It's no secret that physical, mental and emotional issues all affect our overall health. But there's another major health factor that many people may not be paying enough attention to – balanced hormones.
Hormones are chemical substances secreted by glands of the endocrine system. They pass into the bloodstream or other body fluids and travel throughout the body to distant organs and tissues.
The body produces many different hormones, each playing their role, some roles bigger than others.
The main function of our bodily hormones is to co-ordinate and modify complex processes such as metabolism, growth and fertility.
When hormones are properly balanced, they help the body to thrive. However, when they get even slightly out of whack, they can cause health problems that can range from serious to life-threatening.
Both males and females have pretty much the same hormones. However, the way they act with different organ systems and the degree produced is what creates the differences.
Let's look at some of the major hormones and their functions.
• For women, oestrogen is the primary sex hormone. It plays a major role at the onset of puberty. Secondary feminine characteristics such as broader hips, the development of breasts, pubic and armpit hair are all the result of this hormone kicking in.
This female sex hormone also plays a fundamental role in our cardiovascular, skeletal and central nervous systems. A deficiency of oestrogen is responsible for metabolic dysfunction towards obesity and the metabolic syndrome type 2 diabetes among other maladies.
• Progesterone is another female hormone, although not considered a sex hormone. Its role is to assist with the menstrual cycle and it plays a major role in pregnancy as well. The benefits provided by this hormone are not as obvious in men as they are in women, however, both sexes need this hormone.
• Testosterone is the primary sex hormone responsible for puberty in men. It stimulates the development of secondary characteristics - increasing bone density, triggering hair growth and boosting muscle mass and growth.
This major male hormone begins to increase during puberty but once a male reaches the age of 30 or so, begins to take a serious dip.
These lower levels of testosterone produce a variety of symptoms. Reduced energy, moodiness, attitude dips and feelings of depression along with a severe hit to self-esteem are all the result.
But the damage doesn't stop with mental issues. Thinner bones and weight gain along with a man's sex drive suffer a severe blow as well. If depression has not set in before that, it likely will after the sex drive disappears and the unhealthy "gut" appears.
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles are producing an epidemic of dangerously low testosterone in men that could so easily be reversed with lifestyle changes.
• Melatonin is mandatory when it comes to sleep. It is often called the "hormone of darkness" because it is a natural hormone produced and secreted by the pineal gland in response to darkness and sets the table for a good night's sleep.
In other words, when the sun sets and darkness sets in, melatonin activates. This sleep aid is the only known hormone produced by the pineal gland.
Its levels begin increasing about two hours before one retires, so regulating and sticking to a rigid sleep schedule helps to keep the secretion of this all-important hormone healthy and balanced.
Once raised, melatonin levels stay elevated for about 12 hours throughout the night or until the light of a new day arises. Then they quietly fall back to lower daytime levels and are barely detectable.
• Cortisol is our stress hormone. Just as melatonin increases at bedtime and decreases with morning light, cortisol does just the opposite – it decreases at bedtime and increases when we wake.
Cortisol works in tandem with other parts of the brain to control mood, motivation and fear and aids the body when responding to stress. Although best known for its "fight-or-flight" response in a crisis, it also plays a major role in several other bodily functions.
It fights and keeps inflammation down, regulates blood pressure, increases blood sugar (glucose) and controls the sleep-wake cycle. It even plays a role in managing how the body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
When one is experiencing high levels of stress, both melatonin and cortisol become misaligned and sleep quality noticeably suffers.
It's not always easy to stay hormonally balanced in such a stress driven world, but there are ways we can proactively care for ourselves and keep our hormones balanced and in prime working condition.
Manage stress levels – Stress not only elevates cortisol levels, but chronic stress causes these dangerously high levels to remain elevated leading to excessive calorie intake, obesity and the not so attractive "belly fat".
Protein is mandatory – Maintaining muscle, bone and skin health requires essential amino acids and dietary protein provides that. So be sure to consume an adequate amount of protein – eat a portion at every meal.
Exercise – No surprise here. Regular exercise, especially strength training, strongly influences hormonal health. It is empowered to reduce insulin levels while increasing insulin sensitively. As a bonus, you will get a boost in mood and a healthy shot to your self-esteem.
Cut out sugar and refined carbs – Sugar and its partner refined carbs have been linked to various health issues over the years. Minimising the intake of these damaging foods is instrumental towards optimising hormone function and avoiding diabetes, obesity and other dangerous life-threatening diseases.
It's obvious and very clear that understanding the role that major hormones play and how they contribute to the health of the body contributes tremendously towards helping us to take control and manage our health for both the short-term and long-term.
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.