Hormones are the body’s messenger service. They carry instructions to organs and tissues that affect virtually every aspect of our health.
They’re products of the body’s complex, albeit not well understood, endocrine system, a network of glands that make and excrete hormones into the bloodstream. Many of these glands are controlled by the pituitary (“master”) gland at the base of the brain.
A healthy endocrine system is a marvel of teamwork and efficiency. However, when a gland malfunctions—by making too many or too few hormones—your health may be affected. Dozens of hormonal disorders have been identified, and thankfully, most are uncommon. Still, those causing menstrual, reproductive, insulin or thyroid problems are quite routine, and they can become serious.
Hormones are vital players in menstruation, conception and birth. Examples are:
- Progesterone, a steroid that helps regulate your menstrual cycle and also prepares the way for a newly fertilized fetus to attach to the uterus.
- Luteinizing hormone, surging each month from the pituitary gland, signals the ovaries to release an egg. It also prompts the ovaries to produce estrogen (estriol), which helps regulate menstruation. During pregnancy, the placenta makes lots of estrogen, which prepares the breasts, vagina and cervix for birthing.
- Human chorionic gonadotropin, one of the first hormones produced by the fetus, tells the mother’s immune system that the fetal cells are “friendly.”
Both menstruation and fertility can be affected by a number of hormonal problems that strike the thyroid, pituitary or adrenal glands. Symptoms can include absent or irregular cycles, fatigue, sudden weight loss or gain, unusual hair loss or growth, and ovarian cysts.
Your doctor can review your family medical history and administer blood or urine tests to diagnose hormone imbalances. In some cases, he or she may also use ultrasound and examine vaginal secretions to identify if a certain gland is the culprit.
A leading endocrine system disease is type 2 diabetes, which affects nearly two million women of childbearing age—most of whom are overweight. The disorder occurs when the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin hormone or the insulin is unable to “escort” glucose (blood sugar) into cells. Too much blood sugar can damage the nerves, kidneys, eyes and heart.
Doctors don’t know why diabetes develops, but a simple blood test usually confirms its presence. Endocrinologists treat the disease by helping the patient control blood sugar with weight loss, proper diet and exercise, along with certain medications and insulin injections if needed.
This butterfly-shaped gland, located just below your Adam’s apple, makes hormones that control your metabolic rate—the speed of your body’s various processes.
Most thyroid disorders are either hyperthyroidism—caused when an overactive thyroid makes too many hormones—or its opposite, hypothyroidism, when the gland doesn’t make enough.
Hyperthyroidism speeds up the metabolism. Its causes aren’t known, but symptoms include rapid pulse, high blood pressure, weight loss, sensitivity to heat, weakness, tremor, anxiety and bulging eyes. In hypothyroidism, the reverse takes place: slower metabolism, lower pulse, slowed speech, weight gain, constipation and sensitivity to cold. An autoimmune disorder causes most hypothyroidism.
Both disorders are usually diagnosed by a blood test. Hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication, radioactive iodine or surgery to shut down part of the gland to cut its hormone output. Hypothyroidism is treated by replacing thyroid hormones with a synthetic version, taken as a daily pill. This restores the thyroid hormone balance in the bloodstream.