If you’ve been diagnosed with “low hormones” or are experiencing symptoms of low hormones, what does that mean and how does that work?
In these videos, naturopathic physician Bryan Walsh presents a basic overview of how some of the key controller hormones work. He explains the fundamentals of the controller hormone system, and covers some of the most common causes of low hormone production.
Understanding hormonal pathways
Millions of men and women aren’t being properly treated nor managed for symptoms of hormonal imbalances. Knowing more about how hormone systems work can help you actively manage your health situation, and be a more informed consumer in discussions with your health care providers.
There is a common pathway for many of the “master controller” hormones, such as sex hormones (e.g. estrogen, testosterone, progesterone); thyroid hormone; and the adrenal stress hormone cortisol. Here’s how the pathway works.
- The pathway starts in the brain with neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, or acetylcholine.
- These chemicals stimulate a small gland in the brain known as the hypothalamus, which then stimulates another gland, the pituitary.
- The pituitary then directs a particular gland, such as the thyroid or testes. That gland will then release its hormone(s) as directed, usually bound to a transport protein that helps to carry the hormone to where it’s supposed to go.
- If the body doesn’t need all of this hormone, the excess can go to the liver, which along with the gallbladder’s bile, helps to excrete the excess through the large intestine for eventual disposal.
- The body can also convert hormones into other things — either a slightly revised yet related molecule, or a new type of molecule with quite different properties (for instance, testosterone can eventually convert to estrogen).
- Once converted, hormones then bind to a cellular receptor site. If it can do this effectively, it creates a cascade of events within the cell, known as a proteomic response. If this step doesn’t happen, there will be low hormone symptoms. In other words, even though there might be a lot of hormone circulating, and every other master controller gland is doing its job, if the proteomic response doesn’t happen properly, you’ll still end up with a low hormone response.
What happens when the process breaks down?
Defects can occur at any stage of this process.
- Not enough neurotransmitters? You can’t stimulate the hypothalamus.
- Hypothalamic or pituitary suppression can occur. The stress hormone cortisol, for instance, can suppress pituitary function. In fact, stress and inflammation are two of the most common causes for low hormone levels.
- The gland itself (e.g. the thyroid or testes) may be unable to produce hormone(s) required. Often, though, we assume that the gland itself is the problem when in fact it may be higher up the chain.
- Too much or too little binding protein can also cause problems. This is also very common.
- The gastrointestinal detoxification system (liver, gall bladder, intestine) can be dysfunctional. This means hormones aren’t properly detoxified and excreted.
- The conversion process can be faulty.
- If the hormone doesn’t bind properly to the cellular receptor site (perhaps because the receptor is not working adequately) or can’t do its job once it gets into the cell, this can inhibit the hormone even though it may have reached its destination.
Thus, low hormone symptoms can have multiple causes. And many things can go wrong in this complex chain. If you’re experiencing symptoms of hormonal dysfunction, first things first.
Make sure you’re following a well-designed exercise program (incorporating at least 5 hours of physical activity per week), as well as a really good nutrition plan (The Precision Nutrition System anyone?). Then, if the symptoms persist, look at the “big picture” and consider all the possibilities discussed above when seeking health care.
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