When your brain, adrenal glands, sex organs, pancreas, and thyroid gland work together, they produce just the right amounts of hormones and chemical messengers that control many of the body’s basic functions.
When it’s working together, you feel great. When any of these organs are out of sync, however, you can feel awful. Problems start when too much or not enough of a hormone (or several) is produced, which can throw off the delicate balance.
You can experience two types of problems when your hormones are out of balance:
1. Uncomfortable symptoms can begin to change how you think, feel, and act, affecting your quality of life.
2. An increased risk of illness, such as depression, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Communication between hormones and the brain is strongly two-way: The brain produces signals that trigger the release of hormones, and hormones from other parts of the body also influence the brain. When thyroid activity is low, brain activity is typically low as well. That’s why an underactive thyroid often leads to depression, irritability, and brain fog.
Meet the Hormone “Family”
There are hundreds of hormones in the body that affect the brain. Here are 7 of the most important ones:
Thyroid: The Energy Regulator
The thyroid — a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in your lower neck. These hormones are among the most influential in your body, and all have to be in the right balance to keep brain and body healthy.
Too little of any thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) makes you feel like a slug; you just want to lie on the couch all day with a bag of chips. Everything works slower, including your heart, your bowels, and your brain. This is because the thyroid gland drives the production of many neurotransmitters that run the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
Thyroid problems can occur at any time in a person’s life, though women are especially prone to problems after having a baby — usually within six months of the birth. During pregnancy, certain parts of the immune system relax so that immune cells and antibodies will not reject the baby’s placenta, which is attached to the mother’s uterus. This is why many women with thyroid problems feel that pregnancy is the best time of their lives, as it calms those issues.
How many people have thyroid problems?
Tens of millions of men and women are thought to have thyroid problems — 5 to 25 percent of the world’s population.
Most thyroid issues are autoimmune, which means that the body is attacking itself. This may be due to environmental toxins that are stored in our bodies, food allergies (gluten and dairy products, in particular), or something in the air we breathe.
Factors that Inhibit Thyroid Production:
• excess stress and cortisol production;
• selenium deficiency;
• deficient protein, excess sugar;
• chronic illness;
• compromised liver or kidney function;
• cadmium, mercury, and lead toxicity;
• herbicides, pesticides;
• oral contraceptives, excessive estrogen production.
Cortisol and DHEA
The adrenals, a pair of triangle-shaped glands that sit atop your kidneys, are critically involved in your body’s reaction to stress. The adrenals produce the hormones adrenaline, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA), and cortisol, which are released in the famous “fight-or-flight response.”
How do hormones increase energy?
Your hormones play a key role in controlling your energy levels. If they’re out of balance it can make you feel tired and cause sleep problems.
Estrogen and energy
Having the right balance of estrogen is thought to help maintain good energy levels. So if a woman’s estrogen levels are low, which can happen for a wide range of reasons, she might feel tired.
Estrogen and monthly cycle
Estrogen levels fluctuate throughout a monthly cycle. In the first two weeks of a cycle, estrogen levels increase and this is associated with higher energy. In the third week of a cycle, estrogen levels drop so it’s associated with lower energy.
The most common causes of low estrogen levels include:
- exercising too much;
- not eating enough — including eating disorders like anorexia;
- early menopause (premature ovarian failure);
- medical conditions — for example, chronic kidney disease (CKD) or Turner syndrome.
Estrogen and menopause
As a woman ages and approaches menopause, her estrogen levels naturally decrease. So it’s very common to experience tiredness and fatigue at this time. Mood swings, headaches, and finding it hard to concentrate are also common menopausal symptoms.
Progesterone and energy
Progesterone is better known for triggering ovulation. However, it also promotes sleep which is why it’s sometimes called a ‘sleepy hormone’. It does this by stimulating the brain to produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — which helps to ‘switch off’ and sleep.
Progesterone levels can fluctuate a lot, affecting sleep and energy levels.
Progesterone and a monthly cycle
Progesterone levels are usually highest in the third week of a cycle — meaning more GABA is produced. This can make a woman feel more tired. However, she might notice that she’s sleeping better which can boost her energy levels.
In the fourth week four of the cycle, progesterone levels fall. This means less GABA is produced and a woman might have trouble sleeping, leading to tiredness.
Progesterone and menopause
As you age and approach menopause, your progesterone levels naturally decrease. This is another reason why it’s so common to experience tiredness and sleep problems during this time.
Testosterone and energy
Testosterone is often called a “male” hormone. But it’s also really important for women’s health — they just produce it in much lower amounts. If a man’s testosterone levels are low it can cause extreme tiredness and fatigue. This is largely because testosterone is needed to produce red blood cells — this helps to carry oxygen around our bodies which is important for energy.
Testosterone levels naturally drop with age. But low testosterone in women can also be caused by the pill (oral contraception) or issues with their ovaries.
Cortisol and energy
Cortisol is a hormone that plays a really important role in helping your body cope with stress. Unfortunately, we now live in an environment where it’s common to feel stressed a lot. This leads to high cortisol levels which can cause difficulty sleeping, tiredness, poor concentration, and irritability.
Other factors that can affect your energy levels
If your hormones aren’t to blame for low energy levels, there are lots of other things that could be the cause. These include:
- nutrient deficiencies — for example, iron or vitamin D deficiency;
- not exercising enough;
- anxiety and depression;
- sleep problems;
- medical conditions — for example, diabetes.
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