Your Essential Guide To Hormones

Have you ever wanted to understand your hormones better but just don’t know where to start? Well, our essential guide to hormones is a good place! Our amazing naturopath Kelly has pulled together a selection of snack-sized knowledge bites so you’ll come away knowing all the basics and feel more empowered to dig into this subject a little deeper. As always, if we don’t answer your question here and you’re concerned about something in particular, you can always give our friendly naturopaths a call on 0800848 254

First up, we’re starting slow, what are hormones?

First up, we’re starting slow, what are hormones?

Hormones are basically a method of chemical communication from one part of the body to another. They help control different aspects of how our bodies function.  Some of these functions include our body temperature, our appetite, our overall growth and development, our reproductive function, even how well we sleep.

The body has two main types of communication networks. The immediate but short-duration network is the nerve impulses of our nervous system.  Hormones are part of the endocrine system, a slower form of communication but with a longer-lasting effect.

Hormones are made in glands and there are many hormonal glands in the body. Once made, they travel via the bloodstream to lock-on to target cells to tell them what to do. This process is much slower than the lightning speed of an electrical impulse between neurons. But its effects are more long-lasting – and only stops once the hormone is broken down by the liver. 

So nerve impulses communicate from neuron to neuron in a localised manner.  But hormones can communicate with distant parts of the body because they travel through the bloodstream. Think of it this way – nerve transmission is like taking a car ride across town. But your hormones are like a long-haul flight to the other side of the world!

Are there different kinds of hormones?

Are there different kinds of hormones?

Absolutely! There are many different glands in the body responsible for making many different hormones. 

It all starts in the brain with the ‘master gland’ called the pituitary.  It’s about the size of a pea and is situated just under the brain behind the bridge of the nose.  But don’t let its small size fool you! It controls the regulation of hormones for most of the other glands in the body.

The pituitary is activated by a part of the brain called the ‘hypothalamus’ which sends ‘releasing’ hormones to tell the pituitary to ‘release’ hormones!  This causes the pituitary to send out ‘stimulating’ hormones to tell the target glands to produce their hormones.  The pituitary sends out over 9 different hormones to different glands around the body, including the thyroid, the adrenals, and the sex glands.

From there:

  • The thyroid gland makes thyroid hormones (thyroxine and triiodothyronine)
  • The adrenal glands make stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) as well as androgen sex hormones
  • The sex glands – ovaries in women, and testes in men – make sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone in women, and testosterone in men.

But there are a number of other glands in the body that also produce hormones in response to different stimuli and triggers in the body.  

What do hormones do?

All hormones have different functions but their primary purpose is to tell target cells what to do and when to do it. There are many different kinds of hormones to regulate many different bodily processes.

For instance:

  • Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas gland located behind the stomach and its role is to manage blood sugar levels. When sensors pick up high blood sugar levels after eating, the pancreas is triggered to produce insulin to bring it down.
  • Thyroid hormones made by the thyroid gland in the neck are responsible for overall body metabolism. This is the speed with which all other cells function. It is very important because it controls our weight, our energy levels, our body temperature, as well as growth. It also has an important role in how the brain, heart and digestive systems function too.
  • Melatonin, our ‘sleep hormone’ is made by the pineal gland in the brain. It regulates bodily rhythms like the sleep-wake cycle.
  • Even our appetite is controlled by hormones! Leptin is made in fat cells and tells us when we’ve had enough to eat. Whereas its counterpart the hormone ghrelin is made by cells in the stomach and tell us we’re hungry!
  • Adrenalin released by the adrenal glands is a hormone that stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ response in stress. So it tells the heart to beat faster. It makes us breathe faster to get more oxygen to our muscles. And it tells the liver to convert stored energy into fuel for immediate use.

Do men and women have the same hormones?

Do men and women have the same hormones?

You might be surprised to learn that for the most part, yes! Men and women have fundamentally the same hormones – just in very different amounts!  

The gonads or sex glands that produce hormones are naturally different between men and women. Men have testes which produce ‘male hormones’ such as testosterone.  And women have ovaries which produce ‘female’ sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone. 

In men, testosterone promotes the development of male sexual characteristics – increased hair growth, increased muscle growth, a deeper voice etc. In women, oestrogen and progesterone support the development of the menstrual cycle, grow breast tissue and prepare the uterus to support a pregnancy.

