The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Hormones
- Hormones affect everything you do — how you feel, how you grow into an adult, whether or not you reach for a second muffin, whether you can control your emotions.
- Hormones are the chemical messengers that spring your cells into action, telling them what to do, how to do it, and when.
- Keep reading to learn about some of the more important hormones that commonly go off-kilter, and what you can do to reset them.
Hormones affect everything you do — how you feel, how you grow into an adult, whether or not you reach for a second muffin, how well you control your emotions…the list goes on.
Hormones are the chemical messengers that spring your cells into action. Think of hormones as the waiters who write orders for the kitchen, and your cells as the kitchen staff who fulfill these orders. Hormones tell cells what to do, and how to do it.
The total number of hormones you have is unclear — some of your body’s chemicals are difficult to classify. Scientists say you have somewhere between 48 and 59 hormone receptors, which are the “on” switches that tell your cells what to do, and the number will likely keep shifting as researchers learn more and more about what your body chemicals do. Keep reading to learn about some of the more important hormones that commonly go off-kilter, and what you can do to reset them.
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Hunger, satiety, and metabolism hormones
For decades, dieters believed that they were at odds with calories. That’s only part of the story. Hunger, satiety (how full you feel), and metabolism hormones have a much larger impact on whether or not you’ll lose weight, maintain, or get fat.
You have a hormone called leptin that signals you to stop eating. Leptin links up with proteins in your bloodstream to tell your brain how much you ate and whether you have enough nutrients to stop eating food for now.
Leptin also regulates your metabolism and tells your body how much energy to expend (i.e. how many calories to burn). If you’ve eaten enough and your leptin hormone is working properly, it tells your thyroid to make lots of thyroid hormone and ramp up your metabolism. That’s great news for your energy levels.
If you’re either starving or your leptin isn’t working (due to leptin resistance), it will tell your thyroid to put the brakes on making thyroid hormone. That makes you save energy, but you’re tired, it’s hard to think, and you store those calories as fat instead of burning them.
The key is to have proper leptin sensitivity, and you can control that by eating the right types of foods. Here’s how to reset your leptin with diet.
Ghrelin, the hunger hormone
Ghrelin is your “hunger hormone,” the hormone that your stomach and intestines release when it’s time to eat. Researchers found that ghrelin injections caused people to eat 28% more.
To keep your ghrelin stable, make sure you’re keeping carbs low and getting enough protein and vegetable fiber. Here’s what you need to know about ghrelin.
Cholecystokinin (CCK), the satiety hormone
Your intestines release a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) after you eat, which is another hormone that tells your body that you’re full. Researchers have found that injecting people with CCK made them eat less.
Right after losing a substantial amount of weight, your intestines secrete less CCK. So, you feel less full after meals, even if you ate the same amount before you lost weight. That’s how cravings and binges are born. Read this article to find out how being in ketosis works with CCK to prevent overeating. If you don’t want to go full keto, having a low-carb, high-fat breakfast can help keep cravings at bay all day.
When you taste food, your pancreas starts producing the hormone insulin to help your cells accept fuel. When you eat, your body breaks carbs down into glucose, or sugar. Glucose goes into your bloodstream and on to cells to fuel them. Insulin is the hormone that helps glucose get into your cells. The glucose your cells don’t use gets stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, and once they’re at capacity, you start storing it as fat.
When your insulin production and insulin sensitivity works well, your cells get the energy they need and you don’t store fat. If you enter a state of insulin resistance, meaning your cells don’t get the signal to accept glucose, it stays in your bloodstream and your body stores it as fat. This article has everything you need to know about insulin resistance and how to reverse it.
Thyroid Hormones (T3, T4)
Your thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate:
- How fast you burn energy
- Heart rate
- Reproductive health and sex drive
When thyroid hormones are off, you feel it. Too much thyroid hormone can lead to racing heart, anxiety, fine tremors in your hands, sweating and feeling hot, and more. Not enough will lead to low blood pressure, fatigue, weakness, puffiness, and more. Here’s everything you need to know about your thyroid.
Sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone
Estrogens include estriol, estradiol, and estrone — the hormones that control development and maintenance of female characteristics.
Because of all of the chemicals in your environment that mimic estrogen, you’ve likely heard concern about estrogen dominance as a growing problem. Read this to learn about healthy estrogen, what excess estrogen does, and how to balance your hormones.
The word “progesterone” can be diced into “promoting gestation” because it’s a major player in fetal development. With insufficient progesterone, a fertilized egg won’t implant, and if implantation is successful, women cannot sustain a pregnancy without enough progesterone.
Progesterone opposes estrogen — meaning, it blocks the effects of estrogen, which helps regulate how much influence estrogen has on your body. Fluctuating progesterone leads to irregular menstrual periods, PMS, menopausal symptoms, and even cancer.
