A Primer On Hormones

Women running outdoor

Part 1 of our Hormone series

Understanding Their Relevance to Optimal Health for Men and Women

Most individuals have a vague understanding of hormones and that they are important for some facets of health and normal bodily function.  Many people are aware that they play a role in the menstrual cycle for women, are needed for libido, that testosterone is important for men developing a muscular physique etc.  But beyond that and perhaps a few other things, many individuals’ understanding doesn’t go much deeper than that.  Today we’re going to discuss hormones and how they are so important for many facets of health, how their relative balance between each other is also so critical for maintaining health past young adulthood and how they are connected and can be imbalanced by HPA axis disorders (like we discussed in some of the previous articles) and too much stress!

Understanding Key Hormones and Their Physiological Roles in the Body

To begin, it is important to note that all healthy men and women each have all of the major human hormones present in their bodies.  So it is not just the case that men have testosterone and women have estrogen.  Young men however do have typically 10-15 times the amount of testosterone that a young woman has and women have a similarly reversed ratio of estrogen vs. men, interestingly!  Also interestingly, is that it is the importance of keeping these ratios close to this youthful ideal that also promotes youthful functioning and benefits later into life!

Let’s briefly review some of the body’s key and major hormones to strengthen our understanding and recognition of them:

Estrogen

As noted above, this is typically associated with women but both men and women make estrogen.  When in ideal ranges appropriate and respective for a man and woman, estrogen protects against heart disease, encourages soft and youthful skin, supports healthy bone density, good short-term memory and plays an important role in the female menstrual cycle.    

Progesterone

This is the other major ‘female’ associated hormone (although again, men do make progesterone albeit in much smaller numbers versus women).  Progesterone helps to balance out some of the functions and actions of estrogen (for example, estrogen tends to promote proliferation of hormone responsive tissues; progesterone tends to counter this).  Thus for women who are prone to fibroids, ovarian cysts, fibrocystic breasts, and potentially other hormone linked symptoms, often an imbalance between progesterone and estrogen may be found!

Testosterone

The primary ‘male’ hormone, testosterone plays many important roles for both men and women including supporting lean body mass and muscle development, libido, secondary body hair growth, good mood and even protection against heart disease!  Again, for both men and women, the balance of testosterone to estrogen and progesterone is important for optimal health.

DHEA

This is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands primarily, and while not completely understood, optimal values of DHEA are associated with increased longevity, optimal immune system functioning, a healthy stress response, and more.  Typically this hormone begins to fall around age 30 and this decline accelerates even more so after about age 35.  

Pregnenolone

This is the ‘mother’ or ‘master’ hormone from which all other hormones are originally made from.  Originally synthesized from cholesterol, pregnenolone is extremely important because as noted, ALL other hormones are made from it, so an enormous number of functions depend on optimal pregnenolone creation from cholesterol.

Growth Hormone

Typically the first hormone to decline, adult growth hormone levels peak in the late teens and early twenties and quickly drop off then, making us more and more apt to ‘not bounce back as quickly’ as we age, since this hormone governs so many functions related to regeneration and repair in the body.  

Cortisol

Last but not least is this primary ‘stress’ responsive hormone produced in the adrenals.  Cortisol is essential for our optimal functioning and being able to meet the demands of our days.  However, when we are chronically stressed, this can remain elevated, causing a variety of problems or if the chronic stress continues, it can actually drop over time as the body gets exhausted from being stressed out.

In the next post, we will discuss more particulars related to the importance of optimizing and supporting optimal hormone levels as we age and why hormone balance is SO important!

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