What Do Hormones Do? Understanding How Hormones Work (and 5 Quick Tips for Keeping Hormones Balanced)

what do hormones do?

Some of you might be wondering, what do hormones do and why are they important? To help illustrate my answer, let me tell you a story of one my patients, Lucy:

Lucy came to me for help when she was unable to get pregnant after several months of trying. She told me that her monthly cycle was a little irregular, and she had mild PMS symptoms monthly: emotional sensitivity, depression a few days prior to her period, sweets craving, and bloating. “It’s my hormones, right?” she asked. “You probably want to do something to fix those sex hormones — estrogen and progesterone are to blame, right?”

I told her that while her PMS and fertility difficulties could be related to imbalances in estrogen and progesterone, but, it wasn’t quite that simple. We had to look at what might be the root cause of the issue – which meant taking a look at her other major hormones: cortisol, adrenaline and insulin.

We also had to look at what might be happening in Lucy’s life that would impact these hormones. As I dug deeper, I learned that she had been working overtime at her job as an emergency room nurse, skimping on sleep to make time for socializing, and eating erratically – skipping meals for hours while she worked, then loading up on starchy, filling meals like pasta or pancakes when she finally had time.

All of these things had an impact on hormonal functioning, which ultimately had an impact on Lucy’s PMS symptoms and fertility. Balancing those hormones was key to addressing her issues.

In my book, Is it Me or My Hormones?, I compared hormones to a symphony orchestra. I still think this is one of the best ways to illustrate the importance of hormonal balance. You can’t have one overpowering the others and still feel your best – just like one instrument can’t overpower the others in an orchestra and still produce the best sound. Composers work hard to create the perfect balance, and so does your body!

What Do Hormones Do and Why Are They So Important?

Hormones are chemical messengers which carry important information throughout our bodies. All of your major body functions, including reproduction, metabolism, blood pressure, energy levels, appetite, sleep patterns, blood sugar balance, and aging, are impacted by hormones.

Our bodies are full of neurotransmitters, all over the body, not just in the brain. So when your hormones aren’t balanced, you feel it everywhere. You just don’t always recognize your symptoms as being connected to hormones. Hormonal imbalance can cause fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, sleeplessness, weight gain, depression and anxiety, a dip in libido, and accelerated signs of aging.

But just like an orchestra makes an amazing sound when the musicians play in harmony, when your hormones are properly balanced you can feel amazing. Let’s examine the role of some of these hormones, and how you can keep them balanced.

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Understanding Cortisol and Adrenaline

Stress whether physical or emotional, prompts the adrenal glands to release hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, preparing your body for the “flight or fight” stress response that can be essential to survival when real danger is near. The problem is that stress comes in many forms, and these days most of those do not present a real threat to survival. But your body doesn’t know that.

When adrenaline is released, it causes tense muscles, racing thoughts, and elevated heart rate. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream and shuts down non-essential functions such as reproduction or digestion. This is fine if there’s real danger — you won’t be thinking of food or sex if your life is at risk – but if these physiological reactions occur too frequently those other functions will suffer indefinitely.

In a perfect situation, your stress response is quickly followed by a relaxation response, where heart rate, muscles and your mind return to a calmer state. But when you’re faced with constant stressors — physical pain, looming deadlines, hectic schedules, relationship difficulties, and even small frustrations like being cut off in traffic — your relaxation response never gets a turn. Constant demands on your stress response can cause your stress hormone levels to be too high or too low, neither of which allows for optimal health.

The big issue is that imbalances in cortisol and adrenaline impact nearly all of your other hormones. Let’s talk about what they do to your sex hormones.

Stress Can Impact My Sex Hormones?

The steroid hormones estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA are most familiar – and most often blamed when symptoms arise. And yes, it is the imbalance of these sex hormones that cause a lot of those familiar symptoms – the hot flashes and moodiness, weight gain, headaches, cramps, low libido and fertility problems. But often, it’s cortisol and adrenaline that are behind that imbalance.

It surprised Lucy when I explained how the stress of her emergency room job, especially working extra shifts, could be at the root of her uncomfortable PMS symptoms, as well as her fertility issues. But it’s all connected.

Constant stress creates an abundance of cortisol, which dysregulates the sex hormones, which leads to symptoms, which creates more stress. It’s easy to get stuck in a never ending cycle if you don’t understand what stress does in your body. After all, you can’t change something you don’t know about!

Research has indicated that stress can result in low libido, low sperm counts, and cause women to fail to ovulate. In fact, one study published in 2016 concluded that women who self-reported feeling stressed during their ovulatory window were approximately 40% less likely to conceive in that month, compared to months with less stress.

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I’m Not Diabetic, Why Do I Need to Think About Insulin?

You may not think you need to worry about insulin unless you are diabetic, but there’s a lot of information everyone should know about this key hormone and how it works. An excess of insulin can impact weight gain, low estrogen, PCOS and infertility as well as leading to uncomfortable PMS and perimenopause symptoms like mood swings and depression, fatigue, migraines and insomnia. Balancing your insulin can help you lose weight, and feel energized, and because taking care of an insulin imbalance helps balance other hormones you may end up feeling more sexy and feminine as well.