If you think your progesterone levels may be off, the only way to know for sure is to get blood testing. In the meantime, you can try these natural solutions to balance your hormones.
Testosterone isn’t just weight room fodder — it plays a prominent role in how you feel throughout life, especially as you age. Men produce testosterone in the testes, women produce a smaller amount in the ovaries, and both genders make a small amount of testosterone in the adrenal glands. Testosterone is a steroid hormone that controls things like:
- Development of male sex organs and deepening of the voice during puberty
- Production of sperm
- Skin and hair
- Heart health
- Bone density
- Fat storage
In both men and women, testosterone production declines as you age. A lot of the time, low testosterone goes unaddressed because initial symptoms are the ones doctors associate with normal aging — decreased sex drive, weight gain, weaker muscles, etc. You’d do yourself a disservice to think of it that way. Supplementing with replacement levels of testosterone can benefit your heart, bones, moods, and more.
Taking steroids to bulk up isn’t the same thing as taking replacement levels of testosterone. Here are the details on the signs of low testosterone and what to do about it.
Your adrenal glands (small glands that sit on top of your kidneys) produce cortisol when you wake up in the morning, when you exercise, and when you’re under stress. Cortisol has a wide range of functions in your body, including:
- Regulates blood sugar
- Influences learning and memory
- Controls electrolyte balance
- Responds to energy need and regulates metabolism
When you have the right amount, these processes work well. Chronic stress, either from emotional stress that you’re aware of, or low-level stress from toxic exposures or eating foods you don’t tolerate, causes your adrenals to go into overdrive and make too much cortisol. After a while, your adrenals can burn out and you end up having cortisol fluctuations that spell trouble for your body.
Conventional doctors typically do not recognize or diagnose adrenal fatigue or adrenal burnout. “Common symptoms of adrenal fatigue that patients complain of — exhaustion, brain fog, lack of motivation, severe sugar cravings, etc. — can be attributed to or caused by other diseases. If blood testing shows hormone levels are within normal range, i.e., neither failure (Addison’s Disease) or overproduction (Cushing’s disease), mainstream doctors are unlikely to diagnose someone with failure of homeostasis,” says physician-scientist and New York Times bestselling author of “Brain Body Diet” Dr. Sara Gottfried, MD.
Too much cortisol can cause things like mood disorders including depression, low sex drive, weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations, irregular menstrual cycles, and so much more. When cortisol is too low, you may experience fatigue, weight loss, weakness, and low motivation.
“Resetting your cortisol level and healing your control system often requires considerable diet and lifestyle interventions. Doctors are woefully unequipped to offer advice of this kind. They are loathe to diagnose a health issue when they lack a solution to give to their patients. That’s where we, as early adopters, have an opportunity to step in and provide the clinical research base and evidence to propose an alternative,” says Gottfried
If you’re wondering how your adrenals are doing, read this article on adrenal fatigue and open up a conversation with your doctor about testing.
Dr. Gottfried recommends getting a DUTCH test for the most comprehensive picture of how your adrenals are doing. “It provides the cortisol level over the course of the day, at four points (usually upon awakening, before lunch and dinner, and before bed). Dried urine also provides free and metabolized cortisol, which I find to be clinically helpful, especially in patients with normal serum cortisol. I can measure cortisol awakening response in dried urine, which I use clinically for patients with mood disorders like depression.”
Adrenaline another adrenal hormone that you feel during your fight-or-flight response to stress. When you spot an alligator nearby, when you’re walking through a sketchy parking lot, or when you have to give a big presentation at work, you feel the effects of adrenaline — increased heart rate, faster breathing, hyper-vigilance. Behind the scenes, you’re burning carbohydrates faster.
Adrenaline prepares your muscles to engage and shuts down a lot of other body functions to pour all of your energy into either running for your life or fighting for your life. One of the more noticeable functions that slows down is digestion. Some people get diarrhea when they’re nervous — that’s because adrenaline stops digestion before the process is complete. You won’t notice everything that slows down, like your immune system.
If your stress response activates too much, you’ll end up with a compromised immune system, digestive troubles, mood disorders, brain fog, and more. If you’re stressed, take steps to get your stress under control today.
Reading this article is a start, but the world of hormones is vast and complex. Even the most highly trained specialists don’t know everything there is to know about hormones and how they work together. Supporting your hormones is a lifelong process. Eating foods that feed you on a cellular level, keeping your stress at bay, lowering your inflammation, and getting outside and moving every day will balance your body better than you would expect. You might need to call in the professionals depending on your situation, but these four things will have a remarkable effect on how you feel, due in large part to your hormones approaching balance.
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