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Hormones 101

So often, the word hormone is thrown around seemingly willy nilly. But hormones are anything but. Your hormones are some of the biggest factors behind optimal health.

In this blog, we’ll break down why hormones are so important and provide answers to some of your common hormone questions.

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First, what are hormones?

Hormones act as your body’s chemical messengers. They travel throughout the body via the bloodstream to tissues, muscles, and organs. Hormones work slowly, over time, and impact nearly every bodily process, including:

  • Mood and mental health

  • Growth and development

  • Sexual function

  • Metabolism

  • Reproduction

Hormones are made by special clusters of cells called endocrine glands. These glands exist throughout your body. The main endocrine glands are the pineal, pituitary thymus, thyroid, adrenal glands, and pancreas. Hormones are also produced in the respective sex organs of men and women.

Hormones are very powerful, and unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to cause big changes throughout your whole body. This is why hormonal balance is so integral to optimal health. One tiny hormonal imbalance can throw many processes out of whack.

What are the main hormones?

There are over 50 hormones that play specific roles throughout your body. However, some have bigger roles than others. We’ve listed out several of the most important hormones, where they come from, and what they do:

  • Estrogen, Progesterone, & Testosterone:

    • Where they’re produced: Adrenal glands and the gonads

    • What they do: The male (testosterone) and the female (estrogen and progesterone) sex hormones have a major impact on many factors beyond reproduction. For example, they impact blood pressure regulation, pain reception, moods, and cognitive function.

    • Why’re they so important: Estrogen and progesterone are steroid hormones and play vital roles in female reproduction. They also aid in bone building, burning fat, and keeping the cardiovascular system healthy. Testosterone plays a role for both men and women, regulating libido, strength, muscle mass, and red blood cell production. An imbalance in these sex hormones can lead to decreased libido, fatigue, increased fat buildup, and mood swings.

    • How do they get unbalanced: Unfortunately, one of the major factors of an imbalance in the sex hormones is aging. Bad eating habits, obesity, and stress can also lead to an imbalance.

  • Cortisol:

    • Where it’s produced: Adrenal glands

    • What it does: Cortisol’s most important job is the role it plays in your body’s fight or flight response and stress management. When faced with a potential threat, cortisol will raise your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels to prepare your body. It also plays a role in metabolism.

    • Why’s it so important: Cortisol is often known as the “mother hormone”, this is because when it gets out of balance it will cause widespread effects on other hormonal systems. This is why managing stress levels is so important. When you’re stressed, your body remains in a state of high cortisol, which has been linked to conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

    • How does it get unbalanced: Too much cortisol can be caused by a number of factors, including stress, gut health, too much caffeine, running, poor sleep, and toxic exposure. Too little cortisol is much rarer and is typically caused by adrenal gland failure.

  • Leptin & Ghrelin:

    • Where they’re produced: Fat cells and stomach lining

    • What they do: These two hormones are commonly known as the hunger hormones. They play large, yet opposing, roles in the digestive system. Leptin suppresses food intake and induces weight loss. On the other hand, ghrelin signals hunger and tells your body when it needs to eat.

    • Why’re they so important: These two hormones play an important role in the regulation of body weight and food intake. An imbalance can lead to obesity.

    • How does it get unbalanced: Ghrelin and Leptin levels can be thrown out of balance by factors. These include a diet high in sugar, obesity, poor sleep, and dehydration.

  • Melatonin:

    • Where it’s produced: Enigmatic pineal gland

    • What it does: Commonly known as the “sleep hormone”, this hormone is activated in response to darkness or nighttime. Also called the “hormone of darkness”, melatonin signals to your body when it’s time to go to sleep.

    • Why’s it so important: Melatonin plays a vital role in your sleep cycle. Imbalances can lead to poor sleep and sleep deprivation. As we know, sleep is an integral part of optimal health, and too little of it can lead to decreased immune function, disease, injury, mood disorders, gut microbiome disruption, and decreased cognitive function.

    • How does it get unbalanced: Low melatonin can be caused by several factors. Too much cortisol, blue light in the evening, time changes and jetlag, caffeine, alcohol, and age can all cause an imbalance in melatonin levels.

  • Thyroid:

    • Where it’s produced: Hypothalamus & pituitary

    • What it does: Like cortisol, thyroid plays a big role in your overall health. Thyroid hormones actually act as a backup to cortisol and can be thrown out of balance when cortisol is. The thyroid hormones are in charge of digestion, brain function, temperature regulation, weight, and much more.

    • Why’s it so important: The way your body uses energy, your heart, and your bones are all reliant on the thyroid. Moreover, the thyroid hormones can have an effect on every organ and function in your body. This means widespread detrimental effects when out balance.

    • How does it get unbalanced: Thyroid disorders are unfortunately fairly common and will greatly impact your thyroid levels. Further, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, pregnancy, and a poor diet can all lead to further imbalances in the thyroid.

