Hormones are messengers that travel through the body that affect cells in other parts of the body. Small amounts of hormone can alter cell metabolism. Some hormones are placed directly in the bloodstream (endocrine) while others are secreted directly into a duct (exocrine).
Estrogens (estradiol, estrone, estriol) are predominately female hormones, and in adults, they are important for maintaining the health of the reproductive tissues, breasts, skin and brain. Excessive estrogens can cause fluid retention, weight gain, migraines and over stimulation of the breasts, ovaries and uterus, leading to cancer. Insufficient estrogen levels can lead to hot flushes, vaginal dryness, rapid skin aging, urinary problems, excessive bone loss and possible acceleration of dementia. An excess of estrogen, relative to testosterone, is thought to play a role in the development of prostate problems in men. Most scientists now agree that by-products of estrogen metabolism are the cause of both breast and prostate cancers.
Progesterone can be thought of as a hormonal balancer, particularly of estrogens. It enhances the beneficial effect of estrogens while preventing the problems associated with estrogen excess. Progesterone also helps create a balance of all other steroids. It also has intrinsic calming and diuretic properties. It is important in women, but its importance in men for the maintenance of prostate health is only now being appreciated.
Androgens (testosterone, DHEA, androstenedione) play an important role in tissue regeneration, especially the skin, bones, and muscles. The principal androgen in both men and women is DHEA. DHEA levels decline with age, and in some cases, supplementation with DHEA can restore energy, improve immune function, lift depression and improve mental function. Testosterone is involved in maintenance of lean body mass, bone density, skin elasticity, sex drive and cardiovascular health in both sexes. Men make more of this hormone, accounting for their greater bone and muscle mass. Androstenedione is a precursor for both estrogens and testosterone, especially in females. It can be produced in excess by the ovaries, especially during early menopause, and can cause some of the “androgenic” symptoms such as scalp hair loss and facial hair growth.
Glucocorticoids, primarily cortisol, are produced by the adrenal glands in response to stressors such as emotional upheaval, exercise, surgery, illness or starvation. Cortisol plays an essential role in immune function, mobilizing the body’s defenses against viral or bacterial infection, and fighting inflammation; however, chronic elevated cortisol levels suppress the action of the immune system and predispose to frequent infections. Cortisol levels are highest first thing in the morning, to combat the stress of overnight fasting and to animate the body for the day’s activities.
Thyroid describes a series of hormones that are excreted by the thyroid gland, levothyroxine (T4), and triiodothyronine (T3). The thyroid also produces calcitonin, which plays a role in calcium balance. Thyroid hormones control how quickly the body uses energy. They are an important part of the production of protein and they control how sensitive the body is to other hormones. A poorly functioning, or imbalanced, thyroid system is often the root cause for a myriad of hormone-related symptoms. Iodine and the amino acid, tyrosine are used to form both T3 and T4. Tyrosine is available in large amounts from meat sources including fish, chicken, and pork; whole grains; fruits such as avocados and bananas; beans; and nuts.
Insulin is a hormone that has powerful effects on metabolism. It is produced in the pancreas and is released into the blood stream in the presence of sugars and simple carbohydrates. It causes the body to take up glucose (sugar) and store it in the liver and muscle as glycogen. Insulin also stops the body from using fat as an energy source. Insulin enhances learning and cognition when it crosses into the brain.