What are hormones?

What are hormones?

We often hear we should balance our hormones, but what exactly are hormones?

Hormones are protein messengers that regulate body functions.  Most hormones are made by cells clustered together to form endocrine (ductless) glands.  Some hormones are also made in organs such as the brain, heart, stomach, kidneys and pancreas.

Hormones are secreted in tiny amounts, directly into your blood stream and, by definition, travel to other parts of the body to produce their effect.  Even vitamin D is classed as a hormone and is made from a substance produced in the skin, which is then modified by 2 further reactions (within the liver and kidneys) to produce the active hormone that acts in many other parts of the body.

Some hormones, such as adrenaline, act within seconds, while female hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone work more slowly by switching genes on or off to affect the production of other proteins.

Hormones are involved in many female health problems and their potential to cause trouble is even reflected in their name, from the Greek word, hormone, meaning ‘to stir up or excite’.

What influences our hormones?

Hormone balance varies from day to day, and even from minute to minute, as your body responds to changing signals (including other hormones, light levels, circadian rhythms) and to diet and lifestyle factors such as physical or emotional stress.

Why do hormones influence our moods?

The brain not only produces hormones within the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, but brain cells have hormone receptors on their cell membranes.  This means that brain cells respond to changing levels of hormones, including vitamin D, oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol) to affect our mood.  Because the brain is susceptible to hormone swings, mood changes such as anxiety, irritability, depression and sex drive can all vary throughout a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle and are affected by falling oestrogen levels during perimenopause and menopause.

Can diet really affect our hormones?

Your diet can affect hormone balance as a result of the:

  • Types of fat and fibre you eat
  • Natural plant hormones present in your food, such as soy isoflavones  
  • Amount of essential fatty acids you obtain from nuts, seeds and oily fish
  • Balance of vitamins, minerals and trace elements you obtain

These all influence the level of hormones produced, and their physiological effects.

The vitamins and minerals that are especially important for hormone production and action include vitamin A, B vitamins, boron, calcium, chromium, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc.

We talk about balancing our hormone what does this mean?

Hormone imbalances essentially means having relatively high or low levels of one or more hormones.  Female hormones are especially likely to become unbalanced by factors such as poor diet, stressful lifestyle or conditions that affect the monthly hormone cycle.  This can lead to common problems such as dry skin, painful heavy periods, irregular periods, premenstrual syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, fibroids, reduced fertility, low sex drive, thinning hair and, of course, the hot flushes and night sweats associated with menopause.

For a healthy hormone balance, aim to:

  • Eat a healthy, (preferably organic) Mediterranean style diet providing fruit, veg, pulses and fish (especially oily fish)
  • Increase your intake of soy-based foods rich in isoflavones plus foods providing lignans such as flaxseed and sweet potatoes
  • Obtain beneficial digestive bacteria (e.g. from live bio yogurt) which help to activate dietary plant hormones to boost their effect
  • Limit your intake of foods containing added sugar and salt
  • Avoid convenience and processed foods containing artificial additives - eat home-made meals as much as possible
  • Limit your intake of caffeine which mimics the stress response in the body and reduces the effects of a calming brain chemical, adenosine, to increase anxiety levels.  Reduce caffeine intake slowly to prevent withdrawal symptoms
  • Keep your alcohol intake within recommended levels
  • If you know your diet is not as good as it could be, consider taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement designed for your time of life to guard against nutrient deficiencies

Dr Sarah Brewer, is a GP and a Registered Nutritionist plus she is also Medical Director for Healthspan and has authored around 60 books on a range of health subjects.  Visit her website Nutritional Medicine