  • Insulin:

    • Where it’s produced: Pancrease

    • What it does: Insulin helps your body to regulate glucose levels in the bloodstream. As your glucose levels rise following a meal, the pancreas will release insulin that will help to process the sugar.

    • Why’s it so important: Insulin allows the cells in your fat, muscles, and liver to absorb the sugar from your blood. This glucose will serve as energy to these cells. Insulin also affects other metabolic processes like the breakdown of protein and fat.

    • How does it get unbalanced: Common factors behind insulin imbalance or resistance are obesity, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. These are actually the criteria for pre-diabetes, which affects as many as 1 in 3 Americans.

What are the signs and symptoms that your hormones are out of balance?

Because hormones play such an integral role in overall health, there is a broad range of symptoms that can indicate a hormonal imbalance. Some common signs of hormonal imbalance for men and women include:

  • Weight gain

  • Fatigue

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Sweating

  • Muscle weakness

  • Infertility

  • Dry skin

  • Increased thirst or hunger

  • Depression

  • Bloat

  • Nervousness or anxiety

  • Constipation or frequent bowel movements

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Changes in heart rate

  • Blurred vision

  • Thinning hair

  • Acne

More often than not, hormonal imbalances can actually be caused by the effects of chronic stress. When cortisol levels are too high, they will trickle down and affect every other hormone in your body. (Again, another reason why it’s so important to manage your stress levels!) If left untreated, chronic stress can lead to fertility issues, insomnia, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and more.

Other factors behind hormonal imbalance include:

  • Poor diet

  • Insufficient sleep

  • High alcohol consumption

  • Gut microbiome irregularities

  • Medication

How to naturally restore hormone balance?

Some of the best ways to naturally restore your hormone balance are:

  • Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol → Too much alcohol and caffeine can both interfere with the operation of the hormone system and lead to some serious medical consequences. Cutting back on both is likely to help balance your hormones.

  • Physical activity → While technically a form of stress, when done in the right amount, exercise can help to balance your estrogen, insulin, cortisol, testosterone, and melatonin levels.

  • Relaxation → Relaxing activities like yoga and meditation will help to boost your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the opposite of your fight or flight response, it calms the body and lowers cortisol levels. As described earlier, managing cortisol levels is integral for total hormonal balance.

Another great way to help balance your hormones is by supporting the health of your gut microbiome. The mucosal lining of the gut contains specialized enteroendocrine cells that synthesize and secrete hormones that facilitate a number of key physiological processes. The enteroendocrine is actually the largest endocrine organ in the body. Evidence has shown that the microbiome in the gut influences hormone release by the enteroendocrine cells. If the microbiome is not being properly supplied with nutrients or if it is damaged by chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics, your hormone balance will suffer. For example, estrogen must be excreted from the body or it will be reabsorbed resulting in estrogen dominance.

You can increase your gut health by:

  • Avoiding inflammatory foods- Inflammation in the gut causes many gut diseases, including leaky gut, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Avoid vegetable oils and most processed foods, which are inflammatory. Instead, increase wild-caught fish and non-starchy vegetables like spinach and green beans, which normalize inflammation levels in your gut.

  • Eating foods rich in antioxidants- Oxidative stress, when too many free radicals overwhelm your body’s defenses, can damage the gut. Antioxidant balance can be improved by eating colorful plant foods like berries.

  • Increasing fiber in your diet- Fiber provides your colon cells with fuel to function optimally. The best way to get fiber is through leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries, and raw nuts and seeds.

  • Avoiding non-nutritive sweeteners- Saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame have been shown to have long-term consequences for microbiome composure and glucose intolerance. While they may be lower in calories, non-nutritive sweeteners ultimately do more harm than good for your body.

What about hormone supplementation?

Of course, another way to help balance your hormones is through supplementation. The extra help may be necessary if food and lifestyle changes are not sufficient. At The Johnson Center, we only use bioidentical estrogens, progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA, when indicated. Bioidentical hormones are an exact replica of the hormones that are produced in your body. Bioidentical hormone treatment (BHRT) mimics human hormones on all biological pathways/receptors. They fit into the corresponding receptor perfectly. The other difference between conventional hormone therapy (CRT) and BHRT is that CHT is a “one-size-fits-all” approach. On the other hand, BHRT regimens are custom-tailored to the individual based on results of blood testing, medical history, physical exam, and symptoms.

Moreover, hormone treatment is NOT just for the elderly. A large study demonstrated that living a Western lifestyle is a huge stress on our bodies. Stress will cause a reduction in our hormones. That is why we are seeing so many young women and girls with PCOs, an increasing number of women in their 30's and 40's (1 in 4) taking a prescription antidepressant and/or anti-anxiety medication. Stress is causing an increasing number of women going into menopause in their young forties, a rising rate of infertility in both men and women, and an increasing number of overall declining health in men and women. We have to adapt to the lifestyle changes around us, and sometimes that will mean hormone treatment.

For more information on your hormones or hormone supplementation at The Johnson Center, click here to contact us. If you have any more questions about your path to optimal health, email our office at or call 276-235-3205.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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