They turn children into adults, govern our appetites, put us to sleep and even impact our emotions. With over 80 known hormones working within our bodies, it’s safe to say these chemicals play a critical role in who we are and how we operate.
So what is a hormone? Hormones are chemical messengers secreted by endocrine glands straight into the bloodstream, traveling to a target site and creating a physiological and/or behavioural effect in the body. Endocrine glands are located throughout the body and include the hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal gland, thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, adrenal glands, ovaries and testes.
Structurally, there are three different classes of hormone- amine, peptide and steroid.
Feeling stressed? – That’s the steroid hormone cortisol secreted from your adrenal glands.
Binging on that leftover birthday cake means Insulin, a peptide hormone released from the pancreas, will be coming to your rescue and regulating blood sugar levels
That warm feeling during a big hug from a loved one –Oxytocin, a peptide hormone, is being released from your pituitary gland.
Just got cut off in traffic and narrowly missed a serious accident? – That would be adrenaline (known as Epinephrine), an amine secreted from your adrenals, rushing through your blood.
It’s important to know that the endocrine system works closely with the nervous system – so when a spider crawls up your arm your brain and nervous system receive a sensory cue which signals to the adrenals to release adrenaline, giving you a surge of energy to escape said creepy arachnid. In the same way, if you are perpetually fearful or stressed in your life, your nervous system will believe constant threats are imminent, eventually exhausting your adrenals (as well as the rest of your body).
Our bodies, these earthly vessels, respond to how we feel and what we think every single day.
The liver plays an important role in all of this and is responsible for metabolising, deactivating and eliminating used hormones from the bloodstream via bile. However if our workhorse the liver is sick or under-functioning or if the hormone levels in the blood exceed the liver’s processing capacity, hormone levels can actually further increase in the bloodstream. As a simple example, the reproductive hormone oestrogen after working synergistically with progesterone to regulate the menstrual cycle is then sent to the liver to be processed and eliminated. However, if our liver is congested or we are constipated from lack of dietary fibre, we aren’t able to get rid of the used hormone and oestrogen can actually be reabsorbed back into the body- causing symptoms like PMS, PMT, irregular or heavy periods, migraines and even infertility (Nicole Jardim, Women’s Health and Functional Nutrition Coach)
According to TCM World Foundation, within Chinese Medicine philosophy, strong, residual emotions can reside in some of our internal organs and cause them to under-function. The liver and gallbladder are strongly associated with suppressed anger. (www.tcmworld.org).
Is there something from your personal history or events of late that have caused you anger that you have not adequately released? If so, your clever body is trying to communicate with you, to care for you. One strong pattern I observe constantly working with my clients is a distinct feminine deficiency- and by that I mean many women do not feel deep inside that they are worth care. That they deserve to be heard and cared for, by themselves and/or others. When someone does not feel heard, anger or frustration naturally ensues….but the body listens.
Hippocrates hit the proverbial nail on the head when he quoted:
“It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has”
Another group of familiar hormones are our neurotransmitter hormones such as dopamine, melatonin and serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter hormone responsible for regulating our moods, our decision-making, social behaviour (including our excessive worrying!) and impulse control. A huge proportion of serotonin -90% in fact- is found in our gastrointestinal tract and vitamin D is required for its production. Platelet-derived serotonin is also used for wound healing in the liver, heart, lungs and skin. What all this really means for us is that simple factors like adequate sunlight exposure and a healthy gut lining have a profound effect on our whole wellbeing including helping to regulate our moods and sleep patterns.
We know dopamine, melatonin and serotonin are all required for our sleep cycles; Psychiatrist William C. Dement, of the Stanford University Sleep Clinic, discusses a “sleep debt” in the Scientific American, referring to people who experience insufficient sleep quantity and quality, thereby effecting their long term health – even leading to obesity, insulin resistance and heart disease. (www.scientificamerican.com).
Psychology Today in a recent article also discussed hormone regulation but from a broader perspective in the context of over-stimulation and desensitisation. In modern society this can be caused by artificial light, electronic devices, internet connections, processed foods, the list goes on…and such a combination can lead to depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. This is due to being desensitized or over-sensitized to various aspects of our own chemical control systems and to hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. So how do we rectify this?
- As mentioned, the health of our gut is critical along with our resting and sleeping habits. Research stipulates one week of camping, without electronics, will reset our biological body clock and synchronize our melatonin hormones with sunrise and sunset.
- One of the most accessible and most effective anti-depressants is….exercise. 30 minutes a day of walking/running in nature or something like attending a dance class puts you in a stronger mindset and of course your body in a healthier state.
- Instead of spraying artificial perfume on our neck (and to settle nicely into our thyroid tissue), use essential oils instead. Pick your favourite scents and play around with combinations for each season or occasion.
- Keep a sleep diary and/or use a FitBit to monitor sleeping patterns – including any wakings at night and levels of energy and mood in the morning.
- At all times monitor your bowel habits – are you processing food properly? If not, do you also feel anxious? (each of these factors can affect the other)
To truly understand hormones and ourselves it is always wise to look to nature for answers. It is no mystery that all of creation operates and thrives on natural rhythms and cycles. Our lives are governed by these. If we consider the lunar cycle of waxing and waning crescents and simultaneously examine our own menstrual cycles we notice beautifully poetic synchronicity. Our womanly cycles consist of rising and falling oestrogen and progesterone levels, like waves and tides of the ocean pulled by the rising moon and setting sun.
Consider these images above and notice how constant and innate the connection between our bodies and nature is.
A common perception among women and girls is that periods are a nuisance, but looking at our cycle from a different perspective actually creates a deeper understanding of our strengths. In Miranda Gray’s book ‘The Optimised Woman’, different phases of the cycle driven by hormones correlate with energy levels and mental and emotional states of mind. These can be optimised if embraced and understood. “Women can experience two main effects through the month – a cycle of variable physical energy and stamina, and a cycle of dominant ways of thinking. It is these two cycles that create our optimal days and skill sets”. (www.optimizedwoman.com). Even within relationships, a woman’s emotional cycle can be understood as wave-like. John Gray in his famous book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus explains how women are naturally nurturing and give of themselves, but at times when they are riding the downturn of the wave they too need love and reassurance- and it is at this time that they naturally become introspective, eventually performing an emotional spring-clean and regaining energy and wave momentum upward.
“If you study the rhythm of life on this planet, you will find that everything moves in perfect symphony with everything else… the earth has the ability to heal and regenerate itself, just as our oceans have the ability to replenish themselves by turning over their debris with the waves to wash them ashore. This perfect orchestration of the cycle of life is one of the Creator’s greatest and most beautiful miracles” – Suzy Kassem
The start of true knowledge and understanding of our bodies begins with awareness. These busy chemical messengers that are our hormones require care and attention. Likewise they let us know if something is askew in our body. Simply accepting unhealthy states such as excessive heavy bleeding during menstruation, or mood swings, appetite fluctuations or sleep irregularities will only lead to longer-term health problems. I urge you, my readers, to consciously become aware of these signs and listen to your body and what it is trying to tell you on a daily basis.
Happy bodies, happy lives.
Yours in Health,