While you were dozing off in biochemistry, your teacher was explaining how chemical messengers are used to carry information and instructions throughout your body. Undoubtedly, any conversation involving talk of chemical messengers and technical jargon can quickly become a bore; but had you known the conversation would evolve into a discussion about more interesting topics, like mood, digestion, and growth, your curious brain may have been convinced to stay awake.
Here’s where the conversation got interesting: Similar to how you use language to convey ideas to the people around you, your cells use chemical messengers to relay information to other cells in your body. This is how your body coordinates its many different functions.
The two systems responsible for cellular communication are the nervous system and the endocrine (hormone) system. Together, they interpret all sensory information and do their best to coordinate a response that keeps your body in balance.
In the nervous system, neurons secrete chemical messengers called neurotransmitters that transmit messages between neurons, or from neurons to muscles. In the endocrine system, glands secrete chemical messengers called hormones into the blood that act on cells distributed throughout your body.
The Neuroendocrine System
The hypothalamus*, a small region of your brain that acts like a gland, links the nervous and endocrine systems. It relays messages to the pituitary gland (situated just below the hypothalamus), which, in turn, releases hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones then carry signals to glands throughout your body. The hypothalamus and pituitary are considered the master glands as they regulate the activity of all other endocrine glands, such as the:
- Thyroid – Located in the front of your neck and plays a role in metabolism.
- Parathyroid – Located in the front of your neck and helps maintain control of calcium levels in your blood and bones.
- Adrenals – Located on the top of each kidney and regulate functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress response.
- Pineal – Located in the middle of your brain and regulates sleep-wake cycles.
- Pancreas – Located near your stomach and helps control blood sugar levels.
- Reproductive (ovaries and testes) – Located near your reproductive organs and secrete hormones involved in physical development, muscle strength, bone density, and fertility.
*The hypothalamus also regulates a number of other body functions, including the sleep-wake cycle, body temperature, and appetite.
The neuroendocrine system regulates itself through feedback loops. The hypothalamus acts like a thermostat, except instead of measuring air temperature it measures circulating hormone levels as well as a variety of other signals from your internal and external environment (e.g., body temperature, hunger, and blood pressure). When it detects rising hormone levels from a target organ, it sends a message to the pituitary to stop releasing certain hormones; this decrease causes the target organ to stop producing its hormones.
The process of constantly adjusting hormone levels helps maintain a state of balance inside your body and is essential for optimal body function. Disruption to either system means less efficient communication between cells and the potential for hormonal imbalances, something that can have widespread negative effects.
Happy, Healthy Hormones
The hormones released by the endocrine system influence nearly every cell, organ, and their corresponding functions. These hormones play a role in:
- Regulating mood
- Growth and development
- Telling tissues how to function
- Monitoring metabolism
- Controlling sexual and reproductive functions
Because hormones are intricately involved in just about every body process, it’s important that their levels stay balanced. Here are some strategies to naturally support your hormone levels:
Whole-food options such as leafy greens, veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, fish, and plant-based proteins can help keep your body operating optimally. Look for foods rich in antioxidants and fiber, and try to avoid heavily processed foods.
2. Limit sugar, alcohol, and excess caffeine
When consumed in excess, these substances can interrupt normal endocrine system function, especially adrenal gland function.
3. Get plenty of rest
Adequate sleep is essential when it comes to keeping your hormones balanced. Experts suggest getting seven to eight hours of quality sleep every night for maximum health benefits.
4. Exercise—the right way for YOU
For some people who experience high levels of stress, high intensity training is just not the right thing—it can actually raise cortisol levels in certain people. Try yoga or walking, something a little more relaxing. On the other hand, for some people, running, kickboxing, or other high intensity workouts help them calm down. Pay attention to how you feel after your exercise routine and adjust if necessary.
5. Get out in the sun
Vitamin D is good for your endocrine system, especially your thyroid hormones. The best way to get your body synthesizing this important vitamin is to get out in the sun for 10–30 minutes several times per week. Your exposure time should be dependent on how sensitive your skin is to sunlight. Be careful not to spend too much time outside without protection, as too much sun exposure can be harmful.