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Hormones and Health: What do hormones do to your body?

What are hormones? Why are they important? And what do they control? Here, we uncover some things you may not know about how hormones help to keep you fit and well.

Karen Burge
September 2019

Hormones play a central role in regulating foetal growth and development and continue to play a vital role throughout your entire life.

Hormones are part of the endocrine system – the body’s communication network – made up of specialised glands that make and release hormones into the blood, explains Hormones Australia, an information service run by the Endocrine Society of Australia.

These ‘chemical messengers’ travel to different parts of the body and control many functions and processes, including bone density, sleep cycles, appetite, heart function, growth and reproduction, mood, metabolism, temperature control, fluid balance, blood sugar control and more.

Here are some examples of how your hormones influence your health – sometimes in surprising ways.

How do your hormones affect your sleep?

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. It travels around your body via the bloodstream. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, melatonin levels vary throughout the course of a day and are controlled by your body clock. Normally, its production ramps up at night, helping you slip into a slumber, and dials down in bright light, helping you to wake up. If you feel sluggish in the morning, step outside for a walk in the sunshine or flood your bedroom with natural light.

Do hormones adjust to changes in your body?

Most hormone systems have a 'feedback' mechanism. Changes in your body trigger a message that’s sent back to the hormone-producing gland, resulting in an adjustment in hormone secretion, explains endocrinologist Dr Sonia Davison at the Jean Hailes for Women’s Health centre. “[It’s] like a thermostat on a heater altering heat production according to the temperature sensed,” she says.

How does body fat influence hormones?

The female body needs a certain amount of body fat to be able to ovulate, menstruate and fall pregnant. If a woman’s body fat level falls too low, periods and ovulation can stop, explains the Jean Hailes centre. The flipside: “If body fat levels are too high, the hormones oestrogen and oestrone are typically higher as well, increasing the risk of hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer.” If you’re overweight, losing a few kilos may benefit your hormone levels and your body; the opposite applies to those who are underweight.

What hormones can affect appetite?

If you’ve ever battled with the urge to keep eating, when you know you’ve probably had enough, the hormone cholecystokinin may have been responsible. It’s produced in the small intestine about 20-30 minutes after a meal and, once triggered, tells you it’s time to stop eating, explains accredited practicing dietitian Melanie McGrice. If you’re looking to rein in overeating, the trick is to eat slowly, she suggests.

About 4-5 hours after your meal, a hormone called ghrelin is produced by the stomach to stimulate hunger and remind you it’s time to eat again. “Ignoring your hormones and skipping meals…may make you crave something higher in kilojoules later,” McGrice says, so try to choose something healthy and satisfying.

Could you have a hormonal imbalance? If so, what should you do?

For good health, we need our hormones to be produced in the exact way and correct amounts required by the body, Dr Davison says. Too little, too much or an inappropriate production of hormones will stop the body from functioning as well as it should, showing signs of imbalance, she adds. Hormone imbalances can lead to problems like diabetes, menstruation issues, thyroid conditions and other health concerns. So, if you have an unresolved health issue, or suspect your hormones aren’t behaving as they should, see your GP.

Oestrogen and bone health, how are they linked?

According to the Jean Hailes centre, the hormone oestrogen is essential for healthy bones. When oestrogen levels decrease, such as in menopause, bones are at a much higher risk of becoming brittle and breaking – the condition known as osteoporosis. To check and maintain the health of your bones, your doctor may suggest a bone density scan or recommend lifestyle changes, such as increasing the regularity of weight-bearing exercise (think fast walking, skipping, tennis, aerobics and resistance training) and improving your diet.

What is the fight or flight response?

The hormone adrenaline is released immediately during a stressful situation, and signals different parts of the body to either prepare for, or escape from, a threat (the fight-or-flight response). “It increases your breathing rate, blood pressure, blood flow to the heart and lungs, awareness and pain thresholds,” explains Hormones Australia.

How does testosterone help both men and women?

You might think testosterone is a male-only hormone, but it plays a role in both men’s and women’s health. Testosterone is important for bone density, muscle mass, strength and libido, explains Hormones Australia. In men, it’s responsible for male sex organ development and characteristics such as facial and body hair, increased body size and voice deepening. For women, testosterone plays a part in the female sex drive, energy and motivation, adds the Jean Hailes centre.

To keep your hormones and health in check, experts recommend a healthy diet, regular exercise and getting a good amount of sleep each night. If you’re feeling rundown, or have any ongoing medical issues, talk to your GP about your hormone health.

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