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A Little About Hormones in General

Hormones

Hormones

Before diving into a discussion about the various hormones, I think it might be useful to introduce a little hormone primer. We’ve probably all felt a little “hormonal” or felt like our “hormones were out of balance” but exactly is a hormone and how does it work. There are numerous hormones in the human body controlling everything from our blood pressure, our blood sugar, our sleep, our response to stress, our weight and energy, and our reproductive organs. The hormone system, or endocrine system, is incredibly complex.

Although during this blog series we will be dealing with the main “female” hormones, they are just a part of the orchestra that makes up the endocrine system. To get an idea of just how complex our endocrine system is just click here to access a wonderful interactive hormone system diagram from my favorite hormone testing lab, ZRT.

Hormones are like little messengers. They are produced in a specific gland, like the thyroid, the adrenal, the ovaries, or the testes, or in the brain, and then travel through the blood to all parts of the body. Cells that are sensitive to the hormone (like a breast cell is sensitive to estrogen) are called target cells. The hormone attaches to the cell via a receptor, and like a key unlocks a door, if the the receptor is open and unblocked, the hormones starts affecting processes in the cell like growth and development and various mental and physical functions. If the receptor is turned off or blocked, even if the hormone is present in the blood (and shows up in a lab test-either blood or saliva) the hormone isn’t getting into the cell and therefore has no effect. Imbalances of hormones can cause the receptors on the cell to be “off”. An example of this is the estrogen/progesterone balance. When estrogen is too high and out of balance with progesterone, the estrogen receptors on the target cell will be turned off and the estrogen can’t get into the cell. (This can be protective when the cell is a breast cell.) Progesterone helps balance out the estrogen and re-opens the estrogen receptors. The body also produces proteins that can bind up certain hormones, like thyroid, cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone. This can happen in response to hormone imbalance, excessive hormone use and excessive stress. If the hormone is bound up, even if it is in the blood, it can’t get into the cell and have an effect.

Hormones can’t be stored in the cell and used just when the cell needs them. Therefore, they need to be produced and released just when they are needed. This is done with a series of feedback loops. In this picture, a small area in the hypothalamus recognizes when thyroid levels are too low and sends a message to the pituitary. The pituitary sends a message to the thyroid to make more thyroid hormone. This increased thyroid hormone is sensed by the area in the hypothalamus and it’s signal to the pituitary is decreased. This is a feedback loop.

Feedback Loop

Think of this like a conductor leading an orchestra but he’s not using sheet music. When he senses that the violins are too loud, he sends them a signal with his baton to instruct them to decrease their volume. He then senses that they are playing more quietly and stops sending the signal. Now think of that conductor leading the whole orchestra like this, every single instrument, and you get an idea of the complexity of the hormone system in the human body.

The human hormonal system is marvelously intricate and we understand only the tip of the iceberg. Possibly, 100 years from now, physicians and researchers of the future will shake their heads in disbelief about how we tested and treated hormone balance, just like we look back at medicine at the turn of the 20th century, before antibiotics, vaccines and blood transfusions, as hopelessly archaic. The take home lesson from of all this is the importance of finding a hormone practitioner that stays current with the latest research while realizing that he or she cannot possibly know the final, definitive answer in this evolving field. Diagnosing hormone imbalance is not just about getting lab tests done. It’s about listening to the patient with an empathetic heart and an open mind. As I say, don’t accept an “I always” or “I never” from a practitioner when it comes to your health. Everyone is an individual and their care needs to be individualized and this is especially the case when it comes to a system as complex as the endocrine (hormone) system.

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