When you think of hormones and hormonal health, the reproductive system and fertility might be the first thing that comes to mind. If you are concerned about weight loss, you might also think about the metabolism and body fat. While it is true that hormones do control all of these processes, that’s only part of the story.
The truth is that hormones play a vital part in all of your bodily functions, which is why hormone health is so important.
What are Hormones?
In a nutshell, hormones are chemicals that control complex processes throughout your body such as organ function, mood, and even the production of other hormones. The organs that produce hormones are called glands, which are part of the endocrine system. All humans have eight major endocrine organs:
- The pituitary gland;
- The hypothalamus;
- The pineal gland;
- The thyroid gland;
- The parathyroid;
- The thymus gland;
- The pancreas; and,
- The adrenals.
Men a women also have additional organs specific to their gender:
- The ovaries and uterus, in women; and,
- The testes and prostate, in men.
Each endocrine structure performs more functions than can be mentioned in such limited space, however there are two endocrine organs that bear mention: the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus.
The pituitary gland is also called “The Master Gland” because it controls almost all of the other glands in your body. For example, if your body needs more estrogen, or testosterone, the pituitary releases luteinizing hormone to stimulate the ovaries or testes to release estrogen or testosterone. If you need more thyroid hormone, the pituitary releases thyroid-stimulating hormone, which causes the thyroid to go to work. All-In-all, the pituitary gland releases approximately eight hormones, all of which control other endocrine organs in the body.
The hypothalamus acts as the watchdog for the pituitary gland. It monitors hormone levels in the blood stream and alerts the pituitary when certain hormones are low. For example, if the hypothalamus realizes your thyroid levels are low, it will release thyrotrophic-releasing hormone, which signals the pituitary to jump-start the thyroid by releasing thyroid-stimulating hormone. In addition to thyroid hormones, the hypothalamus also monitors blood levels of growth hormone, adrenal hormones, and sex hormones.
As you can see, both the pituitary and the hypothalamus play crucial roles in all the other hormone functions in your body. A problem with either of these structures could have serious consequences.
The most common issue that occurs with the pituitary gland is a pituitary tumor, or adenoma. Pituitary tumors are almost always benign, meaning non-cancerous, but they can still cause several problems.
For example, if the tumor is on the part of the pituitary that makes prolactin, it can cause the gland to make too much of that hormone. Under normal circumstances, prolactin causes pregnant women to make breast milk, but abnormal levels from a prolactinoma can cause reproductive problems in men and women, including infertility.
Pituitary tumors can also interfere with hormone production, causing debilitating hormone deficiencies. Additionally, as the tumor grows, it can press against the surrounding brain tissue causing headaches, vision problems, and may even be life-threatening.
If a patient has abnormal hormone levels, a doctor may order a scan of the pituitary to determine if there is a tumor. If the presence of a tumor is confirmed, the doctor might recommend radiotherapy to shrink the tumor, or surgery to remove it.
In addition to the pituitary hormones, the hypothalamus also controls body temperature, motor functions, your sleep cycle, and appetite.Dysfunction in the hypothalamus could cause a variety of problems from including:
- A failure to produce pituitary hormones;
- Over-stimulating the pituitary and producing too many hormones;
- An inability to control body temperature;
- Loss of appetite;
- Sleep disturbances;
- An overstimulated appetite; and,
- Sexual dysfunction.
Hypothalamus dysfunction has multiple possible causes including:
- Radiation; and
If a patient has symptoms of a pituitary disorder, but there is no pituitary tumor, the doctor may order a scan of the hypothalamus. If a tumor is present, removal of the mass could resolve the symptoms. If the dysfunction is caused by an injury, or surgery, the doctor may need to prescribe medication to replace the missing hormones, and relieve any other symptoms.