When the topic of hormones comes up in a group of women, it's usually because one of them is wondering whether an imbalance of these mysterious body-produced chemicals is responsible for her crabby mood, her weight gain or her adult acne. And that's fair enough, but your endocrine system doesn't exist to cause you problems. The word hormone comes from the Greek hormao, meaning to excite. That’s because these compounds, produced by the endocrine system's glands, circulate in our blood, command cells and systems to do all the things we need to live: they help us breathe, remind us to eat (and stop!), heal wounds, and get pregnant.
Check out these 10 things you need to know about your hormones:
1. Hormones are everywhere
Dozens of glands are pumping out various hormones all the time. No hormone is inherently good or bad: The stress hormone (cortisol) helps us maintain normal blood pressure and circulation, but can promote “stress” eating; estrogen protects bones and keeps skin moist, but also triggers perimenopausal hot flashes. These chemicals constantly chat with one another and other compounds in the body to stay in balance, says endocrinologist Dr Deena Adimoolam.
2. Tiny shifts have massive consequences
“As with the oil in your car, you want the right amount of each hormone,” says Dr Victor Bernet, chair of endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic in the US. For instance, as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) gets out of range, even by milliunits, memory, body temperature, and many other functions can be altered. Hormone levels are tested primarily in blood, but sometimes in urine or saliva. If you’ve peed on a pregnancy-test stick, you’ve checked for one yourself (human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG).
3. Testosterone is important for women too
This “male” sex hormone, produced by the ovaries and adrenal glands, may help keep libido up. Your levels fall naturally in your 30s, says gynaecologist Dr Nanette Santoro. But they don’t plunge further in menopause, and while testosterone supplementation can help some women with low libidos, it’s unclear whether long-term use is safe. A more common problem in women is making too much testosterone: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects up to 10% of women of childbearing age and is the biggest cause of infertility.
4. There’s no such thing as “a touch of sugar”
If your haemoglobin A1C level is 6.5 or greater in a blood test, your blood glucose levels are on average higher than normal. This means you have diabetes and are at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and other serious conditions. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body can’t properly use the hormone insulin, which is supposed to lower the amount of blood glucose. The disease can be prevented with regular exercise and a healthy diet, but once it develops, it usually must be managed with medication.
5. Body weight affects hormones
So do diet, sleep, and exercise. Gaining or losing weight can impact insulin, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones, and leptin and ghrelin (the hunger and satiety hormones, respectively), says Dr Adimoolam. Lose just 10% of your weight through healthy eating and exercise, thereby improving your body’s response to insulin, and you’ll lower your odds of developing type 2 diabetes. Certain types of exercise (more intense strength training or high-intensity interval training) can also boost human growth hormone, which plays a role in body composition among other things, says physiotherapist Scott Haak. And proper sleep keeps the all-important pituitary gland (known as the master gland because of its influence on others), along with other glands regulated by circadian rhythm, properly tuned says endocrinologist Dr Pascual De Santis.
6. A little-known hormone plays a big role in bone health
Parathyroid hormone is produced by the parathyroid gland, and its job is to track your calcium supply. (The parathyroid has nothing to do with the thyroid gland—they’re simply next-door neighbours in your neck.) When too much parathyroid hormone circulates—often from a benign tumor on the gland—your blood calcium starts to rise as your body steals calcium from your bones, leading to osteoporosis. “Women are more predisposed to problems with the parathyroid gland,” says Dr. Bernet, noting that surgery to remove the problem gland section is a common fix.
7. Contaminants can throw hormones out of whack
Chemicals in our food, water, personal-care products, and environment can enter our bodies and mimic or block hormones or otherwise keep them from doing their jobs. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) include well-known troublemakers like BPA and phthalates in plastics, but there are many others. EDCs have been linked to everything from endometriosis to learning disabilities to certain cancers, though experts say more research is needed. “To be on the safe side, avoid pesticides, favour glass and steel food containers over plastic, and eat fresh whole foods without colourings or additives,” suggests Dr. Adimoolam.
8. If your orgasms aren’t electric, your birth control could be to blame
A lesser-known side effect of the Pill is that it lowers the brain’s level of oxytocin, also known as the bonding hormone, according to a recent review of oral contraceptives by Spanish researchers. Higher oxytocin levels are thought to boost orgasms’ intensity. Other bummers the Spanish researchers discovered: When you have lower oxytocin, your partner’s face may seem less attractive to you and your jealousy could rev up.
9. Exactly when to supplement thyroid hormone is controversial
“Women have a higher rate of developing thyroid dysfunction,” Dr Bernet says. This often means hypothyroidism (evidenced by a rise in thyroid-stimulating hormone, or TSH) or hyperthyroidism (marked by a TSH drop). When TSH is high, you can gain weight, feel tired, and become constipated, but doctors don’t agree about when you should take pills to correct this. Some wait to treat hypothyroidism until TSH is over 10, while others start when it’s much lower. A panel of experts recently advised against treating “subclinical hypothyroidism,” saying there’s no evidence that treatment reduces symptoms.
10. A non-hormonal treatment for hot flushes may be on the way
Perimenopausal women suffering from night sweats and hot flushes because of oestrogen fluctuations are typically put on hormone therapy or an antidepressant such as Effexor (venlafaxine), and some would prefer an alternative. For a while it seemed as if herbs might help, but most have proven ineffective, Dr Santoro says. Fortunately, a new approach appears promising based on early studies. Known as a neurokinin-3 receptor blocker (or an NK-3 blocker), the drug prevents the brain process that triggers hot flushes. If all goes according to plan, a daily pill will be available in a few years.