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Why Hormones Matter

June 18, 2019
Mention hormones and people might think you’re only talking about women’s health issues or a lovesick teenager. Hormones do play an important role in women’s menstrual cycles and overall reproductive health, but some people forget how important these chemical messengers are to men, too.
In fact, hormones guide a range of processes in both men’s and women’s bodies: from skin changes and weight gain, to hunger and sexual interest.

What Are Hormones Anyway?

Hormones are chemicals produced by the endocrine glands. These glands include the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal and thymus — along with the ovaries in women and the testes in men. And they each make different hormones.
Hormones travel through our bloodstream to our tissues and organs. As they travel, specific “target” cells pick up the signal from the hormone and perform the action the hormone controls.
The pea-sized pituitary gland is often called the “master gland” because it controls the activity of the other glands. This activity includes the production of the three major types of hormones:
  • Amines are simple molecules that are formed by a single amino acid. They are also called monoamines and include the epinephrine, melatonin and thyroid hormones.
  • Peptides, also known as glycoproteins, are created from chains of amino acids. They include oxytocin, often called the “happiness hormone” because of its effect on mood.
  • Steroids, which come from cholesterol, include the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. They also include cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone.

When Things Go Wrong

For most of us, the endocrine system does its job with little notice. However, a hormone imbalance — meaning too much or too little of a specific hormone — can create havoc in your life.
For an idea of what an imbalance could mean for your health, consider the impact of several important hormones common to both men and women.
  • Testosterone. While we think of testosterone as a male hormone, it also plays a role in females. Low testosterone can lead to fatigue and loss of sexual desire in both men and women. Too much testosterone in women can cause body changes, including balding and acne, along with irregular periods and infertility. In men, too much testosterone can lead to behavioral changes, including more aggressive or risky behavior.
  • Estrogen. Generally considered a female hormone, estrogen — like testosterone — plays an important role in both male and female bodies. Overly high levels in women can lead to difficult periods, the growth of fibrocystic lumps in breasts, and a higher risk of some cancers. In men, high levels can lead to enlarged breasts, loss of muscle mass and type 2 diabetes.
  • Insulin. This hormone allows our bodies to use the glucose (sugar) from carbohydrates we eat. It keeps our blood sugar levels from getting too high or too low. With too much insulin, blood sugar levels can drop far enough to cause dizziness, confusion and even coma. Diabetes, on the other hand, results when our bodies produce too little insulin and/or have problems using insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
  • Cortisol. It’s called the “stress hormone,” but what does that mean? Cortisol regulates blood pressure, increases blood sugar, provides a boost of energy during stress and then restores balance afterwards. Too much of it can cause Cushing’s syndrome, which leads to rapid weight gain, easy bruising, muscle weakness and diabetes. Too little cortisol, however, is the result of Addison’s disease, which can lead to skin changes, fatigue, muscle weakness, and appetite and weight loss.

Keeping Hormones in Balance

If you have imbalances in specific hormones, your doctor might prescribe hormone supplements or other medicines. However, lifestyle behaviors also can have an impact on how our bodies regulate our hormones. Following a healthy diet and getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day can help most of us maintain balanced hormones.