So if you aren’t diabetic, what causes imbalances in insulin? It’s a process that begins with what you eat – and the typical American diet high in sweet, starchy foods and lacking in protein and healthy fats is a big factor.

When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into a form of sugar called glucose, which travels from your digestive system into your bloodstream. Insulin stores blood sugar in your body’s cells to prevent your brain from being overloaded. If this happens too often your cells get full and shut down some of their insulin receptors (this is known as insulin resistance), while at the same time triggering inflammation as a warning to your body. When your insulin receptors are shut down, your pancreas produces more insulin, and another vicious cycle is started. If insulin can’t break into your cells, it will stay in your blood. Then blood sugar moves into fat cells, which causes the fat deposits that so many women wish they could get rid of around their middle. And if this goes on too long, even your fat cells will reject sugar, causing it to remain in your bloodstream — this is Type 2 diabetes.

That’s why reversing insulin resistance is so important! And it can be done, with a little commitment and attention to how you exercise and what you eat.

Other Instruments in Your Hormonal Orchestra

Although sex hormone imbalances are the ones that most often bring women through my door, remember that there are many other hormones in your body, and each play an important role. Understanding how they work, and how they can affect how you feel, is important even if your periods are regular or you aren’t interested in getting pregnant. When you know what part hormones play in your overall health, it’s easier to quickly identify any problems you may have. Here are a few more important hormones to consider:

Pregnenolone

Without pregnenolone, you wouldn’t have the other steroid hormones. This important building block converts directly into DHEA and progesterone. DHEA converts to estrogens and testosterone. And progesterone converts to estrogens, cortisol and aldosterone. But here’s the most interesting part — without cholesterol, you wouldn’t have pregnenolone!

That’s right, cholesterol, the highly villainized steroid compound, is essential to human life! Pregnenolone is made from cholesterol mainly in the adrenal glands, but also throughout the body including in your liver, brain, skin and even your retinas. This is one reason why prescription drugs that lower cholesterol can actually do more harm that good. And why the right kinds of dietary cholesterol are helpful too!

A Little More About Cholesterol

Not only is cholesterol vital to hormone production, it has many other essential functions as well. Cholesterol is a cornerstone of normal cell functioning and mood regulation. Cholesterol helps maintain brain and neurotransmitter function, build strong brain and nerve tissue, and boost your immune system. It also helps you digest fat-soluble vitamins (like A, D, E and K) and provides a buffer around your nerves that transmit electrical impulses. That’s a lot of reasons to reconsider the “cholesterol is bad” story you’ve been hearing.

Thyroid Hormones

Thyroid hormones T3 and T4 also influence your weight, energy, and mood. And unbalanced stress hormones can change the way your thyroid hormones work as well, triggering PMS or perimenopausal symptoms as well as other health issues.

These hormones are secreted by the thyroid gland, and regulate your metabolism. That’s why there’s such an impact on weight if your body doesn’t have enough. T3, though produced in far smaller amounts, is considered the “active” thyroid hormone, having a greater impact on your metabolic rate.

And metabolism isn’t the only thing affected by thyroid hormones. They are also involved in bone growth, synthesizing protein, and fetal brain development.

5 Quick Tips to Keep Hormones Balanced

Now that you know what some of your major hormones are responsible for, you can understand better why balance is so important. Here are a few key things you can do every day to restore balance and start feeling great.

  • Keep yourself hydrated. Drinking plenty of filtered water is a great way to keep your body – and your hormones – healthy. If plain water gets too boring, try infusing it with fresh cucumber or citrus fruits.
  • Cut back on sugar and alcohol. Think about how you feel after binging on sugar – or alcohol. It’s not good, is it? Sugar can cause inflammation and digestive issues, and alcohol stalls your body’s natural detoxifying process. I’m not telling you to give it up altogether, but be attentive to how much you are consuming. The adverse effects are so much worse that the temporary comfort!
  • Eat plenty of protein, healthy fat, and colorful, organic vegetables. Get in the habit of eating well balanced meals that include protein, good fats (such as fish, nuts and seeds), and lots of color. The more color on your plate, the more variety you’re getting in nutrients and antioxidants.
  • Pay attention to environmental toxins. In the world we live in, we have to be aware of endocrine disruptors everywhere. From the beauty products you use to how you store your food (avoid plastics), pay attention to ingredients. You can’t always control the air you breathe, but you can be in charge of what goes into, and on, your body.
  • Stress less! Since stress impacts hormones in so many different ways, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to find ways to reduce daily stress in your life. Start saying no to things that drain you, and yes to activities that make you forget your worries!

Balanced Hormones Can Mean a Brand New You!

Understanding how imbalanced hormones affect all aspects of your health can be just the motivation you need to take steps to stop the vicious cycles. Remember Lucy and the question, “what do hormones do and why are they so important?” She found out the answer in just a few months of active health choices. By reducing the stress in her life, which included getting regular sleep, eating regular meals, and finding time for a massage in her weekly schedule, she was able to balance her hormones and regulate her period. Six months after she came to see me, Lucy was pregnant! Balancing your hormones might help you overcome long term issues too — and when you do, you’ll be amazed at how great you can feel!

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