De-stress for hormone happiness.
Today, we’re going to look at one specific hormonal system: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and how it affects your wellbeing and proper hormonal function.
If biochemistry befuddles you, just remember two simple points:
- Your hormones don’t like chronic stress.
- And when hormones ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Great, that’s all you need to know. Skip to the end if you like.
If you want some more information, keep reading.
Your hormone factory
You may not know it, but you own and operate a factory.
This factory is incredibly complicated: It operates around the clock with billions of workers. It makes hundreds of products, with exacting specifications, and coordinates millions of deliveries — with perfect precision.
We’re speaking, of course, of your hormones.
Your hormones control everything from the most basic to the most complicated functions.
For instance, hormones and their related cellular signals (known as cytokines):
- adjust fluid and mineral levels in your body with to-the-microgram accuracy;
- keep your lungs breathing and your heart beating;
- control inflammation and immunity;
- regulate your body clock;
- control the “idling speed” of your metabolism;
- regulate your reproduction, menstrual cycles, and sexuality;
- control appetite, hunger, and fullness — and what your body does with any nutrients it receives.
- The scale of hormonal operations is mind-boggling. (And using glucose to fuel the boggling involves hormones too.)
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis
Three endocrine (aka hormone-secreting) glands make up the HPA axis.
The hypothalamus is a blob of cells deep in your brain. It connects your central nervous system to your hormonal system, and it’s the “master controller” of almost all hormonal functions.
The pituitary is the hypothalamus’ right-hand woman. It looks kind of like a hanging chickpea, and it executes the orders given by the hypothalamus. Hormones released by the pituitary regulate:
- blood pressure
- sexual and reproductive functions
- thyroid functions
- water and mineral balance
- body temperature
The adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys like little cowgirls.
They help regulate fluid and mineral balance, but also respond to stress by secreting hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenals take their marching orders from the pituitary.
If your body were a ship:
- the hypothalamus would be the captain;
- the pituitary would be the first mate; and
- the adrenal glands would be the emergency response, safety and cleanup crew.
The system is called an “axis” because the three glands work together.
Obviously, these are busy little critters. Today, we’re most interested in the HPA’s role in stress and regulating sex hormones.
Stress and your HPA
If you think your brain is separate from your body, now’s a good time to change that idea.
Your body is you. And your mind is your body.
Anything that happens to your body happens in your mind, too. There’s no division.
Your hypothalamus gets input from many things, such as:
- light and dark cycles
- your heart, your stomach, and your reproductive organs
- your body fat levels
- your immune system
- physical, mental, and emotional stress
Your hypothalamus, like Santa Claus, knows when you are sleeping and awake. It knows what you’re thinking and feeling.
And when you’re stressed, the HPA kicks into action.
You see, a stressful situation is not a good time to make babies, digest food properly, or feel happy.
As far as your hormones are concerned, stress is a time to fight or flee. All systems are on high alert.
If the stress is chronic — as it is for most folks in the 21st century — then the HPA axis is working hard all the time. If the stress continues, the HPA starts shutting down the system to protect you.
Cognitive dietary restriction (CDR) means obsessively thinking about dieting, “being fat”, and restricting food.
Research shows that — astonishingly — CDR alone can knock out your menstrual cycle, even when food intake is normal. In other words, just thinking and worrying about dieting can affect your sex hormones — even without ACTUALLY dieting!
Woah. Guess that hypothalamus is really paying attention!
How to get your hormones on track
As it so happens, de-stressing (along with proper nutrition and regular — but not excessive — exercise) helps your hormones keep humming along.
When stress goes down, sex hormone production can go up, or come into balance.
- It’s easier to lose fat.
- It’s easier to put on and keep lean body mass (muscle and bone).
- Your reproductive system works well: menstrual cycles become regular, and periods are less painful; menopause symptoms are better controlled.
- You look and feel good: your skin glows, your hair grows faster and looks healthy.
To keep your hormones humming happily:
- Reduce stress in your life.
- Actively pursue relaxation, self-acceptance, and mindfulness.
- Eat to nourish your body properly. Get enough protein, fat, and carbs. You need them all for hormone production.
- Stay active but don’t over-train or push your limits at every workout.
- Get enough sleep.
- Be aware of how your thoughts and feelings change your body. Remember, your hypothalamus is in your brain — so it knows what you’re thinking!
Stay relaxed and you stay foxy and frisky…