06 Sep 2018 Hormones: Don’t Shoot The Messengers
Hormones are a common focus when it comes to our health, especially in the alternative field. Hormone imbalances are considered to cause various issues, including hypothyroidism, blood sugar dysregulation, acne, PMS, PCOS, weight gain, mood instability, depression, and many others. As a result, our hormones have become the targets for various interventions.
Foods, supplements, medications, or hormonal replacements are used to “improve our hormonal health” and resolve any of these issues. But, like many other reductionist tendencies, this kind of thinking can lead us astray.
In the same way that our heart doesn’t function independently of our brain or liver or gut, our hormones aren’t a separate, independent feature of our health. In fact, they’re almost exactly the opposite.
Hormones are part of the body’s response to its internal environment. They provide signals based on the environmental conditions, including the availability of energy, which then allows us to best adapt to the circumstances we’re faced with. Because they respond to our internal environment in both the short- and long-term, our hormones are a direct reflection of our general state of health.
In this article, I’m going to shed some light on the adaptive roles of our hormones and how they’re related to our energetic state, while also explaining why interventions aimed at improving hormonal health are often misguided and can distract from the real issues that need to be addressed.
Hormones and Energy Balance
In a recent article I explained that energy is the most fundamental force driving our health. It allows every cell in our body to function, and as such is the basic determinant of how well our bodies function.
The amount of energy available to us is dependent on our environment. The amount and type of foods we eat, sunlight exposure, physical and mental activity, and many other factors in our environment determine how much energy our bodies can produce and use.
Our bodies are then designed to adapt to their environment based on the amount of energy available. And this is where the energy-regulating hormones come in.
Our energy-regulating hormones are a major part of this adaptive process. They act as signals that regulate our bodies’ functions based on the amount of energy available.
If there’s a lot of energy available, these hormones will upregulate our energetically expensive functions that allow us to operate optimally. But if there’s not a lot of energy available, these hormones will downregulate these energetically expensive functions in order to conserve energy, kind of like “low-battery mode.”
These changes allow us to survive longer during times of low energy availability and thrive during times of high energy availability.
Acute Regulation of Energy Availability
The primary hormones that regulate acute energy availability are glucagon, adrenaline (or epinephrine), and cortisol. These hormones also happen to be the major blood sugar regulating hormones.
This is no accident – as I explained in this article on blood sugar regulation, our blood sugar is one of the most sensitive indicators of our energetic environment as it’s responsible for supplying fuel to our brain and the rest of our bodies.
When energy availability is low, whether it’s due to a lack of fuel (low blood sugar), the inhibition of energy production, or the increased usage of energy, these hormones are released (1). They’re therefore considered to be stress hormones, as they’re produced when the body is under stress due to a lack of energy.
(The categorization of these hormones as “stress hormones” has led to the mistaken idea that these hormones are primarily produced in response to psychological stress, but any stressor can increase the usage of energy, potentially causing the production of these hormones. This includes physical activity such as exercise, as well as mental activity like problem-solving, processing emotions, and what we would consider “psychological stress.”)
In response to this lack of energy, these hormones increase fuel availability by elevating our blood sugar and increasing the production of free fatty acids while also stimulating energy production so that we can deal with the energy deficit at hand (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). They also make us hungry and increase cravings for carbohydrates to increase the availability of fuel (1, 6, 7, 8).
But, while this adaptive process increases energy production in the short-term to deal with immediate energy deficits, it has the opposite effect over time.
Energy Regulation Over Time
As you read earlier, if there’s a lack of available energy over time, our bodies adapt by downregulating energetically expensive functions in order to conserve energy and improve our ability to survive.
This is partially accomplished through the direct effects of the stress hormones, which would be produced in response to the constant energy deficits. Over time, these hormones have direct downregulating effects on many important processes, including metabolic function, immune function, reproductive function, cognitive function, and digestive function (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
However, this is also accomplished by influencing the higher-level hormones, which regulate our bodies’ functions over time. The most noteworthy of these hormones include the thyroid hormones and the reproductive hormones (which affect a lot more than just reproduction).
These hormones have effects on virtually all bodily processes, including metabolic function (18, 19, 20), immune function (21, 22, 23), reproductive function, cognitive function (24), digestive function (25, 26, 27), and virtually every other aspect of our health (28).
When we experience low energy availability over time, the production of these hormones is reduced, which downregulates all these processes. The reductions in these hormones are largely carried out by the stress hormones, which are elevated during times of low energy availability.
While this may appear to be detrimental, remember that these adaptive mechanisms allow us to survive in suboptimal environments. We’re extremely energy-demanding organisms, so downregulating our higher-level functions goes a long way for conserving energy and increasing our chances of survival.
But, this certainly isn’t ideal as far as our health is concerned, which is why increasing energy availability is the key to improving our health. When we have high energy availability over time, the production of stress hormones is reduced. This lack of stress hormones signals that energy levels are high, leading to the uninhibited production of thyroid and reproductive hormones and allowing our higher-level functions to continue.
Don’t Shoot The Messengers
While hormones are integral parts of our adaptive processes, they aren’t the underlying cause of any dysfunction. Rather, they’re a representation of the conditions of our internal environment and how our bodies are responding to it.
So, they would more accurately be considered a symptom of underlying function, just like high blood sugar or elevated blood pressure. Hormonal imbalance is not the reason someone has PMS, blood sugar dysregulation, thyroid dysfunction, or any other issue, just like high blood sugar isn’t the reason someone has insulin resistance.
The often misplaced focus on hormones as the cause of a particular issue can be extremely problematic, as it directs our attention to a symptom, rather than the true underlying cause. Our focus would be far better placed on the underlying energetic state that leads to the hormonal changes.
So does this mean that hormones don’t matter or that hormones can’t be helpful indicators of our health?
Of course not.
But it does mean that if we want to effectively treat any issue, we must do so on the energetic level by addressing the factors that affect the production and usage of energy.
Improving energy balance is much easier said than done, as this process can be supported and inhibited by various factors. If you’d like more detailed information about how you can improve energy balance, sign up for the free health and energy balance mini-course below, where I outline several of the key factors affecting energy production and usage, how they affect our health, and what you can do about them.