?
The human body is made up of a complex network of vessels, capillaries and other structures that interact and communicate with the brain and ensure the body functions properly. One of the most important components of this system are hormones, which are produced in glands situated in various areas of the body. Each gland produces specific hormones that carry out certain functions.
Simply put, hormones are at the very crux of our well-being. After all, they play a critical role in the body's chemistry, carrying messages between our cells and organs. Hormones affect a diverse number of functions and processes in the body — from growth and sexual development to mood and sleep quality to how we manage stress and break down nutrients — hormones influence our day-to-day lives.
The Endocrine System
The term endocrine is derived from the Greek words "endo” (meaning within) and "crinis” (meaning to secrete). Related to hormones, the endocrine system is the collection of glands that do everything from regulate metabolism to support reproduction. In essence, the endocrine glands form a highly specialized group of cells responsible for making hormones. These glands are located throughout the entire body, and each plays a specific role in the production of a particular hormone (or hormones) in our organs and tissues. Ultimately, it is these hormones that help the body remain in a state of homeostasis.
The endocrine system gets some help from organs such as the kidney, liver, heart and gonads. Each of these organs has secondary endocrine functions. Furthermore, the thyroid also secretes a range of hormones that affect heart rate, skin maintenance, growth, temperature regulation, fertility and digestion. In many ways, the thyroid gland is the body's chief metabolic control center.
However, hormone levels that are too high (or too low) indicate a problem with the endocrine system. This imbalance causes endocrine disorders. Additionally, hormone imbalance also occurs if the body does not respond to hormones in the appropriate ways. For example, stress, infection and changes in blood can influence hormone levels. Furthermore, not consuming enough calories or sleeping too little can cause hormone imbalance. Currently, the most common endocrine disorder in the United States is diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose. This is due to the lack of insulin, or — if the body is producing insulin — the inability to use it effectively.
Female sex hormones play vital roles in sexual development, reproduction and general health. While sex hormones change over time, some of the most significant female changes occur during puberty, pregnancy and menopause. In order for these changes to occur, healthy hormones are imperative. For women, the ovaries and adrenal glands are the main producers of sex hormones.
Female sex hormones include estrogen, progesterone and small quantities of testosterone. Estrogen is mainly responsible for reproductive and sexual development. Progesterone is necessary for ovulation. When a woman’s progesterone level is too low, she runs the risk of an irregular menstrual cycle, difficulty conceiving and complications during pregnancy. Although testosterone is the main sex hormone in males, women need testosterone for fertility, sexual desire, tissue and bone mass, menstruation and red blood cell production.
Male hormones, much like female hormones, can significantly impact a man’s life. Testosterone is the key male sex hormone that regulates fertility, muscle mass, fat distribution and red blood cell production. When levels of testosterone drop too low, a man can experience infertility, among other conditions. Common side effects of low testosterone are insomnia, feelings of sadness, decreased body hair and increased fatigue. While testosterone tends to drop as men age, maintaining a healthy range of testosterone is crucial for strong muscles, sex drive (libido), bone density and more.
Given today’s fast-paced lifestyle and the emergence of endocrine disruptors, it’s no wonder that hormone imbalances are becoming more common than ever. Under normal circumstances, endocrine glands should produce the precise amount of each hormone needed for various processes in your body. Unfortunately, hormone irregularities are reality for many people.
The body pumps out extra cortisol when under acute (or chronic) stress. This, in turn, wreaks havoc on the body. Women, specifically, can suffer from a reduced sex drive, irregular/absent periods, acne, hair loss and poor digestion when cortisol is running rampant. While reducing and minimizing stressors is crucial, seeking alternative solutions – like CBD oil – can be extremely beneficial.
CBD can help maintain hormonal balance by interacting with the neurotransmitters that are responsible for hormone regulation and production. Furthermore, research has shown that CBD can help regulate the secretion of cortisol, helping minimize the effects of stress on the body. A nutritious diet and other healthy lifestyle behaviors can also support hormonal health and bring the body back into homeostasis.
Naturally Balancing Hormones
First and foremost, eating enough protein at every meal is extremely important for regulating hormones. Dietary protein provides essential amino acids that the body doesn’t make on its own and must be consumed daily in order to maintain muscle, bone and skin health. In addition, protein influences the release of hormones that control appetite and food intake.
Second, engaging in regular physical activity can positively impact hormonal health. A major benefit of exercise is its ability to reduce insulin levels and increase insulin sensitivity. When insulin is too high, the body reacts via inflammation, diabetes and more.
Third, avoiding foods like processed sugar and refined carbs, which typically increase insulin sensitivity, is best. Consuming real, whole foods and plenty of healthy fats help keep blood sugar stable.
Fourth, consistent, high-quality sleep is imperative. Poor sleep has been linked to imbalances of many hormones, including insulin, cortisol, leptin, ghrelin and more. That said, a combination of nutritious foods, exercising on a regular basis and engaging in other healthy behaviors, such as meditation, can help bring hormones back into balance.
Edie Horstman is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, wellness blogger, and freelance writer. She works with health-focused brands, co-creating content in the digital marketing space. She lives in Denver, Colorado.