What are hormones? Put simply, they are chemical messengers. They carry information about anything and everything and help coordinate responses to stimuli, both external and internal. Some examples include insulin being secreted at the entrance of food into our stomach. Insulin is made by the pancreas as soon as the blood sugar levels begin to rise. Insulin then travels to every single cell in our body (bar a few) and prepare the cells to respond to the glucose which is coming along close by. This glucose needs to enter the cells for energy, and after entering the cell, needs to be broken down into simpler chemicals. Insulin helps the glucose enter the cell, and ensures it is broken down in the proper way, so that energy is released, or the glucose is converted to fat and stored for future use. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter the cell in a proper fashion, and be utilized in a proper way.
This signaling occurs in a matter of seconds or minutes. Another example of a rapid response hormone is adrenaline. Imagine you have seen something that gives you a shock. Your heart rate speeds up. This occurs because the adrenal glands in the abdomen secrete adrenaline that then travels to various parts of our body, mainly the brain and the heart and work on nerves that ultimately increase the heart rate. All this in a matter of a few seconds. Truly magical.
Insulin and other hormones related to food digestion and energy storage work over a period of minutes to hours. Some other hormones are able to sense and respond to longer term stimuli. For example, leptin is a hormone that signals about the amount of fat we have in our body. It is only when the fat quantity in the body reaches a certain critical level that changes of puberty begin, particularly for girls. This is the reason why overweight children start puberty early, and very thin girls may start late. The fat tissue in our body makes leptin, and this is linked to the initiation of the pubertal process. This is partly because, in the course of evolution, unless there was a certain amount of fat in the body, we could not be ready for reproduction. So when fat reaches a certain level, the signal (leptin) is sent to initiate puberty to prepare the body for reproduction later on.
Hormones have a number of different structures, and range from small and simple (three amino acids strung together) to large and complex. Their unifying feature is that they are made in a particular cell, and exert their action at a number of other different cells, which may be close by, or far away. The other USP of hormones is that they have evolved to serve different functions. Recall I spoke about insulin being necessary to help metabolise glucose. Proper action of insulin in the ovaries is also needed for regular egg production and menstrual cycles, and pregnancy. When this elegant signaling system goes awry, havoc ensues. When the insulin is not able to work properly, (what is called insulin resistance), it affects not only the process of glucose breakdown, but also regularity of menstrual periods and ability to conceive, a condition known as “polycystic ovary syndrome” or “PCOS”.
Hormones are sensitive and need to be balanced and secreted in response to minute changes in external and internal stimuli. Bombarding them from all sides with misinformation makes them go crazy. A common example I see is in young girls who have irregular menstrual periods. This occurs particularly during times of stress like exams. Children sleep late, wake up early, eat irregularly, and are exposed to light at night. A number of hormones are made in our body at night after we go to sleep, and it is dark outside. If we interfere with this natural pattern, by staying up late and reading or watching TV on a constant basis, we are setting ourselves up for weight gain, and insulin resistance, and irregular periods. Treatment for weight gain and irregular periods thus involves not only eating more healthy and exercising regularly, but also sleeping well and at the proper time.
Our hormones serve us well over a whole lifetime – we truly suffer when they go crazy. Simple things keeps hormonal mechanisms in balance. Remember the hormonal symphonies going on in your body at this moment, and stay healthy.