Hormones - what are they, and what do they do?
What are hormones?
Hormones are biologically active substances produced by cells of endocrine glands. From them, they enter the bloodstream and, together with the blood, spread throughout our body, regulate metabolism and coordinate other functions of our body.
Hormones, in fact, are “messengers” that transmit messages to organs, skin, muscles and other tissues. These messages tell our bodies what to do and when.
Scientists have now identified more than 50 hormones in the human body that regulate such processes as, for example:
- Sleep and wake cycle.
- Body temperature.
- Heart rate and blood pressure.
- Sexual functions and reproduction.
- Cell life cycle.
- Change of life periods (childhood, puberty, youth, etc.).
- Body growth and development.
- Production of other hormones and maintenance of hormonal balance in the body.
Hormones and most of the tissues (mainly glands) that secret them make up our endocrine system.
As you can see, hormones affect almost all life processes and are essential for our health and beauty.
Here are some of the most important human hormones:
- Insulin – is produced in the pancreas and regulates blood sugar levels, promoting the uptake of sugar into cells and its use for energy production.
- Somatotropin – stimulates the growth of all body tissues (including bones), stimulates protein synthesis and promotes the breakdown of fats to provide the tissues with the energy necessary for growth/regeneration.
- Estrogens and progesterone – female sex hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle, affect the reproductive system and participate in maintaining pregnancy.
- Testosterone – the main male sex hormone that affects the male reproductive system, muscle development and sexual desire.
- Melatonin – regulates sleep and circadian rhythm, and ensures physiological rest of the body.
- Serotonin – affects mood, sleep and appetite, affects cognitive functions (for example – memory, attention and concentration) and the digestive system (participates in the regulation of intestinal motility and gastric juice secretion).
- Cortisol – helps to mobilize energy and improves concentration in stressful situations. Helps regulate processes such as metabolism, the immune system, blood pressure and the body’s response to inflammation.
- Adrenaline – is released when you feel fear or stress. This accelerates the heartbeat, increases blood pressure and mobilizes energy reserves.
How are hormones different from nerves and other substances in our bodies?
Hormones act as chemical signals – they regulate and coordinate various processes in our body, transferring information between different tissues and organs.
Other substances can be energy sources, nutrients or chemical compounds that perform specific functions but are not involved in the body’s regulatory mechanisms.
The nervous system is closest to the endocrine system (and hormones) in terms of impact on our body. Both of these systems together perform virtually all regulatory and coordinating activities in our body, but their functions and the way they work are different:
- The nervous system works with the help of electrical impulses that are rapidly transmitted along nerve fibers. This ensures speed and precision, which allows the body to react quickly and accurately (muscle movement, reactions to pain, stress, etc.);
- But the endocrine system works by releasing hormones that spread through our body with blood and regulate processes such as metabolism, growth, reproductive system, immune system, mood, etc. The action of the endocrine system is slower and more prolonged compared to the nervous system.
What is a hormone imbalance?
Hormonal imbalance occurs when there is too much or too little of one or more hormones in our body. It’s a broad term that can refer to many different hormone-related conditions.
The influence of hormones is powerful, and if the balance is disrupted – changes begin in the body. Very small deviations from the norm are often enough to start pathological processes.
The problem is that these pathological processes can develop without any symptoms, but when symptoms appear, the pathogenesis may already be irreversible.
Some forms of hormonal imbalance may be temporary, while others may be chronic.
Some require treatment to maintain physical health, while others may not affect our health but can negatively affect our quality of life.
About once every 12 months, blood tests are recommended to assess the state of the endocrine system – to detect hormonal disorders at an early stage and prevent the development of hormonal diseases.
Signs and symptoms of hormonal imbalance
Since hormones significantly affect almost all the functions of our body, they also have a huge impact on our health.
Thus, the range of symptoms that may indicate a hormonal imbalance is also very wide.
Keep in mind that these symptoms are non-specific – if you have one or more of them, it does not necessarily mean that you have a hormonal imbalance.
Some of these symptoms may also reflect other chronic diseases. So, before you “panic”, first consult with your doctor.
The most common hormonal disorders that occur in both men and women can cause symptoms such as:
- Weight gain.
- A hump of fat between the shoulders.
- Unexplained and/or sudden weight loss.
- Muscle weakness.
- Muscle pain, tenderness and stiffness.
- Pain, stiffness or swelling in the joints.
- Accelerated or slowed heart rate.
- Increased sweating.
- Increased sensitivity to cold or heat.
- Constipation or bowel disorders.
- Frequent urination.
- Increased thirst.
- Increased hunger.
- Low sex drive.
- Nervousness, restlessness or irritability.
- Blurred vision.
- Hair loss, brittle hair or fine hair.
- Dry skin.
- Swollen face.
- Purple or pink stretch marks.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in women
Although the most common consequence of hormonal imbalance in women is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), it is not the only one.
Remember that a woman’s hormonal cycle naturally changes during puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in women are:
- Heavy or irregular periods, delayed periods, stopped periods, or frequent periods.
- Hirsutism or excessive hair on the face, chin or other parts of the body.
- Acne on the face, chest or upper back.
- Hair loss.
- Hyperpigmentation, especially along the folds of the neck, in the groin and under the breasts.
- Skin tags.
- Vaginal dryness.
- Vaginal atrophy.
- Pain during sex.
- Night sweats.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in men
Hormonal imbalance in men can be caused by several factors, but the most common cause is too low testosterone levels.
The most common symptoms of hormonal imbalance in men are:
- Gynecomastia (breast development).
