How Your Body Really Works

part 2: hormones

The Essence of Health and Longevity

Now that you are acquainted with Metabolism, it’s time to become familiar with hormones. Because hormones enable and coordinate ever aspect of your metabolism, they are essential to your health and longevity. So, let’s begin to explore the endocrine system – the world of hormones – what they are, what they do, how they work and interact with each other. Then, in the next part of this Series, we will explore how hormones regulate metabolism, that is, how they regulate Building and Using.

What are Hormones?

Hormones are functional biochemicals that tell the cells of the body what to do. Think of them as coordinators who do their job by constantly sending instructions, or “signals,” to your cells. Your cells respond to these signals either by Building or by Using. Said differently, hormones direct and coordinate all Building and Using processes.

For those familiar with the basics of how a computer works, you can think about hormones as its operating system. Simplistically, the operating system is software that tells the various components of the computer’s hardware and other software what to do with the data you enter. For those not familiar with the software concept, think wives telling husbands what to do! Like software or spouses, hormones tell the various organs of the body, at a cellular level, what to do and how to respond to the various inputs it receives, whether from your current internal environment and circumstances or from food, sleep, stress, chemicals, or movement.

Hormone System Hierarchy

Your body has many different hormones that constantly interact with each other to keep you healthy, happy, and alive. These hormones have a pecking order; some are more essential, (think bossy), than others. The most essential, what I call the “major” hormones, literally keep you alive and healthy. Examples of major hormones are insulin, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. You will not survive very long without any one of these four hormones – in some cases, as little as a few hours!

Any minor hormone deficiency will undermine the functioning of your major hormones and progressively cause its own set of problems.

In addition to the major hormones, the body also has hundreds of ”minor” hormones. Even though these minor hormones do not play as vital a role in your immediate survival, they are still critical to your long-term health and wellbeing. Indeed, you can survive for many years after the loss or compromise of a minor hormone. However, any minor hormone deficiency will undermine the functioning of your major hormones and progressively cause its own set of problems. As a result, you will age faster, more rapidly fall prey to degenerative disease, and die sooner. Along the way, you will cope with a number of symptoms and conditions that diminish your quality of life.

Thyroid, Human Growth Hormone (HGH), DHEA and the sex hormones, testosterone, estradiol, and progesterone are examples of minor hormones. Generally, you can survive for quite some time with low levels of any of these minor hormones. For example, HGH levels decline with age, affecting how well your body rebuilds and repairs itself. You may also feel more tired and have a higher risk of heart disease from lowered levels, but, your heart won’t stop beating and you won’t suffer immediate cardiovascular collapse because this minor hormone level is lower.

So that there is no confusion, I want you to appreciate that an excess of any hormone, whether major or minor, is also problematic. Excessive amounts of a major hormone are more problematic than an excess of a minor hormone. In either case, you have a hormone imbalance that causes metabolic imbalance and promotes degenerative disease.

How Hormones Work

Explaining in non-technical terms how hormones do their job is as difficult as explaining in simple terms how software works. So, please appreciate that, in attempting to do so, we are both generalizing and touching on only the basics.

Hormones are biochemicals that are produced and then secreted into your bloodstream by various glands. Your bloodstream transports the hormones throughout your body to your cells where they attach or “bind” to the cells at places called receptors, which are found in various places on or in the cells. Once bound to the receptors, the hormones transmit their instructional signals. Each respective hormone gives different instructions to the various cells it binds to. The cells’ responses to the instructions are known as the “hormone effect.” These signals tell the cells to perform a certain function, cause an end result, and/or produce and secrete other biochemicals that will, ultimately, cause an end result. I say “ultimately” because the “end result” may be the outcome of a sequence of chemical interactions – a ripple effect.

The Interplay of Hormones

Life is sustained by the constant interaction of all of the biochemicals that make up your body. Hormones are biochemicals. Therefore, they, too, are constantly interacting with each other. Whether directly or indirectly, every hormone communicates and interacts with every other hormone; they condition each other’s production, secretion, and effect. Therefore, every one of your hormones affects the functioning and effect of every other hormone and, thus, every physiologic function of your body.

This interrelatedness and constant interaction among all of the hormones in your body means that, if for any reason, any one of your hormones is missing, deficient, or present in excess, its absence or excess affects the functioning and effect of all of your other hormones. For example:

  • If you skip meals, are stressed, don’t sleep well, etc., your body will overproduce adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these hormones block the effect of your major rebuilding hormone, insulin.
  • In order to function optimally, insulin needs some help from other hormones such as estradiol – a form of estrogen. If you no longer produce enough estradiol (think menopause) then your body will not get the full rebuilding effect of insulin.

In addition to wreaking havoc within its component sub-systems, a compromised endocrine system inevitably causes problems throughout all of the other systems of your body, such as your neurological, cardiovascular, immune, digestive, respiratory, and musculoskeletal systems. Everything is affected.

Remember that your metabolism is the sum total of all of the chemical actions and interactions that occur within your body each day, and that hormones regulate every single one of those chemical actions and interactions. In other words, hormones regulate every aspect of your physiology. So, if you have too much or too little of any hormone, your entire physiology is affected. In our next session, we take a closer look at how hormones and metabolism work together.