And we’re back! For anyone following, you’ll have noticed quite a large gap between posts. I apologize. This post wound up being so frustrating for me to research, consolidate, and write, I decided to take a step back. More like a jog back. But! Refreshed and ready to go again, I’m here to finish what I started. Read on…
Okay, so what the heck are hormones? Well, in my last post I compared neurotransmitters to the Mafia- they get stuff done and they do it fast. Hormones are more like your Government. They take much longer and sometimes affect systems far away from where they started. Properly defined, hormones are any member of a class of signaling molecules produced by glands in multicellular organisms that are transported by the circulatory system to target distant organs to regulate physiology and behavior.”But what does that mean?!” I hear you cry. Well, the category of “hormone” is big. It’s a big, woogly, general category so there really is no simple answer. But we’ll break it down as best we can. There’s a lot coming, so make a cup of your favorite drink, sit down, and buckle up. Hell. Take the weekend to read through this.Generally speaking, hormones are produced by specialized cells in specialized organs. They can be produced in other organs as a secondary function. These specialized organs are known collectively as Endocrine glands. Individually they are; the adrenals, hypothalamus, the gonads (ovaries and testes), pancreas, thyroid, parathyroid, pineal gland, pituitary gland, and thymus. Secondary organs are; skin, liver, kidneys, stomach and small intestine, and the placenta.
Hormones are primarily involved in the process of homeostasis, and take care of; stimulation or inhibition of growth, wake-sleep cycle and other circadian rhythm, mood swings, induction or suppression of apoptosis (programmed cell death), activation or inhibition of the immune system, regulation of metabolism, preparation of the body for mating, fighting, fleeing, and other activity, preparation of the body for a new phase of life, such as puberty, parenting, and menopause, control of the reproductive cycle, hunger cravings. Hormones also regulate the production and regulation of other hormones, due to the body’s regulation system. Due to their nature of maintaining homeostasis, hormones are produced by stimuli that signal something is changing, such as, levels of other hormones, the blood plasma concentrations of ions and nutrients, neurons and your mental activity, and environmental changes such as light and temperature. Hormones are regulated through a negative feedback system.
tl;dr, a variable throws the body out of balance, and the body responds to correct the balance.
This means that the body doesn’t stop producing hormones once a certain amount is in the body, it stops once the effect is overproduced. Like, if you were too hot and needed to cool down. Your body would not give the signal to stop the cooling process until you were slightly chilled. Which, in some cases, means your hormone levels can get to “raging” levels. Hormones, like neurotransmitters, bind to and activate receptors. Specific hormones go with specific receptors, using a “lock and key” mechanism. How, when, and where they bind depend on the chemical makeup of the hormones.
Whereas neurotransmitters are in the class of amino acids, proteins (long chains of polypeptides), and peptides(short chains of amino acids), Hormones cover a wider range of chemical classifications. This affects how they are transmitted through the body, and where their receptor sites are on cells. Hormones are classified by if they were derived from amino acids or lipids.
Amino acid derived hormones are known as amines(single amino acid), peptides(short chain), and proteins(long chain). Lipid-derived hormones are the steroid hormones and the eicosanoids.
Amines are derived from either tryptophan or tyrosine and makeup hormones that regulate circadian rhythm, metabolism regulating thyroid hormones, and catecholamines such as dopamine to stimulate the pituitary gland, and epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Peptide and Protein hormones are composed of many amino acids and are often involved in regulating growth and development with hormones like somatotropin (growth hormone), follicle stimulating hormone, (which stimulates the production of eggs in the ovaries and sperm in the testes.)Though we’ve covered amino acids and their sources before in my neurotransmitters post, here’s a quick refresher, because it’s very important. Protein hormones are relatively quick acting. While they can travel through the bloodstream, they tend to be more localized to where they are produced. They have a very short half-life (the time it takes to degrade by half). Norepinephrine has a half-life of around a minute! Protein hormones are water soluble, not lipid soluble. As such, their “lock” is on the surface of cells. This allows them to act quite quickly and produce a more rapid response.
Steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol. Five primary classes of hormones are derived and they are; progestagens, glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, androgens, and estrogens. These hormones are powerful signal molecules that regulate a host of organismal functions. Progesterone, a progestagen, prepares the lining of the uterus for implantation of an ovum. Progesterone is also essential for the maintenance of pregnancy. Androgens of male secondary sex characteristics, whereas estrogens (such as estrone) are required for the development of female secondary sex characteristics. Estrogens, along with progesterone, also participate in the ovarian cycle. Glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) promote gluconeogenesis and the formation of glycogen, enhance the degradation of fat and protein, and inhibit the inflammatory response. They enable animals to respond to stress—indeed, the absence of glucocorticoids can be fatal. Mineralocorticoids (primarily aldosterone) act on the distal tubules of the kidney to increase the reabsorption of Sodium ions, and the excretion of Potassium ions, and Hydrogen ions, which leads to an increase in blood volume and blood pressure. The major sites of synthesis of these classes of hormones are the corpus luteum, for progestagens; the ovaries, for estrogens; the testes, for androgens; and the adrenal cortex, for glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids. (That was all long and complicated and I shamelessly took it from this article here.)
Okay. Now, take a deep breath, maybe a break and watch this adorable penguin video before we jump into the implications of all this.
So how do hormones play into Mood Disorders? When we look at the reasons for the production and action of hormones, the role begins to come into focus. Everything you do depends on the regulation of your hormones. Mood Disorders are biologically speaking, a malfunction of multiple systems. When external or internal stimuli disrupt those systems drastically and for long enough, we get a disorder.
Our biggest culprits, as far as have been researched, are sex hormones, like Estradiol, which is essential in Serotonin formation and MAO A function. Progesterone, which influences GABA receptors; and Testosterone, which has been linked to positive moods and a sense of well being at healthy levels. These hormones do not stay stable in our bloodstream (unless acted on by medications.) and the resulting fluctuations can disrupt these other physiological cycles, leading to increased stress and loss of well-being.
Then there’s Cortisol.Sweet, sweet Cortisol. It’s one of the hormones we all should have a love/hate relationship. In one hand, it plays a major starring role in our stress response. In the other, it helps with our metabolism, stimulating our liver to produce blood sugar, as well as helping to digest macronutrients into useable energy. Cortisol, in a natural, healthy production cycle, is lowest at night and highest around 9 am, helping contribute to our “awake and alert” feeling. (BTW, some studies have found ingesting caffeine at this time is a bad idea.) However, when Cortisol gets out of control, or, in reverse, we produce too little, our health can take a nose dive. Chronically high Cortisol levels can keep us in a stressed-out state, and play a role in metabolic disorders such as Diabetes and Obesity. On the opposite end, when we have too little Cortisol, it is usually linked to something called Adrenal Insufficiency. Not Adrenal Fatigue. Adrenal Insufficiency is when the adrenal glands are not operating properly, due to underlying disease, like Addison’s Disease, which is an auto-immune disorder. So-called “Adrenal Fatigue” is the theory that due to high, chronic levels of stress, the adrenals begin to fail and stop producing cortisol, leading to vague, hard to place symptoms such as tiredness, body aches, nervousness, and sleep and digestive problems. While these symptoms may be real, studies have found no evidence of “adrenal fatigue”, and as such it is not considered a diagnosis. The main issue with the theory of “adrenal fatigue” is that these symptoms are the result of anything from depression, diet, poor habits, or an actual, undiagnosed disease such as fibromyalgia. These could even be simply related to one’s age, as unfortunate as that sounds. As I’ve told many of my own patients; there’s only so many symptoms the body can present. The trick is figuring out what the exact combination is, without resorting to poorly backed theories that may just prey on desperate people who want relief.
Enough of that soapbox.
Another step down from the sex hormone influence is Melatonin. Melatonin is derived from Serotonin. So, without the healthy production of Serotonin, we don’t have a healthy production of our main sleep/ metabolism regulator. According to The National Sleep Foundation, those with frequent insomnia/disrupted sleep are 10x as likely to suffer from depression, and 17x as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder. They go on in another article about some additional information about Depression and Sleep Disorders.
As I’ve discussed earlier, and I’ll probably go into more detail later, Depression and other such Mood Disorders, if I dare to make something so wiggly and complex seem simple, look to be the disruption of normal physiological processes. (not accounting for psychological factors) Which causes more disruption, which becomes a terrible cycle that slowly breaks you down. If you suspect a hormone imbalance, I highly suggest you don’t try to treat it on your own, especially after all the reading I slogged through. Make an appointment with your Doctor, and also possibly see an Endocrinologist. This post isn’t meant to have you diagnose yourself, but to give you a launching point to talk with your primary care provider about your depression.
As always, good luck.
Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no differeence to what he had to do.The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe~C. S. Lewis