- Breast tenderness.
- Erectile dysfunction.
- Decreased beard and body hair growth.
- Loss of muscle mass.
- Loss of bone mass or osteoporosis.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Heat waves.
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance in children
In children, hormonal imbalance can be caused by fluctuations in the level of sex hormones during puberty.
In some children, puberty begins later and proceeds normally, but some have a condition called hypogonadism. These children (mostly boys) may have the following symptoms:
- Disorders of muscle development.
- There is no adolescent voice change.
- Sparse body and/or facial hair.
- Impaired growth of the penis and testicles (in boys).
- Excessive growth of arms and legs in relation to the trunk.
- Gynecomastia (in boys).
- Menstruation does not begin (in girls).
- Underdeveloped breasts (in girls).
- The child is growing too slowly.
Causes of hormonal imbalance
The causes of hormone imbalance vary depending on which endocrine glands are affected.
The most common causes of hormone imbalance are:
- Hormone therapy.
- Steroid use.
- Cancer or benign tumours.
- Eating disorders.
- Injury or traumas.
Hormonal imbalance can also be caused by diseases such as:
- Type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
- Diabetes insipidus.
- Hypothyroidism or impaired thyroid function.
- Hyperthyroidism or increased activity of the thyroid gland.
- Hyperfunctional thyroid nodules.
- Cushing’s syndrome or high cortisol levels.
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which causes low levels of cortisol and aldosterone.
- Addison’s disease.
Causes of hormonal imbalance that are unique to women
In women, many causes of hormone imbalance are related to reproductive hormones.
The most common causes are:
- Primary ovarian failure (also called premature menopause).
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
- Hormonal medications, such as birth control pills.
How is hormonal imbalance diagnosed?
This usually starts with a blood test because the endocrine glands release hormones directly into the bloodstream.
However, the number of certain hormones in the blood changes dramatically at different times of the day, so other tests may be required to check the hormone levels, for example, a glucose tolerance test or an insulin tolerance test, etc.
The doctor will also be interested in your medical history, symptoms and perform a general physical health assessment.
Your primary healthcare provider can diagnose hormone imbalance and help you “live” with its various conditions. However, after diagnosing a hormone imbalance, it is better to turn to an endocrinologist for help, who can more accurately diagnose endocrine (hormone) diseases and develop an effective treatment plan.
How is hormone imbalance treated?
The treatment for hormone imbalance will depend on what is causing it.
If you have low hormone levels, the main treatment is likely to be hormone replacement therapy. Depending on which hormone you are deficient in, your doctor may prescribe oral medications (pills) or injections.
For example, if you have low thyroid hormone levels (hypothyroidism), your doctor may prescribe synthetic thyroid hormone pills. If you are growth hormone deficient, you will likely need injections of synthetic growth hormone.
There are many treatment options, from medication and surgery to radiation therapy.
Prevention of hormonal imbalance
Manufacturers and sellers of over-the-counter supplements claim that they “treat” menopause and various types of hormonal imbalances.
However, only a few of these dietary supplements have scientifically proven beneficial effects.
Many of these supplements claim to contain plant hormones. They are sometimes called “bioidentical” hormones because they chemically resemble the natural hormones of the human body. However, there is no evidence that they work better than standard hormone therapy.
Therefore, before using dietary supplements, it is better to consult a doctor first.
The most effective prevention of hormone imbalance is a healthy lifestyle, which includes a healthy and balanced diet, physical activity, quality sleep and stress reduction:
- A healthy and balanced diet – choose a variety of foods rich in vitamins and minerals. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Don’t be afraid of healthy fats, lean meat and fish. Drink enough water. Eat less ultra-processed foods (high in preservatives, sugar, salt, and fat). Use dietary supplements only if they have been recommended by your doctor.
- Regular physical activity – cardio, HIIT, strength workouts or flexibility training. Simple regular walks of at least 40 minutes can also help normalize hormone balance. But try to avoid excessive physical exertion.
- Healthy sleep – insufficient or disturbed sleep can negatively affect the production of hormones and therefore the regulation of body processes also “suffers”. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, and avoid caffeine and electronics before bed.
- Try to limit stressors and don’t stress over small things. Spend your free time with family and friends, find a hobby. Try stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga or relaxing exercise.
Hormone imbalance and overweight
Hormones play a very important role in metabolism and our body’s ability to use energy.
Yes – some hormonal conditions can cause weight gain, for example:
- Hypothyroidism – low levels of thyroid hormones can cause your metabolism to slow down, which in turn can cause weight gain.
- Cushing’s syndrome. It is a rare condition that occurs when there is too much cortisol in the body. This causes rapid weight gain in body weight in the face, abdomen, back of the neck, and chest.
- During menopause, many women experience weight gain, which is caused by a slowing of metabolism due to hormonal changes. This weight gain can be easily offset by adjusting the menu.
If you notice an unexpected and rapid weight gain – consult your doctor.
Losing weight can help regulate the menstrual cycle and increase the chance of pregnancy in women, and help improve erectile function in men.
Hormones are complex and powerful chemicals that are essential to our survival and can have a profound effect on how we feel.
Hormonal imbalances can cause all sorts of complications, so it’s important to seek advice from your doctor as soon as you notice any unexplained changes in your body or energy levels.
One of the most effective means of preventing hormone imbalance is a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also very important, as being overweight and obese can affect hormone function.
Maintaining the body’s hormonal balance is also helped by a regular rhythm of life – observing regular eating and sleeping times, etc.
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