Hormone Q&A Series
Part 1: Hormone Basics
Too often we hear the word “hormones” and immediately think of sex and reproduction and leave it at that…but what if I told you that your hormones actually rule EVERYTHING in your body, and the more healthy your hormones are, the better your health will be?! It’s true! Hormones are the holy grail of health and aging, and I want to help you understand them fully so that instead of just living longer, you can live longer younger! Because hormones tend to be a complex topic, however, I am going to break this into a series of posts which will hopefully make it easier for you to understand why hormone health should be important to you. Okay, let’s dive in….
Hormones – What are they really? Hormones are chemical messengers sent out from cells to travel through our blood and fluids to tissues and organs with the intent of affecting the functioning of other cells. In simple terms, they are signals our body sends around to itself. Beyond just the sex hormones you may know about (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), the body actually secretes more than 100 different hormones. They are, effectively, command central of our body’s internal communication network otherwise known as the endocrine system.
Wait, what is the endocrine system? Each part of your body from your brain to your skin, your heart, your kidneys, and your muscles has a specific job to do, and in order to get that work done correctly, these body parts take instructions from the endocrine system. Made up of a series of glands and other hormone-producing organs, the endocrine system coordinates everything from growth and metabolism to fertility, mood, digestion, and detoxification. Through the production of hormones is how the endocrine system manages all of this. Hormones are sent out from one part of the body to another part to deliver messages about what work needs to be done, when to do it, and for how long.
What controls the endocrine system? The coordinated movement, synthesis, and distribution of hormones are like an orchestra. In order to achieve harmony, all the instruments need to play together – if they don’t, body functions get out of tune and dysfunction results. We’ll get more into that in another post on hormone balance, but for now, know that regulation of the endocrine system is overseen in the brain by the hypothalamus and pituitary. The hypothalamus is a small but mighty part of our brain that releases hormones with the sole job of signaling the pituitary gland that it has work to do. Also in the brain, the pituitary is considered the master gland, like the leader of the orchestra, because it sends out critical hormones that carry stimulating messages to the rest of the endocrine system which, when received, trigger all the jobs.
That’s a lot of jobs, how does it all work? Although most hormones come into contact with essentially all cells, a given hormone affects only a limited number of cells. These are called target cells, and a target cell responds only to hormones for which it bears receptors. Said another way, a particular cell is a target cell for a hormone ONLY IF that cell contains functioning receptors for that hormone, and cells which do not have such a receptor cannot be influenced directly by that hormone. An easy way to think about this is to compare it to TV broadcasts. Pretend the endocrine system is a 24-hour television news network. The signal from this network is being broadcast all over, available to anyone within range, BUT only those with receivers tuned to that specific news network’s signal will actually get the broadcast. Hormones are like that – each one is a unique signal that influences only those cells that have receivers tuned specifically for it. Just like with a television, the key is that the receiver must be functioning…if it is not, no signal is received and the very important message from the hormone cannot stimulate the action for which it is intended. More on that in a future post.
How does it all stay in balance? Because there are A LOT of instruments (glands and tissues) in this incredible orchestra (endocrine system) producing such important sounds (hormones) which play together to make beautiful music (body functions), the body uses a self-regulating mechanism called a negative feedback loop. A feedback mechanism is a loop in which a product feeds back to control its own production. In a negative feedback loop, increased output from the system inhibits future production by the system. In other words, the system brings things back to normal by shutting down manufacturing when levels of output or the amount of accumulated product gets too high. For the endocrine system, negative feedback keeps the concentration of a hormone within a narrow range. This is called homeostasis, or BALANCE and it is crucial to hormone health.
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