But women do have some ‘male hormones’.  The adrenal glands make androgen hormones – sometimes called ‘male hormones’. This helps support women’s libido and also acts as a precursor for making oestrogens for women after menopause when her ovaries no longer function. Women just have a lot less ‘male hormone’ than men so that female hormones are in higher supply. 

Men also have some oestrogens too but this is vastly outweighed by their amount of testosterone.

Why do female hormones get the most attention?

Why do female hormones get the most attention?

Women experience frequent hormonal transitions during life.  First, there’s puberty and the start of the menstrual cycle which can take a while to stabilise. Then comes pregnancy with a big shift in hormonal output. Before leading to perimenopause and menopause at mid-life.

That’s a lot of potential for the wheels to come off the bus!

Men hit puberty and pretty well have a steady ride until middle age when their natural hormone levels also start to decline. Of course, men can experience problems with hormonal balance too, but it is far more common for women.

What hormones have the most impact on women’s health?

What hormones have the most impact on women’s health?

The key hormones for women are oestrogen – the ‘female’ hormone, and progesterone.

Oestrogen is the hormone responsible for the ‘feminising’ effect of women’s bodies – breast growth, hip spread, less hair growth, and smooth, young-looking skin. But oestrogen’s effects go deeper than just appearances and reproductive health.  It’s also protective for heart health and decreases the build-up of plaque in the arteries. Plus it helps to keep bones strong and dense.

Progesterone is just as important and works in tandem with oestrogen to keep a woman happy, healthy and feeling good. It’s needed to prepare the body for and to keep a pregnancy. It helps the body use fat for energy. It supports a healthy mood and libido. Plus it strengthens blood vessels and has a protective effect against developing reproductive cancers.

Can hormones ever go ‘wrong’?

Can hormones ever go ‘wrong’?

Sadly, yes.  Like most things in the body – balance is key, and hormonal balance is no exception. 

For women, the balance between oestrogen and progesterone is crucially important.  Too much oestrogen is not a good thing. It leads to menstrual irregularities and heavy bleeding, weight gain, unusual growth like uterine fibroids, low mood, poor sleep and the list goes on. Progesterone provides a necessary counterweight to oestrogen. 

Hormones are a bit like dominos.  If one goes out of balance, then it can have a knock-on effect on other hormones as well as they try to overcompensate. 

Let’s look at how something like long-term stress can effect the body:

  1. Chronic stress causes the body to over-produce cortisol – the stress hormone. Cortisol prompts the release of blood sugar to fuel the ‘fight or flight’ response.
  2. This then forces the pancreas to release more insulin to battle the blood sugar. But over time, the body’s cells start to turn off and not listen to insulin – so the pancreas produces more and more insulin to try and be heard. 
  3. All that insulin – a fat-storage hormone – promotes weight gain.
  4. But high cortisol also prevents the body from properly using thyroid hormones. So thyroid function slows down which also leads to weight gain.
  5. Fat cells start to become little hormone factories of their own. They produce leptin which tells us we’ve had enough to eat. But by this stage, the brain stops listening to leptin and so we eat more. Fat cells can also make oestrogen which starts to lead to more and more oestrogen, throwing off the balance with progesterone. 
  6. Meanwhile, the liver which is responsible for recycling and breaking down hormones is starting to get overloaded with all the excess hormones circulating about. This leads to even higher levels of circulating hormones and so the cycle continues.

You can see from this example, how hormonal imbalance can start to have long term effects.

What should I do if I suspect my hormones are out of balance?

What should I do if I suspect my hormones are out of balance?

There is lots you can do to help support a healthy hormonal balance. And they come back to that simple age-old advice of eating well, moving your body, getting enough sleep and minimising stress! 

As you can see stress has a BIG impact on the body!  Keeping blood sugar balanced can be done through healthy food choices – avoiding too many added sugars in the diet.  This can take a load off the pancreas and reduce insulin levels. 

A healthy diet also keeps digestive bacteria in a happy balance which plays a part in maintaining healthy hormone levels. The right nutrition provides the necessary building blocks for hormonal creation so glands aren’t fighting over the same raw materials.

Plus, a healthy diet supports liver health so hormonal clearance can be prioritised. Avoiding added toxins and ‘endocrine-disrupting chemicals’ – those that act like hormones in the body – is also crucial.

Small changes can make a big difference. But if you are still troubled by hormones that are running amok, speak to a health professional for specific advice. Health is so personal and it’s worth finding a solution that’s right for you! We hope you enjoyed our essentials guide to hormones!