HORMONES: We all have them. We all need them. We all love to hate them. So what, exactly, do they do?
by Sue Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
Hormones are powerful biochemical substances that communicate with every cell in our body, telling them what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
Hormones are made in very tiny amounts by glands of the endocrine system – the master control system of all of the hormones in the body. For example, the thyroid gland secretes thyroxine and trodothryonine; the adrenal glands secrete norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol, aldosterone and DHEA; while the pancreas is associated with glucagons and insulin. Estrogen and Progesterone, the hormones that are arguably the most important pair of hormones to women, are made in the ovaries and in the adrenal glands. Testosterone is also made in the ovaries and adrenals of a woman, or in the testes of a man. Once any of these hormones are produced, they proceed directly to the bloodstream.
Now the bloodstream acts as a superhighway, transporting the hormones all over the body to target cells where they make things happen. It doesn’t take very much of a hormone to exert a powerful effect on a cell. In fact, to further define what I meant by “very tiny amounts” in the paragraph above, hormones typically are measured in nanograms and picograms, in other words in billionths and trillionths of a gram. To put this in perspective, one billionth of a gram, or one part per billion, is like putting a pinch of salt into 10 tons of potato chips. One-trillionth of a gram is the equivalent of one drop of water in a tank car of a 6-mile-long train! It’s pretty amazing that these biochemical substances can carry out their critical job of signaling, or communicating, to the cells in these unbelievably small amounts.
Okay so once the hormones are on their way throughout the body, they are on the lookout for cells that they can influence. You see, any hormone can’t affect just any cell. Each hormone acts like a key that fits into something called a “receptor” – a sort of “gate” on the cell that allows a hormone to enter the cell (or not) to influence the function of that cell. Not all keys (hormones) open all gates (cell receptors). In order be able to enter the cell and affect its function, a hormone and a receptor must be a match. In other words, the key must be tailor-made to open that specific gate. For example, estrogen can only affect the function of a cell that has an estrogen receptor. If the receptors are not specifically for estrogen, no amount of estrogen can ever affect that cell’s function. Think of it like a radio broadcast. Your favorite FM radio station broadcasts through the air around you at all times, but you will only hear the broadcast if you have a receiver tuned into that station.
So you may be wondering what, exactly, each hormone does to each cell. What “influence” each imparts. Well, that varies based on the hormone type, hormone strength, and the cell receptor. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts discussing the specific functions of the various types of hormones.
No doubt you are aware that hormones occasionally become imbalanced. Because they are so powerful, even the slightest variation in their levels can cause significant issues. So the endocrine system, as mentioned above, is part of a team that uses a series of checks and balances to keep hormones balanced. It works along with 2 glands located in the brain: the hypothalamus and the pituitary and together they are referred to as the HP (Hypothalamus-Pituitary) Axis or sometimes the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal). The thing is, each member of this team must be working correctly in order to successfully maintain a healthy hormone balance, and this isn’t always the case. In fact, in today’s world that can be pretty difficult given the significant stress levels that are so prevalent. Unfortunately, stress has a big-time detrimental effect on the endocrine system.
You may enjoy reading my post detailing the HP-Axis-based mechanisms that are in place to regulate our hormone levels. In the meantime, shoot me an email if you have any questions or need further explanation on what I’ve written here.
Thanks for reading and healthy regards!
Find out more about Female Hormones HERE
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