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Hormones Maintaining a Vital Balance

The endocrine system has eight major endocrine glands, which secrete different hormones that are very potent, with even small amounts having profound effects on metabolic processes. The major glands are: pineal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, gonads (ovaries and testes), thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, hypothalamus, and adrenal glands. About 50 different hormones are secreted throughout the body, with each playing a vital role in maintaining stable body functions (homeostasis). Of these, five hormones, namely, cortisol, estrogen, insulin, progesterone, and testosterone, are involved in the most common imbalances in both men and women.

Cortisol: Produced in the adrenal gland, cortisol (a.ka. the stress hormone) helps regulate blood sugar, metabolism, inflammation, and memory formation. Released during stressful times, it shuts down the digestion and reproduction systems temporarily. Too much cortisol results in symptoms like high blood pressure, increased thirst, muscle weakness, a flushed, round face, mood swings, irregular menstruation, reduced sex drive, and/​or weight gain. Too much cortisol production over a prolonged period may increase the risk of developing Cushing’s syndrome. Too little cortisol production leads to symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, muscle weakness, mood swings, and/​or weight loss.

Estrogen: One of the main sex hormones in women, estrogen is responsible for puberty-related physical changes, menstrual cycle regulation, supporting mood during pregnancy, and regulation of cholesterol and bone health. Over production of estrogen may result in fatigue, depression or anxiety, reduced sex drive, breast lumps, and/​or weight gain. Estrogen is also present in men in small amounts, increased levels of which can produce enlarged pectorals, infertility, and/​or a reduced sex drive, and decreased levels may result in reduced sex drive and weight gain. Menopause is usually the reason for low estrogen in women, and symptoms include hot flashes, mood swings, dry skin, an irregular menstrual cycle, and/​or reduced sex drive.

Insulin: Produced by the pancreas, insulin allows muscles, fat, and liver to absorb glucose and breaks down fat and protein so as to regulate the metabolic process. Too much insulin results in hypoglycemia, symptoms of which include hunger, pallor, sweating, anxiety, dizziness, heart palpitations, and/​or tremors. Reduced insulin, resulting in hyperglycemia, is typically a result of type 1 or type 2 diabêtes, and its symptoms include dehydration, frequent urination, hunger, increased thirst, dizziness, fatigue, and/​or weight loss.

Progesterone: While it is generally thought to be present only in women, men too have progesterone. It is crucial in menstruation and in the early stages of pregnancy, while in men, it supports fertility, besides balancing the effects of estrogen. In women, high progesterone levels results in symptoms like bloating, anxiety, depression, reduced sex drive, and/​or weight fluctuations, while low levels may lead to irregular menstrual cycle, abnormal uterine bleeding, frequent miscarriages, reduced sex drive, pain during pregnancy, and/​or weight gain. In men, high progesterone levels increases estrogen levels, resulting in symptoms like fatigue, depression, and development of heart conditions, while reduced levels may result in fatigue, hair loss, erectile dysfunction, bone loss, and/​or weight gain.

Testosterone: While it is the main sex hormone in men, women also have testosterone, though in low amounts. In men, it supports puberty-related physical changes like deepening of voice and growth of the genitals, hair, and muscles. In women, it supports bone health and reproductive tissue. High testosterone levels in adults may increase the chance of infertility at a younger age, and low levels in men may lead to enlarged pectorals, mood swings, low sperm count, poor erections, and/​or a reduced sex drive. In women, low testosterone may lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, reduced sex drive, and/​or weight gain.

Happy Hormones

One of the important functions of hormones is to help regulate mood, with some hormones promoting positive feelings like happiness and pleasure. These ‘happy hormones’ include:

Dopamine: Besides being associated with learning, memory, motor system function, etc., dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is part of the brain’s reward system that is also associated with pleasurable sensations.

Serotonin: Besides regulating sleep, appetite, digestion, learning ability, and memory, this is another hormone and neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.

Oxytocin: Considered as essential for childbirth, breastfeeding, and parent-child bonding, this ‘love hormone’, which increases with physical affection like kissing, cuddling, and sex, also helps in promoting trust, empathy, and relationship-bonding.

Endorphins: Produces in response to stress or discomfort, endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers, the levels of which also increase during reward-producing activities like eating, working out, or having sex.

While exposure to sunlight has been shown to increase production of both serotonin and endorphins, exercise increases levels of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Some foods can also boost levels of the ‘happy hormones’. Spicy foods may trigger endorphin release; foods like eggs, meat, yogurt, beans, and almonds are linked to dopamine release; foods high in tryptophan, such as milk, tuna, oats, cheese, chicken, etc., have been linked to increased serotonin levels; probiotics like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut can influence the release of ‘happy hormones’, as well. Additionally, several supplements, such as tyrosine, tryptophan, and green tea, may help increase ‘happy hormone’ levels.

Signs of Hormonal Imbalance

While hormone levels fluctuate most noticeably during puberty and during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause, they can also be affected by lifestyle and some medical conditions. Here are some signs of hormonal imbalance to look out for:

Mood swings: Estrogen affects brain neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Fluctuating levels can cause premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or depressed mood during perimenopause and menopause. Dietary and lifestyle changes like exercise, less alcohol, quitting smoking, herbal remedies, and hormone replacement therapy can all help.

Weight gain: An underactive thyroid, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or menopause could be the cause for unexplained weight gain. The doctor may check for conditions such as thyroid problems or ovarian cysts, and in the case of menopause, HRT may help.

Skin problems: Low estrogen and progesterone levels could show as chronic adult acne, while high androgen hormone levels may indicate PCOS. Hormonal imbalances during pregnancy or menopause can cause itchy skin, while menopause or thyroid problems may result in dry skin.

Insomnia and poor sleep quality: Levels of estrogen and progesterone, which promote sleep, fall during perimenopause and menopause, and could contribute to night sweats, which disrupt sleep. Besides steps like wearing cotton night-clothes, sleeping between cotton sheets, keeping the bedroom cool and dark, exercising, and reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, hormone replacement therapy could also help.

Weak bones: Bone loss may be the result of reduced estrogen levels during perimenopause and menopause. Weight-bearing exercise like running, a calcium and vitamin D-rich diet, and HRT can all be helpful.

Painful or heavy periods: May be due to fibroids, which are non-cancerous growths that develop in or around the womb, especially if there are symptoms like abdominal or lower back pain, frequent need to urinate, constipation, and painful intercourse. While the exact cause is not known, fibroid development is believed to be stimulated by estrogen. Medication or surgery may be prescribed to remove them.

Vaginal dryness: A fall in estrogen levels, especially during perimenopause and menopause, is typically the reason for vaginal dryness. Hormone levels can also be affected due to contraceptive pills or antidepressants.

Low libido: Reduced estrogen and testosterone levels results in low libido, night sweats, fatigue, low mood, and anxiety, especially in perimenopausal or menopausal women. Doctors may prescribe testosterone in very low doses as a gel applied to the skin, which can improve libido and boost mood and energy levels.

Fertility problems: While a woman’s fertility naturally drops after the age of 35, hormonal imbalance is one of the leading causes of female infertility. The chances of getting pregnant are greatly reduced if there are high levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH); similarly, low levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) can also cause fertility problems. Early menopause and conditions like PCOS also affect fertility.

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